Not long ago, I picked up a magazine, started reading, and the words made no sense.
I stopped, confused. I have magazines in both English and Spanish in my house, but I know those languages. There should have been no problem. I took another look. The magazine was in English, but I had been reading it in Spanish.
Then I remembered something I learned in typographical design. In English, we read mostly by the shape of the word, not by the letters one at a time. The letters themselves don’t always signify a lot: every rule of spelling and phonics has too many exceptions. Words are what matter, and English-language readers naturally learn to decode whole words at a time.
But Spanish is written phonetically. I can look at any word, even if I’ve never seen it before, and pronounce it correctly. When I read, I sound out the letters one by one because that’s the most efficient reading strategy for that language. The sounds naturally add up to the word.
That’s what I was doing with English: reading letter by letter as if it were Spanish. The result was gibberish. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that I used different techniques for different languages. I just read.
I wonder how it works for other languages – say Japanese, which uses adapted Chinese characters, two kinds of syllabaries, and occasionally the Latin alphabet. How do its readers approach the complex task of decoding that kind of text?
— Sue Burke