Sunday, January 24, 2010

The English Language: Complex (poll)

The poll has closed. Thank you for participating! Exactly 50% of the 98 voters viewed English as more complex than German, Spanish, and French, at least from a reading and spelling perspective. Yes, several researchers would agree. I show the poll below, and discuss the relative difficulty associated with spelling -- and reading -- English words.


 (Click image to enlarge)
Orthography has to do with the writing and spelling system. Seymour, Aro, and Erskine (2003) analyzed various European writing systems. Table 1 provides their hypothetical classification of each language by syllabic structure (simple or complex) and orthographic depth (deep or shallow). The chart shows that Finnish is probably the least challenging language for learning to read words. Finnish employs simple syllable patterns within a shallow orthography; each grapheme represents one phoneme, one sound only. (How elegant! How simple!) At the right end of the chart, English is hypothesized to be the most complex in both syllable structure and orthographic depth. Consider the varied ways we spell the sound known as Long A: day, prey, name, rain, eight, paper, bouquet, fiancée and matinee. (How challenging! How muddled!) But hey! C'est la vie! 

For more on the difficulties associated with spelling and reading in English, see English is Difficult, a humorous article by Michael Quinion of World Wide Words. 

But keep in mind, some would argue that English orthography is not wierd or random. They make the case that the English orthorgraphic system is orderly, logical -- even elegant. For example, see this brief  You Tube video featuring Gina Cooke, an expert in Real Spelling. (Be advised, some comments use rough language, not suitable for school. The video is also available at, but without the comments.)

Implications for Teachers and Students:
Learning to read and write in English is no cakewalk -- even if you take the approach suggested by Gina Cooke. When learning English compared to Spanish, for example, sight word identification will probably be more difficult. Errors are more likely. Phonological awareness instruction is more essential (Frost, 2005). The challenge is great, especially for children who experience reading difficulties like dyslexia, and for children of poverty, particularly if they have few encounters with books in the home. The challenge may also confound English language learners. Thus, we must make phonemes, graphemes, morphemes, and word meanings explicit. Devote time to reading, writing, and word study. Read and explore informational texts to build content knowledge, discussed in a prior post.

In a language this complex, fluency may not come easily. As Dr. Hasbrouck mentioned in the prior post, readers who are fluent are more apt to read a lot, resulting in greater vocabulary expansion. Who knows? Avid readers and seekers might even develop a lasting interest in a particular topic and become über-motivated. Attentive and alert. Curious and increasingly confident. Hopefully, the development of interest is still a prime goal of education, as described years ago by Edward Thorndike (1906) and John Dewey (1913).

Pass the word along. Tell students they struggle with English because it is complex, but remind them also that they can solve this fascinating puzzle if they sort out the patterns and practice daily. Affirm every attempt. Help every teacher and parent understand the nature of this fabulous beast.

PS. Grammar is another story. Believe it or not, English grammar is relatively simple when compared to other large languages. Science Daily reports on pertinent new research from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Memphis.

Dewey, J. (1913). Interest and Effort in Education. Riverside Press, Boston.  

Frost, R. (2005). Orthographic systems and skilled word recognition processes in reading. In M. J. Snowling, & C. Hulme (Eds.), The science of reading: A   handbook. (pp. 272-295). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.  

Seymour, P.H.K., Aro, M., & Erskine, J.M. (2003). Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. British Journal of Psychology, 94, 143-17.  

Thorndike, E. L. (1906). The Principles of Teaching: Based on Psychology. A. G. Seiler: New York.  

University of Pennsylvania (2010, January 21). Language structure is partly determined by social structure. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 23, 2010.


