Using Artificial Orthographies for Studying Cross-Linguistic Differences in the Cognitive and Neural Profiles of Reading

J Neurolinguistics. 2014 Sep;31:69-85. doi: 10.1016/j.jneuroling.2014.06.006. Epub 2014 Jul 22.


Reading and writing are cultural inventions that have become vital skills to master in modern society. Unfortunately, writing systems are not equally learnable and many individuals struggle to become proficient readers. Languages and their writing systems often have co-varying characteristics, due to both psycholinguistic and socio-cultural forces. This makes it difficult to determine the source of cross-linguistic differences in reading and writing. Nonetheless, it is important to make progress on this issue: a more precise understanding of the factors that affect reading disparities should improve reading instruction theory and practice, and the diagnosis and treatment of reading disorders. In this review, we consider the value of artificial orthographies as a tool for unpacking the factors that create cognitive and neural differences in reading acquisition and skill. We do so by focusing on one dimension that differs among writing systems: grain size. Grain size, or the unit of spoken language that is mapped onto a visual graph, is thought to affect learning, but its impact is still not well understood. We review relevant literature about cross-linguistic writing system differences, the benefits of using artificial orthographies as a research tool, and our recent work with an artificial alphasyllabic writing system for English. We conclude that artificial orthographies can be used to elucidate cross-linguistic principles that affect reading and writing.

Keywords: artificial orthographies; grain size; mapping principle; syllables; writing systems.