Two Alphabets for the Same Language?
Most of us learn our ABCs in early childhood. Subsequently we learn that letters represent sounds and can be combined together to form words. Once we learn the sounds that letters make, we can sound them out, recognize a word from the sounds and then string a bunch of words together. We call this reading, of course. And I should note, right up front, that English is not all that easy to learn to read because those tricky letters can make many different sounds.
In a recent study, scientists taught English speakers/readers a new alphabet where the “letters” looked like different types of houses. The speakers/readers were able to learn the new alphabet and started to read at about a first-grade level following the two-week training protocol. The study was able to conclude that the processing of the “HouseFont” alphabet happens in the same are of the brain as the “native” (originally learned) alphabet.
The fact that we can learn a second alphabet shouldn’t really be surprising. Many people learn a new alphabet when they learn a new language such as Russian or Greek or simply new alphabetical elements, like accent and other diacritical marks, when learning French or German.
This reminds me of an exercise I often use to let teachers experience what it is like to try to decode and comprehend when decoding is not automatic. I give them the Russian letters and their English equivalents, as follow:
П = p
Э = e (the standard sound … eh)
Н = n
Then we “decode” this word (transliterated, not translated).
Do you know what it is?
Another related phenomenon occurs in the playful “Mots D’Heures Gousses Rames.”
For the advanced French student trying to understand that phrase, it is confounding. The words translate literally as “Words of Hours Cloves Oars.” However, if you pronounce the words in reasonable French, the words sound a lot like “Mother Goose Rhymes.” “Un petit d’un petit” is a favorite (Humpty Dumpty).
OK, so all this is interesting, but how does it become practical? Well, the plasticity of the brain in learning new symbols for known sounds is exactly what happens in Readable English, an approach to making English predictably phonetic using, among other things, diacritical marks called “glyphs.” The approach preserves the spelling of words so students learn the words and transfer them to “sight words.”
So, here for example, is the word pen in Readable English … pen. All of the letters make their standard sounds. If only every word in English was so simple.
And here is Mother Goose Rhymes in Readable English:
And because I know you’re curious, here is an example of the HouseFont alphabet:
This phrase says: Look, Father. See the ball.
I can’t claim to read HouseFont, but I can tell that they took the opportunity to use a single image to represent a phoneme, something that standard English doesn’t (by a long shot).
So which do you think would be most helpful to someone trying to learn to read English… HouseFont or Readable English?