I'm wondering about strategies to acquire what, for lack of a better term, I'll call opaque languages, languages that are relatively far from a learners understanding and mental map of not only vocabulary but grammar and orthography. Frankly the question is, what's a good approach to getting my hooks into a difficult to read language. I'd like to hear how others approach complex morphologies. I'm going to use this and others posts to think about Hebrew and, possibly, later classic Tibetan and Arabic - orthographies i want to get back to.
What's a difficult writing/spelling system? Well, here how one person defines that: my-top-5-most-difficult-spelling-systems-list
, and notes English and the difficulty of reading something like:
...what happens when you add letters to the word “tough.” (The symbols on the right are how the words are pronounced, and even if you don’t understand what they mean exactly, you can see that more changes than just a single character)
through /θɹu:/ (notice, so far, not a single sound in common)
thought /θɔ:t/ (or in my dialect, /θɑ:t/)
So, there are at least four different vowels and sometimes an /f/ represented by <ough>, and there are two different sounds represented by the <th>.
All good and fine. But I notice that a) I already speak English and as orthographically deep
as English might be one b) moving from a language like, say French or Spanish, at least some of the letters will sound close to the learner's first language most of the time.
So there is that term - orthographic depth - and there is that theory that language like English, French and Japanese are harder to learn to read. The theory behind this "orthographic depth hypothesis" has been nicely summarised:
According to the orthographic depth hypothesis, shallow orthographies are more easily able to support a word recognition process that involves the language phonology. In contrast, deep orthographies encourage a reader to process printed words by referring to their morphology via the printed word's visual-orthographic structure. For languages with relatively deep orthographies such as English, French, Arabic or Hebrew, new readers have much more difficulty learning to decode words. As a result, children learn to read more slowly.
For languages with relatively shallow orthographies, such as Italian and Finnish, new readers have few problems learning to decode words. As a result, children learn to read relatively quickly.
short extract from Wikipedia Orthographic Depth entry
I found the article on this interesting, particularly in a descriptive reference to Hebrew:
A different situation exists in Hebrew. Hebrew's phonology is complex; morphemes may undergo considerable sound change under either decision. This proposal is referred to as the inflectional or derivational change. On the other hand, because of the pervasiveness of the triconsonantal root in Hebrew, a great deal of morphological constancy exists. Therefore, there was an historical choice, so to speak, for the evolution of the Hebrew orthography: It could have opted for either morphemic or phonemic invariance but, unlike Serbo-Croatian, it could not have contained both in a single orthography because of its phonological complexity. Hebrew initially evolved as an orthography in which the morphology was preserved at the expense of phonological completeness. Vowels were omitted thereby emphasizing the morphologically based consonantal invariance in a given family of word roots. Vowel points were added to the script at a later stage in the orthography's development only because the language was no longer being spoken as a primary language and it was feared that its pronunciation would become corrupted unless vowels were included in the script. Nowadays, the orthography used by adults is the unpointed one, which is graphemically incomplete and somewhat inconsistent to the reader because it omits nearly all of the vowels and makes some of the consonants ambiguous.
All well and good, it doesn't tell me how to read Hebrew and certainly doesn't help with learning it. But the idea of Orthographic Depth might be useful in understanding how we process letters and words and are able to create understanding from those "chicken scratches". The authors of that article (oh, yeah: here: The Reading Process is Different for Different Orthographies: The Orthographic Depth Hypotheis
) do point out that learning to read or produce understanding is usually related to both the letter to sound correspondance and the overall word shape or morpheme. Ahha! Makes some sense!
the weak ODH. In this version, the phonology needed for the pronunciation of printed words comes not only from prelexical letter- phonology correspondences but also from stored lexical phonology, that is to say, from memory. The latter is the result of a visual-orthographic addressing of lexicon, i.e., a search process that matches the spelling of a whole word or morpheme with its stored phonology. The degree to which a prelexical process is active in naming is a function of an orthography's depth; prelexical analytic processes will be more functional (less costly) in shallow orthographies.
Personally, learning letters by themselves is an exercise that has a very very high attrition rate - learn, memorise and forget. I've learned 150 Chinese characters, the Arabic alphabet, Classic Tibetan script for Ladakhi, A few Mayan symbolics and a Syriac script so far and retain absolutely nothing of that. In fact, I can safely say I've been an expert at learning and forgetting!
My failure approach has often been to spend weeks learning the letter symbols. Shape, sound(s), name. Churn, repeat and forget. I believe that one of the reasons is that I fail to create important contextual reference. The letter 'A' hasn't been 'A is for Apple' but a sharp and pointy shape, drawn like this, and different from, say, H, at the top. No context hook, no chocolate for me.
Hebrew has the difficulty that certain letters change sounds based on invisible vowels. If I spend a lot of time learning and memorising that aleph (א) is silent, how to draw it both in print and then cursive and then getting lost with the diacritic vowel markers... lots and lots of time. In reality, what i am finding more effective is not to worry too much about phonemes or the letter itself but to do a two prong attack. Do study the letters, loosely work on them but also work on creating morpheme scans of some basic words that are a) contextual and b) part of the what you'll see frequently.
For example - this is the word for the pronoun "I" (reading right to left): אני
It is pronounced "ani" and can be broken down into:
- א aleph, normally silent but here an 'a' because of the invisible vowel (אָ)
- נ nun, has an n sound, ooof, not so opaque.
- י yod, has a i sound, also not too difficult.
or "I" and then scanning the first part of "I am American" (I'm not) is much easier: אני אמריקאי
Learning and maintaining those three letters is much easier, for me within this context.
Thoughts? What are your strategies on opaque orthographies?