Dyslexia & Learning a Second Language

Dyslexia & Learning a Second Language

Posted by Brainspring on 16th Aug 2017

Learning a New Language

I’m planning a trip to Central America, and instead of daydreaming about serene beaches, I’m fearfully anticipating that blank, confused, lost-for-words expression that will come over my face when some local starts to converse with me. To work through this fear, I downloaded a Spanish lesson audio course and uploaded it onto my iPod. I’ve been listening to it as I drive. I’ve been hoping that by doing this I’ll get the gist of the grammar quickly and learn to put together some phrases with the help of the years I spent studying another Latin language, French. Perhaps I’ll even be able to speak with good pronunciation, given that my native language is Greek.

What I do know for sure is that I won’t get far in my Spanish learning if I don’t stick to the lessons. I wouldn’t be as proficient in Greek if I didn’t make the effort to daily practice speaking, reading, and writing. Though Greek was my first language, language attrition is often inevitable, and incomplete learning of a heritage language is very common.

Second Languages & Struggling Readers

Having been on both sides of the classroom as an ESL teacher in Greece, as well as a student of a second language, I can say with certainty that learning a second language is a challenge. So I’m left wondering, what is it like for a struggling reader? For some, learning to read English may seem  like a tough enough mountain to climb. Would attempting to hike another be too ambitious? Students that struggle with dyslexia should not be held back from attempting to learn second languages. Fortunately, there are some languages that have reader-friendly writing systems that can ease the process of learning a second language.

Writing systems can be categorized by orthographic depth: shallow (also called transparent) and deep (also called opaque). This categorization refers to how likely orthography is to “support a word recognition process that involves language phonology” (Katz).  English, Hungarian, and French are opaque writing systems and are irregular in terms of showing a one-to-one correspondence between phoneme and grapheme. According to Port, their transparent counterparts include Spanish, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, and Albanian whose writing systems are more consistent in showing one-to-one phoneme/grapheme correspondence. The following diagram shows some of the contrast found in grapheme to phoneme correspondence between English and Greek consonants.

             Ratios       English (grapheme)         Greek (grapheme)          IPA (phoneme)
 En 3:1  vs  Gr 1:1          kid, cat, kick                k                  k
       2:1   vs  n/a         church, pitch             n/a                 tʃ
       1:2   vs  1:1             thistle               θ                  θ
       1:2   vs  1:1              them               δ                  ð
       3:1   vs   n/a     Josh, Gino, edge              n/a                 dʒ
       2:1   vs  1:1      telephone,  fun               φ                  f
      2:1    vs   1:1           kicks, box                ξ                  ks

Although consonants in Greek have a high correspondence ratio, their vowels do not. For examples, the phoneme /i/ can be written in six different ways: ι, η, υ, ει, οι and υι. This makes Greek often considered  a language with intermediate depth along with German, Hungarian, and Portuguese.

To make another contrast, Helmuth states that “Italian has 33 ways to spell its 25 sounds while English has approximately 1,120 ways to spell its 40 sounds.” This irregularity is attributed to how English has evolved as well as the influence of borrowed words.  The writing systems of languages are very influential in how dyslexia is manifested. Paulesu, a knowledgeable scholar in the field of Italian vs English dyslexia, suggests that mild dyslexia may be “aggravated” by opaque orthographies like English or French, so that mild dyslexia may not be obvious in an Italian reader, while it would be in an English reader. The neurology of dyslexic readers remains the same across languages, but according to Dulude, English speakers have a high prevalence of dyslexia as compared to speakers of other languages. Dyslexia is primarily an issue of phonemic awareness and converting graphemes to phonemes, so languages with transparent writing systems are the ones whose speakers have relatively low rates of dyslexia because it is easier to convert graphemes to phonemes when there is an almost on-to-one correspondence. Dulude also references Japanese, where there is a perfect one-to-one correspondence of grapheme to sound, and mentions a study in which a college student who is natively bilingual in Japanese and English has severe reading problems in English but no issues in Japanese.

In a 2008 study performed by Serrano, a group of Spanish-speaking dyslexic children were compared to two control groups and measured by pseudohomophone reading, a homophone choice task and phonological awareness task. Accuracy and performance time were measured. Results showed a deficit on all tasks by the dyslexic group, with the speed problems being more evident and relevant than accuracy problems.

What is even more striking is the way in which opaque orthographies can affect the reading speed of even non-dyslexic adult readers.  According to Frost, “in non-dyslexic, fully grown readers, there is a reading speed difference between languages with transparent orthographies and languages with opaque orthographies.”

The ways in which, and extent to which, dyslexia manifests varies widely from language to language. Based on the studies mentioned, orthography plays a crucial role in the way both dyslexic and non-dyslexic readers perform in literacy. Opaque orthographies are more likely to produce difficulties in terms of accuracy and speed of literacy. For a student with dyslexia who is deciding to learn a second language, the writing-related features of languages should be kept in mind when deciding which one to choose. Learning a second language can open many doors in terms of travel, working abroad, and creating a rich personal life. A second language can provide the potential to create new friendships and have meaningful conversations that can expand your world view and insight. On a more practical level, learning a second language can help a student to simply feel confident navigating daily activities while traveling. These were all some of the things that inspired me to teach English, and I hope they can also be of inspiration to those considering learning a second language!


Georgia Diamantopoulos

Georgia is a tutor at Brainspring Learning Center in Shelby Township.

For more information about Brainspring’s Tutoring Services please visit https://brainspring.com/tutoring-services/



http://www.haskins.yale.edu/sr/SR111/SR111_11.pdf (Katz)

The Graphical Basis of Phones and Phonemes by Robert F. Port


Dyslexia speed problems in a transparent orthography; Serrano F1Defior S.