LINGUIST List 2.322

Tuesday, 25 June 1991

Disc: Orthography

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  1. Mark Seidenberg, orthography and reading
  2. Scott Horne, Writing systems

Message 1: orthography and reading

Date: Fri, 21 Jun 91 02:32:31 PDT
From: Mark Seidenberg <>
Subject: orthography and reading
John Phillips has raised the important point that it can't simply be
assumed that alphabetic writing systems are easier to learn to read and to
process. However, I don't think that psycholinguistic research on reading
supports several of his other assertions. He writes,
>There is a considerable body of evidence
>suggesting that, in the initial stages, learning a logographic script is
>very much easier than learning an alphabetic script. The difficulty
>comes later because of the number of logographic signs which must
>eventually be learnt.
I'd be interested to know what evidence he has in mind, because my own
reading of the literature is quite different. It has been asserted at
various times that one or another writing system is easier to master.
Phillips thinks that Chinese is easier in the initial stages of learning to
read. The writing systems for Serbo-Croatian (there are two,
Cyrillic and Roman) are said by others to confer an advantage because of the
simple and consistent correspondences between graphemes and phonemes. There
are Japanese authors who have argued the merits of their orthography.
One way to turn this into an empirical question would be to ask whether
there are differences in the incidence of dyslexia associated with
different types of writing systems. In about 1968 there was a paper
(rather notorious among reading researchers) asserting that there is
no dyslexia in Japanese because of the ideal organization of the writing
system. However, a very impressive, large scale study of children learning
Japanse, Chinese or English did not
support the claim that type of orthography has a big impact on reading
achievement or incidence of dyslexia. (I don't have the reference handy,
but could find it on request. The principal investigator was Stevenson
from the University of Michigan and the study was published in the
journal Child Development. There _were_ important differences between
the groups in terms of learning arithmetic, but that is another story.)
There was one study by Rozin and colleagues, published in Science some
years ago, suggesting that some children who were dyslexic readers of English
did somewhat better when taught to read some Chinese. This was an
interesting and surprising finding (that's what psychology articles in
Science always are) but it would not be valid to conclude from the study that
Chinese is easier to learn to read. (Born without a leg, I might find
it easier to learn to ski than to walk, but ....)
It should also be noted that some reading researchers (Uta Frith in the UK,
Linnea Ehri in the US) think that children initially approach written
English as a logographic system, and only later figure out that it is
alphabetic. This would also tend to suggest that there are greater
similarities in the early acquisition process than the differences between
the writing systems might otherwise imply.
In general, I know of no compelling evidence indicating that there are
substantive differences between writing systems in terms of ease of
acquisition. There may be very local differences in learning rate
(e.g., Japanese children seem to get going pretty quickly with Kana) but
these quickly wash out over the first couple of years of reading instruction.
John Phillips continued:
>Once learnt though, logographic writing is easier to read than
>alphabetic writing - I believe this has been demonstrated for both Chinese
>and Japanese. This is because fluent readers read logographically
>anyway - English readers do not read letter by letter, they recognise
>and interpret whole words at once. Since the shapes of Chinese
>characters are more compact and distinctive than the shapes of English
>words, they are easier to read. There is an anecdote about
>the Chinese (a couple of centuries ago) comparing printed English text
>to pictures of rows of worms and wondering how it could be read.
Well, all that Chinese stuff just looks like squiggles to me, too.
Again, there has been a lot of empirical research on how orthography
affects the reading process, and it does not support Phillips'
assertions. There is no basis for concluding that Chinese
is "easier to read," and it is a gross oversimplification to assert that
"English readers... recognize and interpret whole words at once." It is
quite difficult to draw broad conclusions about the processing, of, say,
alphabetic and logographic scripts because differences between the writing
systems are confounded with differences between the languages they represent.
For example, it is a fact that latencies to recognize and pronounce words in
Chinese are considerably longer than for comparable words in English (see,
e.g., my paper in the journal Cognition, 1985). It would be an obvious
mistake to conclude that Chinese is necessarily "harder to read" because
of other differences between the languages (e.g., there are also fewer words
in the average Chinese sentence).
In terms of who reads "logographically" ("whole words at once"),
the "whole word" process Phillips attributes to
skilled readers of English seems to apply rather better to the behavior
of very young, unskilled readers (cf. the Ehri and Frith research mentioned
above). They are the ones who seem to use pattern recognition processes
like those used in recognizing non-linguistic stimuli, such as objects or
faces. It's the skilled readers who are sensitive to the structure of
words (and of the orthography), as indicated in numerous experimental studies
of actual reading performance (see,e.g., the Rayner and Pollatsek
textbook on the Psychology of Reading for review).
These studies also suggest
that there are very striking similarities in the basic processes used in
reading different scripts. For example, the characterization of the Chinese
script as "logographic" tends to obscure the fact that many words contain
systematic cues to pronunciation. Empirical studies suggest that these
cues are exploited by skilled readers, but they are more helpful in
reading words that occur relatively infrequently in texts. A similar effect
occurs in the skilled reading of English, the alphabetic orthography.
There are systematic correspondences between the written and spoken
forms of the language; this is supposed to confer an advantage (in terms
of both ease of acquisition and ease of processing) over the logographic
script. These regular correspondences are violated in words such
as HAVE, SAID, GIVE, DONE, etc. What numerous studies show, however,
is that for skilled readers, the regularity or irregularity of these
correspondences only has an impact on the processing of relatively
infrequent words. Thus, in both Chinese and English, common words
are recognized on a visual basis. For less common words, readers exploit
the cues to pronunciation each writing system provides. Note that, to
the extent that words are recognized on a "visual" basis, this would
tend to minimize the effects of differences among orthographies in
terms of how simply or directly they encode phonological information.
Thus, one of the principal dimensions along which writing systems differ
seems to be IRRELEVANT to much of skilled reading.
Bottom line: it's hard to sustain the claim that a particular type of
orthography is either easier to learn to read or to process. The
writing systems that have survived represent various solutions to the
problem of representing spoken language in a cipher. They all seem to be
learnable and processible (sic) at roughly the same rate. I would say that
this is because the writing systems that exist reflect some pretty obvious
tradeoffs among a variety of constraints (number
of symbols, complexity of symbols, bandwidth, ease of production vs.
ease of perception, ease of acquisition vs. ease of processing, etc.). There
are universal aspects of reading and learning to read, dictated by facts
about our common cognitive, linguistic, and perceptual capacities. There are
language- and orthography-specific factors, but they don't seem to have
resulted in big differences in terms of acquisition or processing.
A lot like grammar, I would say.
Finally, I would stress that the issues about acquisition and processing
can't be resolved by intuition. They require careful and systematic research
on peoples' actual performance. John Phillips thinks that Chinese words
are more distinctive and therefore easier to recognize than English
words in their respective written forms). Well, one could try to quantify
distinctiveness in some way
and maybe it would turn out that Chinese characters are more distinctive
than English letters or words. The consequences for acquisition or
performance are not obvious, however. The characters being more distinctive
from one another might facilitate identification because less information
would be needed in order to discriminate any given character from all of
the others. However, we also know that human perception exploits
redundancy, which reflects similarities across exemplars. The fact that
a word is structurally similar to other words might facilitate perception
(it certainly does in many domains, including word recognition). If that
is the case, the putative distinctiveness of Chinese characters would be a
People interested in current research on these topics might look
at Marilyn Adams' book Beginning to Read (MIT Press, 1990). Lots of
interesting things about the controversies over how to teach people to
read, too.
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Message 2: Writing systems

