When my third child had trouble reading, I was so proud.
Not because she struggled, but because of the reason: she was hearing diphthongs.
They confused the heck out of her, because teachers in the U.S. don't usually have a reason to address them. For that matter, a good number of teachers don't even know what a diphthong is.
They merrily go along, telling their students to sound out words: short A, long A, short I, long I. Remember, the silent E makes the short vowel long. All that stuff.
For most students, that method works just fine. After all, most English-speakers hear just one vowel sound in words like, cake, sky, and dozens of others.
But my kid didn't; she heard the diphthong. She recognized that a long-A isn't really an A. That a long-I isn't really an I. For that matter, that a lot of the "long" vowels and vowel pairs were not made up of a single vowel sound. She had the darnedest time trying to sound anything out.
A diphthong is two vowel sounds that glide together. For example, a long-A, such as in cake, is really made up of a short-E, followed by a long-E.
cake = K-eh-ee-k
We say the word so fast that we usually hear a simple long-A rather than two separate vowels. But we're still saying both vowels, because there is no simple long-A.
The same concept follows for the long-I, which can be broken down into a short-O (like AH) and a long-E (EE).
sky = sk-ah-ee
I learned all about diphthongs while going to public school in Finland. While Finnish is known for being a complicated language, the one thing it has going for it is that it's ridiculously easy to read once you know what sound each letter makes, because every word is spelled phonetically.
There would be no point in having a spelling bee in grade school over there, because no one would win or lose. If you know how to say a word, you know how to spell it.
And Finnish has diphthongs galore.
The Finnish word kaikki ("all") is pronounced with what Americans would think of as a long-I sound in the middle (k-eye-kk-ee), but it's spelled with an A and an I because technically it's: k-ah-ee-kk-ee. Both versions sound the same, of course.
Can you figure out what diphthong is made by the O and I in the middle of poika ("boy")? (Hint: the I makes a long-E sound.)
It's a long-O (just the plain O, without the typical long-U English speakers add to the end) and a long-E.
It's, O-EE, or what we'd think of as OY. the same sound at the end of the English words boy, toy, and joy.
If you can't hear diphthongs, don't feel bad; for an English-speaker, distinguishing them often takes learning another language that relies on diphthongs.
That is, unless you're my poor daughter when she was in first grade, pulling her hair out because, "Mom, there's a short-E in bake, but it has a silent E at the end! I don't get it!"
P.S. Now in fourth grade, she has no trouble reading at all and is halfway through Harry Potter #4.
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