Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Not to mention the fell ratio

While I'm on a linguistic roll, I caught the tail end of summat on Radio 4 yesterday (Word of Mouth, to be precise) on the subject of arcane English spellings and what a barrier they are to learning the language. I found it interesting as spelling has always been a strength of mine (to the extent that some of my colleagues refer to me as "the human spellchecker"), something I feel is important, and as such what I thought was the "modern" trend against teaching spelling in schools, or at least not correcting it when wrong, sat very uncomfortably with me when my children started school.

Well it seems the tide is turning, and received wisdom is coming full circle. After years of schools not concentrating on spelling, universities are rebelling against a tide of students whose use of language is so poor they can barely make themselves understood, and industry is suffering from a generation of semi-literate youngsters incapable of generating a professional-looking document or presentation. Despite 30-40 years of laissez-faire in the classroom on the subject of spelling, good English is still seen as a marker of educational attainment.

This is causing something of a backlash from those teachers concerned for their students in the lower ability ranges, for whom the unruly spelling of many English words is a hurdle they find hard to leap. It was this aspect (among others) that Word of Mouth spent some time discussing, and which I found so interesting - mainly because the difficulties that it poses had never affected me, so it was something I'd never really thought about.

To spice up what is essentially a dry subject, the programme had invited someone who campaigns for spelling reform - a woman deeply passionate about the scars of humiliation inflicted on the hapless learner - to explain the problem. Some of the facts and statistics she presented were quite illuminating, leaving aside the hyperbole with which she described the "injustice" of forcing children to learn English spelling - comparing it to the Victorians sending them down mines and up chimneys and implying that it is something which in these more enlightened times should be dispensed with.

The problem is, English uses far more discrete spellings of language sounds - graphemes - than other languages. Graphemes are the written representation of phonemes - standard vowel and consonant sounds plus combinations like ea; ou; sh; ch; etc.

Most European languages have around 50 graphemes. English has 114.

It's quite common for phonemes to have more than one grapheme - i.e. there's more than one way to represent the same sound - but what makes English so much more complicated is that the reverse also happens frequently. In 49 cases the same grapheme is used to represent more than one sound - for example 'ea' in treat, threat and great.

These are referred to by language teachers as "tricky" words - words which can't be learnt by following simple rules. Bright children start learning these tricky words right from the beginning but for those on the slower side, they're too hard and pose real problems. The speaker reckoned there are 3,695 common English words that cannot be spelled by rule. Things like

very - merry
arrive - arise
ballad - salad

1,000 of the tricky words involve doubling or not doubling a consonant, and their correct spelling has no connection with the "rule" about a double consonant keeping a vowel short (as in dinner/diner). The presenter argued that this is a relatively simple problem to overcome, whereupon the teacher suggested that while it may not be so bad for words pairs such as latter/later, what happens when you encounter lateral?

It was clear the presenter, Clive Rosen, wasn't convinced. Italian is well recognised as a "regular" language, he argued, but the same literacy problems exist in Italy, where a sizeable percentage of the population still struggle with reading.

Sadly while the programme expressed the problem eloquently enough, little time was devoted to any potential solution. The lady's campaign to reform English spelling would, for instance, see all the different ways of spelling the 'ee' sound in the language (leave; sleeve; receive; evil; magazine; siege; aesthete; ...) replaced with just one. But this is just one change. Does anyone really beleeve that this is a change that could actually bee introduced among the 600+ million English speekers in the world with any degree of success? We're talking peeple of all age ranges, not to mention ree-writing all the spell checkers, signposts, reeprinting all the books, and editing the overwhelming majority of the billions of Internet pages.

And that's even before considering the opposing view - that existing spellings reflect the origins of the language and make English what it is. It can't be *that* hard, surely, if it still enjoys such widespread usage?

A more realistic solution to my mind would involve the development of more effective teaching techniques targeted at lower ability levels. Avoid the kind of embarrassment the guest speaker was alluding to; devote more time, and earlier, to tricky words (as the more able students do naturally already); introduce more fun elements to the traditionally tedious subject. At least such changes would be restricted to the 4-11 age range, rather than forcing the entire population to relearn something we each already have such a heavy personal investment in.

(and of course, we're all familiar with these, aren't we? ;o))


Gloria Horsehound said...

Excellent post Digger. I think you should send it to the BBC, you never know you might get offered something...Worth a try?

Mrs Horsehound whose spelling is fine but whose syntax is sometimes appalling...

Tvor said...

Very good blog. Not only has spelling gone by the wayside, but grammar as well. One thing that really, really niggles me is the misplaced apostrophe!!!! Even on professional websites, signs, advertisements, etc.

Don said...

I'm rather anal about the language myself, though I sometimes make mistakes.
What bothers me is pronunciation. When we went metric way back, we learned that OMeters were gauges, as in speedOMeter, odOMeter, etc. Measures of distance or lenght were metres, as in MILImetre, CENTImetre, DECimetre, and, yes, KILometre. (Treat capitals like emphasis). When I hear someone say kil-OM-etre now it really bugs me, but the changeable English dictionary now, I understand, accepts it both ways.
Looking back on what I've just written, I'm unhappy because I've spelled things wrong. Can't even make myself happy. LOL

Gloria Horsehound said...

Don, the letter 'H' gets me in a flap. I go bonkers when I hear people pronounce 'aitch' as Haitch. The letter 'H' is said without an 'aitch' As in honour. Say it, say honour, you don't pronounce the 'aitch'. A few years ago I was set upon by a smug woman who tutted and smirked when I told her my post code was 3DH. She said "You mean Haitch". No I said " I mean aitch, you barmy old trout."
So 'H' is my pet hate. It's 'orrible.

Digger said...

A few of my favourite hates:

definitely spelled "definately"

Tvor said...

Desperate/desparate always gets me.
also, any word that ends in gth ... i always want to write "ghth" i.e. length comes out as lenghth though i don't tend to make the mistake as much when i type it as when i handwrite it. Weird.

Then there's words that double the "L" when adding ing, but you don't have to either, either way is correct. ie. traveling, travelling, traveler, traveller

Tvor said...

Oh, and if i see someone write "I should of ..." one more time, i'm going to scream!