Date: Fri, 21 Jun 91 01:38:47 EDT
From: Scott Horne <horne-scottCS.YALE.EDU>
Subject: Writing systems
I agree with John Phillips's claim that learning a logographic writing system
is much easier at first than learning an alphabetic one. The biggest
difficulty with learning alphabetic writing systems is learning to form a
word from its constituent phonemes (and, when writing, to determine which
phonemes make up a word). As a volunteer literacy tutor, I've found that
this is what most troubles adults learning to read English.
A colleague who used to teach English as a second language (ESL) to Chinese
immigrants once claimed that teaching adults to read English by showing them
how to use a dictionary to look up the phonetic respellings of words is a
trivial matter. In other words, he regards the irregular English orthography
as the biggest hindrance to acquiring literacy: according to him,
substituting the (alphabetic) writing system which dictionaries use in
respellings would trivialise the task of learning to read. I disagreed,
of course, on the grounds given above, and suggested that a Chinese-speaker
could learn to read his language much more quickly with the help of a
dictionary. (Both this colleague and I speak Chinese, but I'm the only one of
us who reads and writes Chinese.) A Chinese-speaking adult can, after his
very first literacy class, read and write entire sentences and paragraphs
(granted, they're simple and of limited subject matter); the English-speaking
adults I teach don't start doing this until after a month or two of lessons.
My colleague responded that his ESL students learn to read and write English
words very quickly; to this I said that they are already familiar with one
writing system (that of Chinese) and thus have acquired most of the skills
needed for learning another. (Indeed, many Chinese have even been exposed to
the IPA.)
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