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Foreign Language Learning Essentials: Writing

In order to learn to write in a particular language, one has to learn to spell words first. Spelling is nothing but the relationship between sounds specific to a language and the way they are written down according to the rules of orthography (from the Greek words orthos 'correct' and -graphia 'writing'). Since the written language usually tends to be more conservative and admits less variation than the spoken language, the spoken form of a word may evolve in time leaving its orthography obsolete, resulting in a mismatch between how it is written and how it is read. English provides lots of examples, with words such as women, laugh, gaol, and most notably proper names such as Edinburgh, Arkansas, Greenwich, Plymouth, and so on.

Learning To Spell Out A Foreign Language

The number of speech sounds varies to a great extent across languages, so that while British English has 24 consonants, 12 vowels and 8 diphthongs (successions of two vowels), its alphabet consisting of 26 symbols, Spanish has 25 consonants but only 5 vowels. It follows that some particular complications can be encountered when learning the spelling/ writing system of a foreign language. A single sound may be written as a digraph (two letters), like the English sh in the word shame, or by making use of more letters like the German sch in the surname Schmidt. On the other hand, a single alphabetical symbol may be pronounced in different ways, like the French c in cadeau (gift), here pronounced like the English k sound, and in célèbre (famous), spelled out with s sound. Similarly, the English differences in the use of the digraph th, as for instance in the words they and three, may prove to be quite problematic to foreign learners of the language.

Oral v/s Written

Languages often have different spellings for the same succession of sounds (homophones), which renders the learning of the written aspect of a language even more difficult. Examples of these may again be found in the English language: I - eye, red - read, hi - high, write - right etc. Moreover, there also exist different pronunciations for words having the same spelling (homographs) such as Reading (the city) and reading (the verb) in English, or the Italian ancora (anchor) as opposed to ancora (again, still) and subito (right away) as opposed to subito (undergone). Hence, the oral aspect of language learning is obviously easier to grab as homographs are often differentiated by the way syllable or sound stress is placed. It is therefore recommended that foreign language learners familiarize with the spelling and pronunciation of a language first, before they tackle the written aspect.

Nevertheless, learners should not feel discouraged to learn any new foreign language since spelling/ writing systems often have but a small amount of rules to be mastered, so that once a few words are learnt, the foreign language learner should then be able to read and write almost any other.