Keyboard Transcription and English Reading

Posted on April 19, 2013 by


I have lately encountered an unexpected source of interference when teaching my students English: their keyboards! Let me explain.

Computers sold in Georgia most commonly have a regular English keyboard – QWERTY, with Latin characters. Russian keyboards might be a far second, and keyboards with actual Georgian characters printed on the keys are highly scarce. Even so, most Georgians who use the internet (or SMS – phone keypads also generally have Latin, rather than Georgian, characters) have a general familiarity with where the Georgian characters are on their keyboards – that is to say, Georgians can often type proficiently in Georgian, even on a keyboard without Georgian characters.

The implication of that is that Georgians have a mapping – at least in muscle memory, and often also visually – between Georgian characters and the Latin characters that you type to produce them. Indeed, sometimes when talking online, Georgians don’t even bother using Georgian fonts, and will hold entire online conversations in Georgian written with Latin characters, with each character standing in for the Georgian letter that the corresponding key would produce if the user were typing in a Georgian font. In this way many Georgians may actually get more practice reading Georgian transcribed in Latin characters than actually reading English. I call this method of transcribing Georgian using Latin characters “keyboard transcription”; it differs from other methods of transcribing Georgian in a number of interesting ways.

The popularity of keyboard transcription is a blessing and a curse for English reading. In many cases, one of the sounds that a key’s letter makes in English corresponds to one of the sounds the same key’s letter makes in Georgian. This can serve as a memory aid, and in cases where the common English sound and the Georgian sound are close, practice reading keyboard transcription can transfer to some level of English reading ability. This is especially the case with exact matches (b, d, g, h, j, l, m, n, s and z) and close matches (k, p, r, and t), although even in these cases there are complications due to the nature of English spelling. For example, ‘g’ sometimes sounds like ‘g’ and sometimes like ‘j’; ‘s’ sometimes sounds like ‘s’ and sometimes like ‘z’. Most of these letters can be silent, or part of digraphs with sometimes unpredictable results – for instance, ‘ph’ can make a p, v, or f sound (shepherd, Stephen, nephew).

For other letters, there is no phonetic correspondence at all between the Georgian letters and their Latin transcriptions. The ‘y’ key was chosen for the letter ‘ყ’ apparently because of their visual similarity. I do not know why ‘w’ is ‘წ’ – perhaps if you squint you can sort of see a vague resemblance. I suspect ‘W’ was picked for ‘ჭ’, ‘S’ for ‘შ’, and ‘C’ for ‘ჩ’ because those sounds are each palatalized versions of the sounds their lower-case versions make. Fortunately these non-matches don’t seem to interfere at all in Georgians’ reading skills – I’ve never had a student pronounce the letter ‘w’ as ‘ts’ or ‘ch’.

Probably the most difficult, then, are the keys where the Georgian matches the Latin character’s sound in European languages other than English. The Georgian ‘ა’ is transcribed with ‘a’, but doesn’t sound like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’ or in ‘date’ – it sounds (perhaps, depending on your accent) like the a in ‘father’, a comparatively rare use of ‘a’ in English (usually appearing only before r). To complicate matters, in American English the letter ‘o’ (as in got or tom) makes the Georgian ‘ა’ sound.

More problematic is the Georgian ‘ი’, which sounds like the ‘i’ in ‘pizza’ rather than in ‘bit’ or ‘bite’. The letter ‘c’ represents the sound ‘ts’ in many Slavic languages, and so in Georgian was chosen for the letter ‘ც’, which also makes that sound. Georgian ‘ხ’ is transcribed with ‘x’; ‘x’ sounds like ‘ხ’ in a number of central Asian languages (for instance, Azerbaijani) as well as in IPA, and most notably the Cyrillic letter ‘Х’ looks a lot like ‘x’ and also makes the ‘ხ’ sound, which is like the ‘ch’ in Scottish ‘loch’.

My students have, on occasion, insisted on using pronunciations inspired by keyboard transcription. In one of my classes when I was going over ‘i’, one of my students insisted that it must be pronounced like ‘ი’ because it was used to type ‘ი’ on a keyboard. I also have a student who always reads ‘x’ as ‘ხ’ no matter what we do, although it’s not entirely clear whether that’s the influence of the keyboard transcription or of the similarity between Latin and Cyrillic x.

The tendency to resort to keyboard equivalents is especially pronounced when talking about letter names – my students especially tend to call the letters ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, and ‘c’ by the sounds their Georgian keyboard equivalents make, namely ‘ah’, ‘ei’, ‘ee’, and ‘tsuh’. They also recognize these letters by their Georgian keyboard equivalents, meaning that if I ask someone to write the letter ‘e’, odds are they’re going to write an ‘i’ instead, and if I ask for an ‘a’ I get an ‘e’. Some of these might also have to do with transcription and transliteration issues that predate keyboard transcription, but the keyboard transcription is the one that is most relevant to this generation since its where they are getting most of their practice with the Latin script.

In conclusion, I am of two minds about the prevalence of keyboard transcription in shaping my students’ understanding of the English sound system. On the one hand, it familiarizes Georgians with the shape of the letters and, generally, with at least one of the sounds associated with that letter. These types of letter knowledge have been studied in many different languages and settings, and they definitely correlate with reading success. On the other hand, the keyboard transcriptions often seem to lead learners down the wrong path and sometimes make them less receptive to learning the correct pronunciations of those letters, or to learning the complications of English spelling.

Readers, what do you think? Are Latin keys good or bad for English language learners in Georgia?