The Two Languages That Rarely Meet

Literacy: Propositions for Learning and Teaching

The Two Languages That Rarely Meet
by Isaac P. Brackett, PhD George C. Brackett, PhD

Speaking and writing are the two major means of communication with others. Both are languages, but one is audible while the other is visible. Both must be learned, but not at the same time. Both have a vocabulary of visual and auditory images stored in the brain, but not in the same part of the brain. Both rely on neurological connections to unlock associations to symbols, but the connections involve very different functions of the brain. Both use the behaviors of structures in the upper half of the body, but not the same ones. Both are effective communicators, but only one is capable of expressing emotions or changing the intent of the message. Both can be learned, but learning one often interferes with learning the other. Both have the same vocabulary, but different images for recall.

We need to thoroughly understand these two languages so we can teach children to use them effectively. In this paper, we examine these two communication systems, their relationships and differences, and the problems people encounter in learning them.

The Audible Language
A child is bathed in sound beginning immediately after birth, the common sounds around the house or the running dialogue in caring for the child. As the child grows, she develops a dawning awareness that sounds are meaningful, and later, that the same words and phrases can be said in different ways. At first the child responds to gestures by smiling, cooing or crying. Vocal play becomes the whole cloth from which the child constructs language, beginning by echoing the simple words and phrases of the parents. Learning continues to more and more complex speech skills. It’s important to remember, though, that since children hear and echo words and phrases, they do not learn individual sounds, but rather words. Children hear sounds only in the context of words.

The child’s learning process actually mirrors the human acquisition of language through the centuries. A brief review may help.

Fifty thousand years ago the earliest humans recognized that sound changes, often accompanied by gestures, were one means of communication with others. As the years passed, refinement of sound differences made it possible to identify specific utterances, single speech events that could be arranged in different patterns, sequenced in time and recognized as separate words or phrases.

The Phoenicians were the first to identify these sound differences and their possible combinations, creating the concept of a “language”. Their “language” consisted of 26 different sounds (phones, named for the Phoenicians). All of their phones were what we  now call consonants. The different arrangements of these noises made it possible to create different words. The Phoenician sound language did not contain vowels as we know them today.

By comparing the Greek sound language with that of the Phoenicians, the Greeks found that there were five sounds in their own sound system but not in Phoenician. These five sounds were represented by five vowel symbols, dropping five Phoenician symbols so that the total number remained the same. English, too, is represented in writing by 26 symbols. But the number of common sounds or phones in present day American English far exceeds that original number of 26.

English words consist of both consonants and vowels. The seven consonant pairs are principally noises (frictions and pressure releases) made at different points of articulation in the mouth. (pb,fv,thth,td, sz, shzh, kg). Vowels have a longer duration and contain not only the vowel sound but various voice qualities. They are the result of different shapes of the mouth cavity where the tongue plays the major role—hence the origin of the word “language” in the Latin word for tongue, “lingua”. The fifteen common single vowel sounds also include “motion sequences,” or movements that form transitions between vowels. Some may look like consonants but they are really vowels. The common ones are “y”, “r”, “w”, “l” and, at times “n”. For example, the “y” will be inserted between “see” and “it” so that is pronounced “seeyit” in flowing speech.

There are many more vowels, or combinations of vowels, than there are consonants. In addition, when we produce sound words and phrases, how we say them is equally as important. Inflection, intonation, rhythm, emphasis, all can change the meaning of the same message, a feat that is impossible to duplicate in visual form.

If you read the previous sentence out loud, you will note that consonants and vowels in words and phrases are said without interruption, not as separate entities. There usually is no interruption in the flow, because we speak in groups of words that form thoughts, and because it’s more difficult to speak disconnected vowels or consonants. Oh all right!  We do, occasionally, use single words in giving commands like “NO”.

Spoken words are said in sections or burst groups of sounds. These sections consist of the following:
a vowel by itself (V)
a consonant and a vowel (CV),
two consonants and a vowel, (CCV), or
three consonants and a vowel, CCCV.

These groups are known as “pronunciation units.” There is never a middle consonant, and final consonants occur only at the completion of a word or thought.

Multiple words of phrases are broken down into strings of pronunciation units which always end with a vowel. Hence the word “probability” has the units of pro-ba-bi-li-ty. The phrase “Come on out side” becomes “co, mo, nou tside” Notice also that multiple-unit words have a rhythm where one of the units is more important than the others (come on out SIDE). Words in phrases may have different pronunciation units when they are unimportant to the meaning or when they are important. (I WENT to the store or I went to the STORE.) Words have stressed and unstressed forms that create these different rhythms. Children learn these different pronunciations at the same time they learn the words or phrases. For example, the word “for” when unstressed is “fer”, or the word :”to” becomes “tuh” ( I went fer uh WALK tuh TOWN.) To a teacher, writing in a way that reflects these changes is often seen as spelling errors. Children tend to spell what hear, so “thought” becomes “thawt” or “the” before a vowel becomes “thuh” before a consonant.

