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English's Crazy Spelling Makes Us Think Differently Than More Orderly Languages

The structure of the language itself changes the way we process it.

English's Crazy Spelling Makes Us Think Differently Than More Orderly Languages
[Photo: Patrick Tomasso]

In English, we pronounce words very differently from how we write them: words like eight, through, and enough are little bombs of confusion for foreign students of English. Languages in which the spelling departs from the pronunciation like this are called "opaque languages," whereas languages like Italian, Spanish, or German, which have strict rules on pronunciation, and a strong correlation between the spelled and the spoken, are called "transparent."

And it seems that we process these two kinds of languages in different ways, using different parts of our brains. A new study from the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL), in San Sebastián, shows that bilingual people use a different neural network depending on what kind of language they are reading.

One of these networks is responsible for phonology, or the sounds of the letters and letter groups. The other is concerned with deciphering those letters. By using fMRI scanning on bilingual participants, the researchers found that when you switch from reading your native language to one of a different type, you also switch which part of the brain you use.

The participants were all native Spanish speakers who also spoke either English or Basque (a transparent language). When reading in Spanish, all participants showed similar brain activity. When switching to Basque, they used the phoneme-processing part of the brain more, whereas when switching to English, they used the part which deciphers meaning.

The study notes that roughly half the people in the world are bilingual. "We know very little about the brain processes involved in bilinguals’ reading," said the authors in a statement. "Studying this field more in depth is important because it has general, basic implications for learning processes."

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