Why is the English Language so Difficult to Acquire?

Sophie Bond- Writer

I’m sure you will remember the exhausting difficulty of learning to read and write - nothing ever written the way you thought it would be. But why did the word sound different when produced compared to how you spelt it out in your phonics lessons?

It is important to note that English has an alphabetic writing system, meaning that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a sound and a grapheme. A grapheme is the symbol used in writing when spelling out a word, so in the word ‘happy’, the graphemic form is <happy>. Geoffrery Sampson (2013) describes writing as ‘a means of visually recording spoken utterances’. English is comprised of 26 symbols; 21 consonants and 5 vowels, originating from other alphabetic systems such as Roman and Greek. However, English is a language which has an opaque orthography, meaning that there is still phoneme (sound) grapheme (spelling) correspondence, but not in all cases. For example, the phoneme /f/ can be represented by the grapheme <f> or the grapheme <ph>. This has typically occurred due to the large volume of foreign words that have been borrowed into English, such as the French ‘champagne’, pronounced with the /sh/ phoneme, but represented by the <ch> grapheme, which in most cases is pronounced /tʃ/ (like chips). This, therefore, creates difficulty when learning to read and write the language because the graphemic symbols don’t always match up to only one sound, causing a mix-up when trying to spell these words.

Margaret Snowling, a developmental psychologist, studied the development of grapheme-phoneme correspondence in both ‘normal and dyslexic readers’ (1980). She set up four conditions using nonsense words: auditory presentation - auditory recognition (A-A), visual presentation - visual recognition (V-V), visual presentation - auditory recognition (V-A) and auditory presentation - visual recognition (A-V). This was set up to find out whether, when given either a visual or auditory stimulus, the participants could then recognise whether the second auditory or visual nonsense word had similarities or differences to the first stimulus. The dyslexic participants were of a slightly older age group around 12 years of age in order to match the reading ability of the normal readers, ages ranging around 8-10 years. She found that in general, there was not a significant difference between the non-dyslexic group and the dyslexic group in the majority of conditions because the participants would draw on grapheme-phoneme correspondence to work out whether the two variables of each condition matched. However, there was a difference in the V-A condition, where the normal readers performed significantly better than the dyslexic readers. Also, she found that the relationship between performance and age was stronger in the normal readers than the dyslexic readers. This suggests that both groups do draw on grapheme-phoneme correspondence to match the two variables, but the non-dyslexic readers managed to do it better because they haven’t got the learning difficulty which makes reading, writing and spelling challenging. The prominence of the grapheme-phoneme correspondence suggests that it is a natural process when learning to read and write. This implies that the confusion where the grapheme is not what is expected - mainly due to it being a borrowed word from another language - is a common occurrence. This is one of the difficulties of an opaque spelling system. However, practice makes perfect and by learning the rules of how the phonemes and graphemes correspond with each other, you learn that the /f/ phoneme could be represented with either the <f> or <ph> graphemes, and it becomes easier to use the correct spelling and read the words using the correct phoneme.

So what is the opposite of this complicated spelling system you ask? A transparent orthography, which is simply where there is complete grapheme-phoneme correspondence. This means that for each sound there is one grapheme to represent it in the written form. There are languages in the world, such as Welsh, where the graphemes and phonemes do completely match up with each other, making learning the language a whole lot easier.

Therefore, the English Language, alongside other languages with opaque orthography, are harder to acquire because of the lack of grapheme-phoneme correspondence; causing confusion to both those learning the language and sometimes those already native in the language. However, this confusion can be solved by learning the rules to the language and knowing, for example, that French words borrowed into the language often use <ch> for the /ʃ/ phoneme (like ship) such as <cliche> which tends to become easier with age, like Snowling (1980) found. This, therefore, is why reading and writing is a struggle for young children - the graphemes do not always align with the phonemes they are sounding out.


Sampson, G. (2016). Writing systems: methods for recording language. In: Allan, K. The Routledge Handbook of Linguistics. Abingdon: Routledge. Pp 47-61.

Snowling, M. (1980). The development of grapheme-phoneme correspondence in normal and dyslexic readers. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 29(2), pp.294-305.

Photo credit - Green Chameleon - https://unsplash.com/photos/s9CC2SKySJM


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