The Visible Language
The Phoenicians and the Greeks found it necessary to make their 26 sounds visible for purposes of keeping records of business transactions, thus creating a separate language of visible symbols that could be arranged in various ways to form words. For them the system was easy for the visible word matched directly with the sound word. Today, however, we must try to use only five symbols to represent the fifteen or so vowels. The 26 letter alphabet is grossly inadequate.

For example, there are nine different spellings for the sound of “ee” (as in “he”), eleven different spellings for the “I” (high) and eleven for “A” (hay). In fact, the average number of spellings for a given sound is six. Even the consonants have different spellings (ph for f, or c for k). It is no wonder that children struggle to relate what they see to what they hear.

Teaching the sounds of letters in the alphabet also creates the misleading concept that sounds are distinct entities cast in concrete and “stuck” together to form words and phrases. The reader learns to look at words separately from other words in the sentence or to look at sounds as separate entities in a word

Traditionally, learning to read begins by memorizing the 26 letters of the alphabet and their arrangements in simple words. The letters are given names that do not match their multiple roles in the pronunciation of words and phrases. Spelling words letter by letter becomes a skill that is rehearsed over and over, reinforcing the concept that spelling words is a major task in knowing the language. Obviously, this belief is the basis of many of our problems in learning to read, to somehow combine a static visible language with a dynamic audible one.

Where Are the Problems?
The language of sound is our most common form of communication, learned by imitating others. We teach reading as a simple rule-based system unrelated to emotion or shades of meaning. Reading becomes a task that must be memorized. There is little effort spent relating spellings of words to the sounds of words. There are a number of other problems as well.

1. The child uses the pronunciation units in speech, as mentioned above, but these units do not correspond with the syllables of words. Visual syllables tend to be easily identified in words, but pronunciation units may be represented by a number of different clusters of letters and may be pronounced in many ways depending on their contexts in words and phrases. In addition, pronunciation units cross the boundaries of words by occurring within or between words.

2. It is possible that rules of pronunciation are a useful part of learning to read, but most of the rules normally taught are the wrong rules. Consequently, reading instruction asks the student to forget the complex and subtle system of spoken language that they understand, in favor of a simplified system of rules that is no where near as expressive.

3. Reading tends to taught letter by letter and word by word with little attention to groups of words that form complete thoughts. Students speak and listen to words and phrases grouped to convey meaning in groups, and should be taught to scan a sentence for clusters of words that form complete thoughts.

4 The skill of reading is often not built on the child’s sophisticated understanding of language. It is a common tenet of good teaching that new information and skills be related constantly to information skills the learner already has. Standard techniques for teaching reading do not follow this principle.

5. People almost never speak in single words except when giving commands or responding to questions. Even then the way the single word is pronounced can greatly alter its meaning. Any sentence conveys bare meaning, the “what,” as well as many possible shades of meaning, the “how” of the utterance. Teaching the reading of  the “what” is most naturally done in the context of a complete, meaningful sentence or phrase. Teaching the meaning of the “how” should be done in parallel. The child can then understand that a given phrase in text can be pronounced in different ways and mean many different things, just like spoken language. The visual phrase can then be more surely related to the one the child hears.

There are many techniques to help the child having difficulty in reading, and the best ones address directly the five problems mentioned above.

There is a time to sow and a time to reap. It takes the first eight years of a child’s life to learn the basic skills of communication— speaking, reading, writing. After this time of sowing seeds, other interests of the child become more dominant, and the reaping begins. It is our observation that difficulties of learning to read will continue to increase, for there are too many attractive experiences that take large amounts of time from these early years i.e. television, video games, social communication enhanced through the internet, as well as traditional activities like participation in sports. Admittedly, all of these are sources of enjoyment and entertainment, but during these early years they are in competition with the necessity to learn language skills.

Learning to speak has to be learned first, followed by learning visible language skills. If there are major interruptions in this sequence the sowing time is reduced, and the child loses interest and becomes content with other enjoyments of life. It is then hard to restart the process of learning communication skills.

Learning to speak, read and write should be fun, with appropriate rewards for encouragement. “Run Jack Run” is not very exciting when the child wants to read and write about things they are able to talk about with their friends.By acknowledging the challenge posed by the differences between the two languages, we can better ensure that children will learn to read and write what they can say, opening the door to a widened world of knowledge and enjoyment.

Literacy: Propositions for Learning and Teaching
by Ike Brackett, PhD George C Brackett, PhD

We have developed the following propositions by approaching literacy from the perspective of speech, acknowledging that the ability to speak precedes and forms the foundation for the ability to read and write. A more extensive discussion of this topic can be found in our companion paper, Teaching Reading and Writing: The View from Speech Pathology.