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Why we can read Finnish without understanding it – a look at ‘transparent’ languages

Picture this: you find yourself in a Helsinki karaoke bar one night, and someone encourages you to get up and sing a well known song in Finnish. Without knowing a word of the language you grab the microphone and, to your surprise, manage to follow the rhythm of the lyrics appearing on the screen with no idea of what you are actually saying. Fans of Eurovision can try this out for themselves with Käärijä’s 2023 Finnish language hit “Cha Cha Cha”.

But why is this possible? The secret lies in the “transparency” of Finnish, and many other languages.

Transparent and opaque languages

A language’s transparency refers to the relationship between its letters (known as “graphemes”) and its sounds (“phonemes”). In a transparent language, each grapheme usually represents a phoneme in a consistent and predictable way. Classic examples of transparent languages are Spanish, Italian, German, Basque, Turkish and Finnish.

Many other languages do not fit this category, and are instead defined as opaque. In opaque languages, the relationship between graphemes and phonemes is much less predictable, meaning the pronunciation of a given string of letters does not always follow a consistent pattern. English is a good example: words like “pint” and “mint” pose a real challenge for new learners – despite sharing the same spelling, each is pronounced in a different way.

Learning to read in transparent and opaque languages

Scientific studies have shown for decades that people who learn to read in an opaque language, such as English, are at a disadvantage compared to those who learn in a transparent one.

In fact, there are studies showing that the rate of reading development in English is more than twice as slow as more transparent languages such as Finnish, Italian or Spanish. This means that a Finnish child can master basic reading in one year, while an English speaking child might need two or even three years to reach the same level.

People who learn to read in an opaque language therefore use different strategies to those who learn in a transparent one. Put simply, we do not all learn to read in the same way.

Generally speaking, in languages that use an alphabet the basic principles of reading are very similar, since learning to read involves internalising the rules of grapheme-phoneme conversion in order to understand text.

However, differences in language transparency profoundly influence the strategies that children develop when learning to read. In opaque languages, such as English, they are more likely to develop a reliance on visual memory to recognise whole words, while those learning in transparent languages can “decode” a word letter by letter.

This means that a child learning to read in English quickly understands that they need to memorise irregular patterns, as decoding each letter by following the general rules will not work on many occasions (as we saw previously with “pint” and “mint”). On the other hand, a child learning to read in Spanish can read the letters themselves, because it will actually work in the vast majority of cases. There is an element of trial and error here, as children naturally figure out which strategy works as they go along.

In fact, the transparency of the language not only affects learning among the average reader, but also those who suffer from dyslexia. Studies have shown that in languages with transparent spelling patterns, such as Spanish or Finnish, some problems associated with dyslexia are less pronounced compared to opaque languages such as English or French.

Learning to read in a second language

In its recommendation on language learning and teaching, the Council of the European Union calls on EU Member States to promote multilingual education, including literacy skills in different languages. But how can we have a common approach if the starting point and the destination are different in each case?

Simply put, we cannot, and in view of scientific studies, neither should we. Decades of research underline the importance of adapting educational methods to the specific characteristics of each language combination, accounting for features of both the source and target languages.

Let us imagine for a moment the case of a Spanish-speaking child who already reads quickly and accurately in Spanish, and who is now learning Finnish. The rules of grapheme-phoneme conversion are similar in both languages, and this will help the child to acquire Finnish literacy more easily from the outset.

Now let us consider the (much more common) case of the same Spanish child learning to read in English. While for that child the Spanish verb “leer”, meaning “to read”, is always pronounced /leer/, they have to accept that the English word “read” can be pronounced two ways – “reed” or “red” – depending on the verb tense.

In addition to understanding these irregularities, the child must also accept that their prior knowledge will not always be useful, and that seeing English words like “yacht”, “queue” or “genre” written down may offer little clue as to how they are pronounced.

The orthographic transparency of a language therefore has a huge impact on how we learn and read, whether in our first language, or an additional language we learn later. The spelling of a language not only influences how easy it is to learn, but also modulates the expression of specific difficulties such as dyslexia, meaning different education systems have to adjust and adapt their approaches to address these issues.

Understanding the differences in transparency between languages can help learners and educators develop better strategies for learning and teaching when it comes to the written word.

This article was originally published in Spanish

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