Why Is English Such a Challenge to Read and Write?
Such a fascinating question! Why is it so challenging?
Let’s compare English with Spanish.
Spanish has one additional letter than English, the letter ñ, as in mañana(“tomorrow,” pronounced “mon YAWN uh”) for a total of 27 letters in their alphabet.
Spanish has 30 sounds. Each of the 27 letters makes a sound, and there are also the sounds ch, ll as in tortilla, and rr, a trill.
By contrast, English has one fewer letters. But . . . those 26 letters make 44sounds.
Vowels make several different sounds each.
And there’s digraphs, where two letters combine to make one sound. Some of these are really dramatic, like sh, ph, th, and ch. These two combine to create something completely unexpected. (And of course, the first two just make one sound. The digraph th makes two: one with vocalizations, and one without, like the difference between thanks and these. But ch gets really crazy. It makes three sounds, as in child, chef, and Christmas.)
But some digraphs add an extra letter for no apparent reason, like wh, as in white, which, really, could just be spelled wite without much loss. Or ck, as in black. Why not blac? Or blak? Some instructors also add ng to the list of consonant digraphs, but this one includes both sounds, as in sing. So why include it?
And that’s not counting the vowel digraphs, like ai, ae, or ay, and so on!
Then there’s monophthongs and diphthongs, too.
A monophthong, from the Latin mono, for one, and phthong, for sound, is a vowel that makes one pure sound. My name, Amy, has a pure long a sound at the beginning and the long e sound at the end.
Most vowels are like this.
But some words have a diphthong, where a second vowel creeps in. Like coin, oil, or loud. The vowel sounds aren’t singular, even though they don’t really have two complete, distinct sounds.
So two vowels next to each other might be a digraph, as in steak. The two might be a digraph, as in boys. Or they might be two monophthongs hanging out next to each other, as in radio, triage, or violin.
So that’s complicated.
But here’s an even crazier thing: the 44 sounds in English have a full 250 or so different ways of writing those sounds!
Think about it — the long a sound can be spelled many different ways:
* a by itself, as in acorn
* digraph ai as in train
* digraph ae as in steak
* digraph ay as in play
* a_e as in cake
* eigh as in eight
* digraph ei as in vein
* digraph ey as in they
And it gets worse than that!
Using that same list, those letter combinations do not always say long a!
* The ey and ei sometimes say long e, like in journey or protein.
* The eigh sometimes says long i, as in height.
* The ae sometimes says long e, as in algae, or either short e or long i in aerie.
* And, of course, a by itself is usually a short a, as in cat.
In short: there’s 250 ways to spell 44 sounds, and the same combination of letters can often make more than one sound.
In fact, you could write ghoti to spell the word fish, if you use the gh in laugh, the o in women, and the ti in partial.
No way! (Or would that be no whey? Or know weigh?)
It’s worse than a jigsaw puzzle, because at least with a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces stay the same! (Imagine a jigsaw puzzle that kept changing patterns and shapes as you were trying to build it!)
So if your children are struggling to learn to read, it makes sense. English is complicated.
There are many poems to emphasize just how crazy the English language is. Here is a part of one, “The Chaos” (look! Two monophthongs hanging out together!) by Gerard Nost Trenité. (There are several versions floating around the internet — this is one.)
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
Discount, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward,
Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?
Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live. . . .
Finally, which rhymes with enough —
Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough?
Hiccough has the sound of sup.
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!
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