English is toughest European language to read
Despite being the world's lingua franca, English is the most difficult European language to learn to read. Children learning other languages master the basic elements of literacy within a year, but British kids take two-and-a-half years to reach the same point.
In the most extensive cross-national study ever, Philip Seymour of Dundee University and his team compared the reading abilities of children in 15 European countries. They found that those learning Romance languages such as Italian and French progressed faster than those learning a Germanic language such as German and English. "Children do seem to find English particularly complex and problematic though," says Seymour.
The team focused on the earliest phase of learning to read. They tested the children's ability to match letters to sounds, their capacity to recognise familiar written words, and their ability to work out new words from combinations of familiar syllables.
Seymour's findings might explain why more people are diagnosed as being dyslexic in English-speaking countries than elsewhere.
In languages where sounds simply match letters, some symptoms just would not show up, says Maggie Snowling, a dyslexia expert at the University of York. The condition would be more difficult to diagnose in children who speak these languages, though subtle symptoms such as impaired verbal short-term memory would remain. "People might be struggling, but no one would notice," she says.
The Germanic languages are tricky because many words contain clusters of consonants. The word "sprint", for example, is difficult because the letter p is sandwiched between two other consonants, making the p sound difficult to learn.
Another feature of English that makes it difficult is the complex relationship between letters and their sounds.
In Finnish, which Seymour found to be the easiest European language to learn to read, the relationship between a letter and its sound is fixed.
However, in English a letter's sound often depends on its context within the word. For example, the letter c can sound soft (as in receive) or hard (as in cat). Many words like "yacht" don't seem to follow any logic at all.
However, the things that make English difficult to read might have contributed to Britain's rich literary tradition. Words like "sign" and "bomb" are difficult because of their silent letters, but these hint at relationships with other words. The connection with words like "signature" and "bombard" is obvious.
Mark Pagel, an expert on language diversity at the University of Reading, acknowledges the irony that despite being the international lingua franca, English is the most difficult to learn. The dominance of English has more to do with historical accident than any innate superiority of the language, he says.
"People who speak English happen to have been the ones that were economically and politically dominant in recent history. Those forces greatly outweigh any small difficulties in language acquisition."