  1. Hi Susan, English reading and spelling aren't nearly so difficult to master when you realize English words come primarily from Anglo-Saxon (Old English), Latin, and Greek. I'll share my framework for thinking about the structure of English in my Vocabulogic piece in February. Anglo-Saxon words are the short, everyday, down to earth words...fairly regular, but most of our "non-phonetic" words are Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxon words expand via compounding and affixing. Latin words only affix...a strong base (or root) with prefixes and suffixes added. Greek combining forms compound. The letter-sound correspondences are fairly consistent for most words, though Greek-based words have some unique patterns such as ch as /k/, ph as /f/, ps, rh, etc. There are also several consistent syllable patterns that can be learned. So, if students understand the structure, they can work out most words in the English language.

    Thanks for your terrific blog! Marcia Henry

  2. Hi Marcia! (The expert speaks!) You were researching in this field before morphology was the hot topic it is today. I have read several of your manuscripts and your wonderful book, Unlocking Literacy.

    Yes, everything become more clear when we take a good look at the morphemes and sort words by language origin, because each language has its own peculiar patterns, as you say. We more efficiently read and spell when we examine the morphemes as well as the graphemes/phonemes. An efficient reader 'coordinates' information from each source.

    PS...Glad you like the blog. It will be even better after you post! Sunday, Feb. 28th, folks!

  3. Hey Susan!

    As ever your post is thought provoking. Marcia has already addressed important points along the lines of my response. However, demonstrating that English spelling is a surprisingly well organized system that can be investigated for meaning is the central point of my work, so I can't resist adding a few comments!

    First, I like to caution about blaming English spelling for the English language. One characteristic linguists use to describe the English language is that it is "morphophonemic". That means that the pronunciation of morphemes (bases, prefixes and suffixes) shift across words (e.g, DO/DO+ES; HEAL/HEAL+TH; SIGN/SIGN+AL).
    English spelling evolved to represent morphemes with consistent spellings despite pronunciation shifts. A 'one-letter, one-sound' spelling system works well in Finnish, that doesn’t mean it would work English .

    Consider the -ED suffix which has exactly three pronunciations in English:

    /d/ as in PLAY + ED -- PLAYED
    /Id/ as in PAINT + ED -- PAINTED
    /t/ as in JUMP + ED -- JUMPED

    It's not spelling's fault that we pronounce this suffix in three ways. Does it make sense to treat the consistent spelling of this suffix as an example of an inconsistent spelling system? Would it really be a better to have multiple spellings of bases and affixes whenever they change their pronunciation?

    In your post you wrote:
    "Consider the varied ways we spell the sound known as Long A: day, prey, name, rain, eight, paper, bouquet, fiancée, and matinee. (How challenging! How muddled!) But hey! C'est la vie!"

    This full post and your blog in general emphasizes that English is fascinating and that we should look for ways to help kids have fun working with words. I agree entirely. But, as a terrible speller growing up, and all the way into my 9th year of teaching elementary school, I can tell you that working from the mistaken assumption that English spelling is crazy prevented me from seeing that studying spelling could be fun. In fact I had always hated it!

    English spelling is fascinating. It turns out all of the words you showed with different ways of writing the 'long a' invite fascinating investigations. I'll just point out one principle that is great fun to teach in the youngest classrooms and that can be used to start making sense of a number of these spelling choices.

    The "homophone principle" is a basic feature of English spelling that reinforces the fact that the prime job of spelling is to represent meaning. It can be described like this: Words that share the same pronunciation but have no connection in meaning use differences in spelling, where possible, to mark that difference in meaning.

    Note that the words PREY, RAIN and EIGHT each have homophones. EY may not be the most frequent way to represent the 'long a' but fortunately is a way to do it (grey, obey, hey), so we can separate PREY from PRAY. Similarly RAIN/REIGN and EIGHT/ATE use use different -- but conventional -- graphemes for the 'long a' to distinguish these meanings. It’s a good way there are so many ways to represent the ‘long a’!

    There (not THEIR or THEY'RE) are fun ways (not WEIGHS) to learn which (not WITCH) grapheme to (not TWO or TOO) choose for which word, but (not BUTT) that is for (not FOUR or FORE) another time!

