Transparent and opaque languages are concepts used in linguistics to describe the relationship between orthography (the written form) and pronunciation (the spoken form) of words in a given language.
A transparent language is one in which the pronunciation of words can be easily determined from their spelling. In other words, the relationship between letters and sounds is fairly predictable and consistent. For example, in Spanish, in general, each letter represents a specific sound and is pronounced consistently.
On the other hand, an opaque language is one in which the pronunciation of words cannot be easily deduced from their spelling. This can be due to a variety of historical factors, such as changes in pronunciation over time, influence from other languages, or specific features of the language's phonology. In these languages, pronunciation rules may be more complex and less predictable.
It is important to note that there is no strict division between completely transparent and opaque languages. Most languages have elements of both. Some words in an opaque language may follow clear and consistent patterns, while in a transparent language there may be exceptions and words with irregular pronunciations.
Grapheme-phoneme transparency in reading
Grapheme-phoneme transparency is the relationship between the written form of a word (grapheme) and its pronunciation (phoneme). In a transparent writing system, the relationship between grapheme and phoneme is direct and consistent. This means that, in general, each grapheme represents a single phoneme, and each phoneme is represented by a single grapheme.
Differences between English and Spanish
English and Spanish are two writing systems with different degrees of grapheme-phoneme transparency. English is a relatively opaque writing system, while Spanish is a relatively transparent writing system.
In English, the correspondence between grapheme and phoneme is less direct and consistent than in Spanish. This is due to the fact that English has a complex pronunciation system with many exceptions to general rules. For example, the grapheme "ough" can represent different phonemes in words such as "tough", "though", and "through". (Gough & Tunmer, 1986)
In Spanish, the correspondence between grapheme and phoneme is more direct and consistent than in English. This is because Spanish has a more regular pronunciation system. For example, the grapheme "a" always represents the phoneme /a/, regardless of the position of the letter in the word. (Alegría, 2006)
Explanation of the differences
The differences in grapheme-phoneme transparency between English and Spanish can have a significant impact on the learning of reading in these two languages. In English, students must learn to recognize and apply a series of complex pronunciation rules. This can make it difficult for students who are not native speakers of the language to learn to read.
In Spanish, students have a more solid foundation for learning to read. The correspondence between grapheme and phoneme is more direct and consistent, which makes it easier to recognize words. This can help students learn to read faster and more efficiently. (Alegría, 2006)
Grapheme-phoneme transparency is an important factor that affects the learning of reading. Writing systems with high grapheme-phoneme transparency make it easier for students to learn to read.
Castles et al. (2003) studied children ages 6 to 7 from Scandinavia and the U.S./Australia. The children were tested on their oral language skills and reading and writing in their respective languages. Children with reading and spelling difficulties were defined as those in the bottom 20% of their age group in reading and/or writing.
The study found that children with reading and spelling difficulties had lower phonological knowledge and phonological awareness than children without reading and spelling difficulties. However, the differences between the two groups were larger in English and Australian (opaque) orthographies than in Scandinavian (transparent) orthographies.
Sánchez-López et al. (2009) reviewed the literature on phonemic awareness and reading acquisition in Spanish. The authors concluded that phonemic awareness is an important factor in reading acquisition in Spanish, but that its importance is less than in English.
A study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley (Goldenberg et al. 2014) examined the relationship between phonemic awareness and Spanish reading acquisition in three groups of Spanish-speaking children: children in Mexico who received Spanish reading instruction, and children in the United States who received Spanish or English reading instruction. Children were assessed on their oral language and Spanish reading skills at the beginning and end of first and second grade.
Children in Mexico had the lowest phonemic awareness of the three groups and very low reading skills at the beginning of first grade. However, by the end of second grade, they had matched or exceeded the reading skills of U.S. students, despite maintaining lower phonemic awareness.
The study findings called into question whether teaching phonemic awareness is beneficial for children learning to read in Spanish. The authors suggested that Spanish reading instruction should focus on developing basic phonological knowledge and teaching grapheme-phoneme correspondences. However, they also suggested that teachers should be aware that phonemic awareness may not have been the most important factor for Spanish reading success.
Based on the studies presented, we can conclude that phonemic awareness is a relevant predictor of reading in Spanish, although it is not as important as in English for student literacy. It is essential that Spanish reading programs use phonemic awareness exercises in a balanced way, to help students acquire reading more fluently and without excessive effort.
Alegría, J. (2006). La lectura en la primera infancia: Un enfoque psicolingüístico. Madrid: Síntesis.
Castles, A., Coltheart, M., Davis, C., & Martin, M. (2003). Predicting reading and spelling difficulties in children from different orthographies. Child Development, 74(4), 1140-1157. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00582
Goldenberg, C., Tolar, T. D., Reese, L., Francis, D. J., Bazán, A. R., & Mejía-Arauz, R. (2014). How important is teaching phonemic awareness to children learning to read in Spanish? American Educational Research Journal, 51(3), 604-633. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831214529082
Gough, P. B., & Tunmer, W. E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. RASE: Remedial & Special Education, 7(1), 6–101
Sánchez-López, M., Pérez-Pereira, M., & Cuetos, F. (2009). The role of phonemic awareness in the acquisition of reading in Spanish: A literature review. International Journal of Psychology and Education, 2(1), 67-82. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpe.2009.05.001