Linguists assess the language proximity by comparing the phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics of a language. The number of cognates – those that share Latin roots are a good indicator of language distance. Languages that share a common branch on the language tree are more likely to have a greater language proximity. A good analogy is thinking about families and relatives – how closely related and similar are you to your aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.
Some “sister” languages like French, Spanish and Italian share many connections and similarities in syntax, sounds written alphabet and cognates.
However, caution is best as not all similarities are present. Letter sounds and alphabet configurations might cause confusion. In Spanish, there are 5 vowels an d5 vowel sounds. In English there are 5 long vowels, 9 short vowels and 1 reduced vowel. The /h/ in English is pronounced and the /h/ in Spanish is silent, but the /j/ in Spanish has the same sound as the English /h/.
Spanish syntax is different from English: Modifier words go after the word being modified in Spanish for the most part and content and function words agree in gender and number. In English, modifiers go before the modified word, pluralization rules are different and the are no gender rules.
Why is this important? ELs need to know the difference for proper pronunciation, they can use what they know if it is a cognate or a root word to help them be successful in English. Teachers need to know the specific pieces of a language that might be different for a learner. Teachers will have to help emergent bilinguals learn new letter sounds and combinations, cadence and syntax.
A subset of language distance describes how a language is written and how it is different from the target language. Some writing systems are the same. English, Spanish, French and others use the Roman alphabet. A Chinese or Korean emergent bilingual learning English will need to learn a new writing system. An Arabic bilingual will need to learn a new system and direction to write in English. Writing systems that are similar take less time for learners to master.
When talking about language distance in spelling and reading, we use the terms transparent and opaque. A transparent language has greater text to sound correspondence. You read and say what you see. Opaque language have less correlation from text to sound. Spanish is a transparent language. You pronounce what you see. English, unfortunately after years of additions from Saxons, Normans, Latins, Germans, Greeks and the rest is rather opaque.
So what? The more you know about the transparency and opacity or your ELs L1, the more you will be able to target lessons and supports to help them be successful in acquiring English.
For a more in depth reading and study of language and orthographic distance, read Lems, Miller and Soro’s (2017) Chapters 2 & 4.
Have students in pairs describe how they write in their L1 and how it is different from writing in English.
Switch pairs or combine into quartets and have students of review their shared L1 and make a chart of the similarities or differences.
Then have students from different L1s move to groups of different L1s and teach each other about their language.
Finally in pairs, student teach the class about a language that isn't English or their L1.
Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2016). Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Curzan, A., & Adams, M. (2012). How English works: A linguistic introduction (3rd ed.). Glenview, IL: Pearson.
Freeman, D. E., & Freeman, Y. S. (2014). Essential linguistics: What teachers need to know to teach ESL, reading, spelling, and grammar. (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Helman, L., Bear, D. R., Templeton, S., Invernizzi, M., & Johnston, F. (2012). Words their way with English learners: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Johnston, F., Invernizzi, M., Bear, D. R., & Templeton, S. (2018). Words Their Way: Word Sorts for Letter Name - Alphabetic Spellers (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Lems, K., Miller, L. D., & Soro, T. M. (2017). Building literacy with English language learners (2 ed.). New York: Guilford.