    Instead of treating varied ways of representing a phoneme as a sign of a muddled system, we can show learners that it is one of the ingenious ways that English spelling has dealt with a language rich in homophones.

    It is quite fair to describe English spelling complex, but that does not mean it is unreliable. It is a fascinating puzzle, but it is puzzle that works and that can be investigated and understood over time, precisely because it does make sense!

  4. Thanks, Pete. I had a feeling you might have something to say about this post! LOL.

    We agree! The morphemic units are consistent, making spelling and reading so much more feasible and even enjoyable. Hoorah for that! As you say, English isn't crazy! That's the title of a little reference book by Diana Hanbury King. She explains the spellings by language layer.

    I do not think English is crazy. I DO think it is complex and, indeed, muddled. That is not to say we cannot sort out the puzzle, but in our joie de vivre with words we cannot diminish the challenge. Do we differ here? I am not sure?

    My main point is this: The challenge of learning to read and spell in a morphologically mixed language is great, especially for children with special needs. The child who struggles to read is not going to immediately make all the wonderful etymological connections you make.

    Researchers like Seymour and Frost have suggested that even though dyslexia is found across the globe, the symptoms for English-speaking children might be magnified, due to the orthographic depth and syllabic complexity found in this language. So, to have dyslexia in Finnish, for example, may not require as much intensive instruction, compared to English, especially in PA.

    Bottom line, we need to know what we are dealing with, lest we underestimate the challenge. It is easy for adults who had no problem learning to read to underestmate the cognitive task, and most teachers did NOT struggle valiantly as children, according to the informal surveys I have given at more than a dozen conferences.

    If we can accept that this language is beautiful in its complexity, yet quite a morphological mongrel, an ever-expanding octopus consuming words from all over the globe at a fairly quick clip, we are more likely to devote time to explicit instruction involving the coordination of PA, MA, Semantics, and Orthography. Yes?

  5. Hi Susan! I really appreciate this forum you offer for this kind of discussion of teaching the written word!

    We do agree that English spelling is complex, but I remain adamant that "muddled" is a misleading description that has the real potential of inhibiting a the kind of love of investigating words that you so clearly encourage.

    My Oxford defines "muddled" this way: "in a state of bewildered or bewildering confusion or disorder".

    I would agree that typical instruction is confused about how English spelling works, but the system itself is not "confused and disordered". Noam Chomsky famously described it as a "near optimal".

    I also agree that dyslexia is much less burdensome for learning to read in Finnish. I think your point is that the the distinct nature of how English works is to blame. Let me suggest at least two factors that I think need to be considered to investigate why English causes more difficulties for reading than some languages.

    1) What is the relative complexity of the oral and written languages in question?

    2) How well does typical instruction accurately represent the writing systems of the languages in question.

    The first point is yours, and it is fundamental. It seems logical to me, however, that this second point is equally fundamental, but rarely considered.

    I can't attest to the accuracy of Finnish or German instruction. If, however, all three of these languages emphasized just instruction of letter-sound correspondences, my guess is that this instruction is much more in line with how Finnish and German spelling work than how English does.

    If typical instruction in English says DOES, ONE, TWO and BUSINESS are "irregular", but each of these spellings can be explained to young children, something must be wrong with typical instruction! How many teachers can explain to a curious child why there is an E at the end of HOUSE? If our answer is, "that's just the way English is," what kind of curiosity for investigating spelling should we expect? In contrast, the actual answer helps understand the spelling and investigation of countless words. (See an example of Grade 4/5 students using their understanding of the principle that explains the E in HOUSE to make sense of the meaning of the word CONDENSATION at this link:

    Finally, it is not that students, (struggling or soaring) can be expected to make interesting etymological, morphological or phonological connections on their own. We need to teach them. To do that, most teachers (like myself) have to relearn how our system works.

    In elementary schools we get to engage children with their language from Pre-K through Grade 8. During this time, we can explicitly teach the knowledge and skills to help children learn how all this works, and how to become better and better independent word detectives.

