Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Another Argument for Spelling Reform

I've long known that English language readers are much more likely to be dyslexic than readers of languages where the spelling closely mirrors pronunciation. (Here's an earlier post that includes that fact.) But this recent article from the Atlantic made me realize that English is a dead weight tied around the necks of American (and Canadian and British) students.

Masha Bell, the vice chair of the English Spelling Society and author of the book Understanding English Spelling, analyzed the 7,000 most common English words and found that 60 percent of them had one or more unpredictably used letters. No one knows for sure, but the Spelling Society speculates that English may just be the world’s most irregularly spelled language.

Mastering such a language takes a long time and requires abilities that most children don’t develop until the middle or latter part of elementary school. Many children struggle to meet unrealistic expectations, get discouraged, and never achieve a high literacy level—all at an enormous cost to themselves and to society.
The story included some cool facts I'd never heard before (or don't remember hearing), despite a college class on the history of English and reading a number of books on the topic:
The first English printing press, in the 15th century, was operated by Belgians who didn’t know the language and made numerous spelling errors (such as "busy" in place of "bisy"). And because they were paid by the line, they sometimes padded words with extra letters; "frend," for example, became "friend." In the next century, other non-English speakers in continental Europe printed the first English Bibles, introducing yet more errors. Worse, those Bibles were then copied, and the writing became increasingly corrupted with each subsequent rendition.
The effect of all this:
...languages such as Finnish and Korean have very regular spelling systems; rules govern the way words are written, with few exceptions. Finnish also has the added bonus of a nearly one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters, meaning fewer rules to learn. So after Finnish children learn their alphabet, learning to read is pretty straightforward—they can read well within three months of starting formal learning, Bell says. And it’s not just Finnish- and Korean-speaking children who are at a significant advantage: A 2003 study found that English-speaking children typically needed about three years to master the basics of reading and writing, whereas their counterparts in most European countries needed a year or less.

Moreover, English-speaking children then spend years progressing through different reading levels and mastering the spelling of more and more words. That means it typically takes English-speaking children at least 10 years to become moderately proficient spellers—memorizing about 400 new words per year—and because they forget and have to revise many of the spellings they’ve previously learned, "learning to spell is a never-ending chore," Bell says.

On the other hand, the American concept of "reading level" doesn’t even exist in countries with more regular spelling systems. (emphasis added)
The solution, other than a complete overhaul of English spelling, which doesn't seem very likely?
Bell...says a good "tidying" will suffice while ensuring that nearly 600 years’ worth of modern English literature remains accessible. She advocates tweaking the 2,828 most-common irregularly spelled words to align them to conform with the main English spelling patterns.
There's also a techie solution that's described at length in the article.

Fascinating. Make it so!

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