What does Pig Latin have to do with Dyslexia?

Guest post by Margaret Lanning, MS, CCC-SLP, in partnership with Everyday Speech.

Did you ever speak in Ig-pay Atin-lay with your elementary school friends? You know, the “language” where you take off the first consonant from the front of a word and move it to the back and add “ay” or “yay”? For example, my name would be Argaret-may (Margaret), my dog’s name is Ira-kay (Kira)…and by now you are probably thinking “Ywhay amyay Iyay illstay eadingray isthay?” (Why am I still reading this?)

This super-secret code language is called Pig Latin though it has nothing to do with either of its namesakes: neither swine nor the classical language originally spoken in Rome! Speakers of this sophisticated code must be able to pay attention to, discriminate, recall, and manipulate sounds at the word level. In other words, they must have strong phonological awareness skills.

What is phonological awareness?

Phonological awareness is having the ability to think about one’s own thinking as it relates to the phonological structure – or sound structure – of words. Having phonological awareness gives us the ability to manipulate spoken words and sentences, like with rhyming, alliteration, and of course, Pig Latin. Additionally, according to Dr. Keith Stanovich, a cognitive scientist and psychologist at the University of Toronto, phonological awareness is the most potent predictor of success in learning to read.

Types of phonological awareness

There are a few different types of phonological awareness. Pig Latin, the common childhood language dalliance, is associated with word level phonological awareness. Let’s talk about the other types. Here are some examples of ways to evaluate someone’s phonological awareness:

  • Sentence level: How many words are in the sentence, “She sells sea shells by the sea shore?”
  • Word level: Do these words rhyme: distribution and retribution?
  • Syllable level: What is the last syllable in the word “discrimination”?
  • Phoneme level: What is the final sound in “photo”?

Phonological awareness and dyslexia

Now let’s add a new word into our discussion of…words: dyslexia. It may strike fear in the hearts of therapists who do not have a good grasp of how to treat it.  It can be a scary word because it starts with dys- which is a Latin prefix that has a negative connotation, such as in disbar, discontent, dishearten. So, what does dyslexia really mean?  Dyslexia simply refers to difficulty reading, and here is the kicker – it is a language disorder. Surprised? 

Though this list is nowhere near comprehensive, here are a few more interesting facts about dyslexia:

  • Dyslexia is a learning disorder that can affect an individual’s ability to read, spell, write, and sometimes speak
  • Dyslexia is genetic  
  • Individuals with dyslexia usually have typical intelligence and vision
  • Anywhere from 15-20% of the US population have dyslexia
  • Dyslexia is a life-long condition, but can be treated
  • Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston, Albert Einstein, Will Smith, Greg Louganis, and Agatha Christie among many other successful people have/had dyslexia!

Did anything flabbergast you in this article (beside the fact that Einstein may have had dyslexia)? Were you ready to read a discussion about flipping letters and spelling words backwards? Would you believe me if I told you that those things are not part of dyslexia?

According to the University of Michigan article Debunking Myths About Dyslexia, backwards writing and reversals of letters and words are typical in early writing development among both dyslexic and non-dyslexic children. When dyslexic children have other difficulties – like with pronunciation and sounding out new words – but don’t struggle with reversing letters and words, their dyslexia can often be overlooked.

This means that struggling with Pig Latin or other phonological awareness activities that involve manipulating and recalling sounds might suggest that caregivers or teachers (if you are one of those caregivers or teachers, I-yay alute-say ou-yay for seeking out more information!) should take a closer look at other related difficulties, like speech, spelling, and reading, to determine if there is a need for dyslexia intervention.

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