    English spelling, like algebra or calculus are complex topics. We don't avoid teaching how adding and multiplying works in early grades because algebra is complicated. Basic features of English spelling I highlighted in my response include the fact that bases prefixes and suffixes use consistent spelling when pronunciations shift, and the homophone principle that words that differ in meaning, but sound the same usually use different spellings to mark that difference. Those principles can be taught in an engaging way right from Grade 1 so that students have life time to build their understanding on an accurate foundation.

    Sorry everyone. I failed in my attempt at brevity!

  6. Beth Keyes1/25/2010

    Susan, thanks for the chart comparing the languages. This information will help as I talk with parents. I have one parent who really needs to see this! Thanks again! This blog is amazing!

  7. Hi, Beth. You're welcome! I hope the chart is somewhat encouraging to the parents you mentioned. It is soooo hard to watch your child struggle painfully with reading, sometimes to the point of tears.

  8. Gina Cooke3/24/2010

    I've got to concur with Pete that "muddled" is misleading, and I'll even up the ante and submit that "complex" only applies within a pretty unscientific framework for language structure.

    One of the fundamental flaws in the Orthographic Depth Hypothesis (ODH - see Frost & Katz 1992) is that the whole hypothesis operates from an implicit sociological assumption that "regular" correspondences between sounds and letters, or phonemes and graphemes, is somehow an "ideal" writing system (see Mark Sebba 2007), often referred to as a "phonetic" system.

    Such assumptions are dangerous in language science -- the idea that one language, written or spoken, are "better," "simpler" or "more complex" than another language. Such perspectives are rarely scientifically informed, and the field of language science, or linguistics, has worked hard to distance itself from such biases in its investigations.

    While the ODH is purportedly scientifically informed, the implications have been largely observed with *beginning* readers / spellers rather than with *mature* readers and spellers. The suggestion that beginning readers may acquire English spelling with more difficulty than in other languages obviates the question of whether the system is more "complex" for mature readers and spellers -- the very population for whom an orthography is designed.

    English orthography is optimized for silent reading, for gleaning meaning quickly from text. English is only "deep" and "complex" when we approach the question from the misapprehension that our orthography is sound and syllable-driven. While English may have a "complex syllable structure," there is no evidence that the phonological syllable structure bears any influence on the spelling system.

    The language that adults use has enormous developmental implications for in how children mature in their understanding of language concepts (Downing, deStefano, Henry, Stubbs, Hudson and many others). If children and teachers are taught that English is muddled, or more complex than other languages, I can't see that it would make them better equipped as readers, spellers or thinkers.

  9. I just came across a nice article by Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, summarizing with some humor why English is difficult.

    Here is the link:

  10. Anonymous12/20/2012

    Thank you for linking to my TED video, Susan, which was published in September 2012. How did you manage to link to it and discuss it in a post dated January of 2010? It would appear that your original post has been edited, but there is no disclosure that it has been.

    A second TED video has recently come out, this time on the spelling of the word 'doubt' -- it can be viewed at

    As you point out so eloquently, "Learning to read and write in English is no cakewalk." A cakewalk is an absurdly easy task, something effortlessly achieved. We shouldn't think for a minute that any written language is absurdly easy to acquire. In fact, becoming literate in *any* language is a massive undertaking that deepens over the course of a lifetime. That is no more or less true in English than it is in any other language. Of course, the suggestion (and the empirical proof) that English spelling makes sense and is orderly and elegant is not tantamount to the suggestion that it's effortlessly achieved.

    1. Thanks, Gina. Good to know.

      As to the other point, Vocabulogic exploits the advantages of digital publishing. I continually update and revise old posts -- adding relevant information as it becomes available, updating broken hyperlinks, rewording to clear up confusion, etc. This has been done before numerous times and the practice is stated in the archives bank. Of course, I only revise guest posts with permission or by request.

      Best wishes!


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