This is the first in a series of posts giving brief insights into why students studying English as a foreign or second language may not be succeeding in their studies. Hopefully these posts will inspire teachers to ask questions, research and discover more.

Different languages have different sound systems (phonology) and writing systems (orthography). The Orthographic Dependent Hypothesis proposes that foreign language reading and spelling will be influenced by the similarities and differences between the orthography of the native language (L1)  and the foreign language (L2) and by how ‘deep’ or ‘shallow’ the target language’s writing system is.
One reason why ESL and EFL students may be having difficulty learning a foreign or second language is that they rely heavily on their native language (L1) writing system and the English orthography differs greatly to their L1.  

Different languages – different orthographies

Orthography is a written representation of a language. The Orthographic Dependent Hypothesis examines to what extent the characteristics of our first language influence positively and negatively reading acquisition and writing skills in our second language.
The greater the difference in orthographies between the L1 and the target foreign language, the more difficult it will be to acquire the  foreign language writing system. For example, a native English speaker trying to acquire the Cyrillic Russian or Semitic Arabic or Hebrew orthography would have more difficulty than if they were learning the Latin based German or French orthography.

In addition, the number of sounds and letters or symbols in  the alphabet can also influence language learning.  Those languages that have shallow orthographies i.e. have an almost one to one correspondence between the symbol and the sound it represents are expected to be easier to acquire. In contrast, deep orthographies have few, varying or no correspondences between the symbol and the sound it represents.
The English language has quite a deep orthography. There may be only 26 letters in the English alphabet but there are over 70 letters and letter combinations representing the more than one hundred sounds used in the English language.

How complex can English orthography be?

Here are some examples of how complex the English orthography is:

The writing system consists of the same letters that can be pronounced differently:

For example, the letter ‘o’:
orange, open, won

For example, the letter ‘a’:
bank,  path,  acorn,  wasp,  canary

There are same letter combinations that can be pronounced differently:

For example, the combination ‘ch’:
cherry,  chemist,  chef,  choir

For example, the combination ‘ou’:
mouse,  youth,  trouble,  your

Some sounds that have more than one spelling:
For example, the sound /k/:
cat,  kite,  luck,  chemist,  torque

For example, the sound /f/:
four,  cuff,  photo,  cough

For example, the sound /sh/:
shop,  champagne,  station,  pension,  musician

Plus there are thousands of homophones:
their,  there
here,  hear
pane,  pain

Get to know your writing systems

EFL and ESL teachers need to be familiar with the writing system of their student’s mother tongue (L1) and notice and understand there are differences and similarities in the L1 writing system and the target language being acquired. Difficulties with language acquisition may be due to the differences between the already learned writing system and the new one the student is trying to learn and whether the target language has a deep or shallow orthography.

Free Resources

Feel rushed and overwhelmed and feeling like you’d like to know more? Join other teachers and professionals and download my free guides and handy checklists. Enjoy!

Copyright Lesley Lanir. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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2 thoughts on “Are Different Writing Systems Causing Language Learning Difficulties?

  1. This is commendable. I am sure there is no dearth of online ELT material but a research like this helps me understand the psyche of language learners and get interested in learning how’s & why’s of the things that happen in an English language classroom.

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