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Opaque or transparent orthography: a story of deep and shallow ​​languages

Flower, mosaic, 4 years


What to know before engaging in biliteracy

When you are preparing to teach a child to read and write in a language you need to follow an effective method. And not all methods are adequate for all languages​​. Why?

One of the key criteria to define the appropriate method to use is the transparency of the language or not. The Italian speech therapist Elena Giordano in the interview that she graciously granted to Italobimbi, refers to opaque language as potentially adverse factors to those predisposed to reading and writing disorders.

But what exactly means "transparent" and "opaque"?


It refers to a characteristic of the spelling. A language in which each grapheme corresponds to a phoneme is said “transparent". Conversely, when to each grapheme can correspond more phonemes the spelling is considered as being  opaque .
In plain language, a transparent language is written the same way it’s read.

In the case of Italian, we are facing a substantially transparent language, since, with some exceptions, one shall read it as it’s written. Even in Italian specific spelling cases, where a grapheme represents a sound not directly derived by it (e.g. : “sch” or “gl”) there are strict rules governing it. Indeed, "gl" always reads [ʎ].

However, there are languages ​​which are opaque and English is a typical example:  only in a minority of cases we’ll find a correspondence between grapheme and phoneme.
The transparency degree can vary from one language to another and the English Spelling Society proposes a list. However, this is not always fully shared, if you compare the categories suggested ​​by the Associazione Italiana Dislessia (Italian association against dislexia) instead.

 Italian vs. English, a history of children


Everybody agrees on Italian being a transparent language! Spanish, Finnish, Hungarian, Serbo-croatian are at the same level as Italian, despite their peculiarities that can represent obstacles to the learners.

On English being a deep (opaque) language everybody agrees, too.

Other languages ​​have perhaps different degrees of opacity. Controversial is the position of the Dutch language which is inserted among the  opaque languages by the Associazine Italiana Dislessia, while the English Spelling Society calls it "rather transparent when compared to others"

It seems that the position of French and German is in the middle.

Several studies have therefore focused on a contrastive analysis of learning processes in the two languages ​​that are located at both ends of this scale: Italian and English.

It has been demonstrated that Italian children learn to read quicker thanks to the correspondence between writing and pronunciation. In addition, Italian children are able to read new words based on the consistency of the reading rules.

English speaking children, instead, take much longer to learn to read and have a tendency to memorize the most possible phonemes in different contexts, so that they dispose of enough information enabling them to face reading.

Thanks to new neuroimaging technologies, it has also been possible to support the former behavioral studies by a neurological point of view. It was in fact possible to highlight areas of the brain used in reading and it has been found that Italian children use the brain area affected for phonemes processing, while English children use the brain area responsible for the retrieval of information stored.


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