"It's the spelling that's stupid - not me"
Broadcast Sunday 5 May 2002
with Robyn Williams
Clinical Psychologist Dr Valerie Yule, when dealing with children and adults who were diagnosed as dyslexic, discovered that the confusion often resulted from English spelling which is unpredictable and not user friendly. Has the time come to clean up our basic spelling system?
Robyn Williams: In some ways it’s very odd that English should be the lingua franca across the world; not only across the world, but throughout diplomacy, air traffic control, much business, and of course, science.
The odd bit is that English is harder to read than any other language using the alphabet. That study was released by a Scottish university in September and we broadcast the results in the Science Show last year. English takes longest to learn to read, followed by Danish, which is much easier. There is also a case made to implicate English as worse for likely dyslexics.
Well Valerie Yule, who’s a psychologist in Melbourne, has some helpful suggestions. Before I introduce her, a mention of another lover of language, Andrew Olle, in whose memory we’re raising funds, and I’ll give you an address at the end if you’d like to reach for a pencil.
Now here’s Valerie Yule.
Valerie Yule: We English speakers take for granted that our English language is the international language of the world. It is used by more people than any other language, mostly as a second language, not a native tongue. It is the language of the air, the sea, and cyberspace.
However, English became what Pope Paul called ‘the modern Latin’ for much the same imperial reasons that Latin was an international language until the last few hundred years. It went with the flag, it went with the traders and the soldiers. But Latin went and so could English.
The Achilles heel, or the cloven hoof, or the bottom line, is lowdown English spelling. English has to be learnt as two languages, the spoken and the written; you can’t learn one from the other. And the natives, even the Anglo natives, are getting restless.
In Europe they joke about the evolving informal Euro-English language, used by non-English speakers to communicate between themselves within the European Union. Linguists are now studying this Euro-English, and how it is regularising English grammar and cutting down verbs. Indeed this developing Euro-English might have a pragmatic advantage over Esperanto as a truly international language, because Euro-English is based on an existing language, English, and a printed heritage that already exists worldwide.
And in Europe they are joking too about a possible new Euro-English spelling: Wil der Drem kom tru?
Multilingual developing countries have mostly left off trying to use English as their medium of education and national communication, despite the obvious advantages of English in materials and access to the world. But even their local teacher can’t cope, and so for example, Papua New Guinea now uses Tok Pisin, an English Melanesian pidgin with a spelling so easy that you and I can recognise the ‘English’ words in it.
India has so many regional writing systems that even phone directories can be useless across regional borders, but a reformers’ campaign to use Roman letters as an alternative script failed hopelessly. And the reason for failure, perhaps even stronger than regional patriotisms, is the Indians’ fixed belief that a Roman script would have to mean spelling as difficult as English.
The English-speaking natives are also getting restless about spelling. Away from spelling checkers, way out in the email chatrooms, anything goes. More and more youngsters are diagnosed as dyslexic for refusing to buckle down to learning English spelling in order to read. An upper-class Oxford gentleman, Richard Wade, formerly a BBC producer, claims that his Freespelling website receives millions of hits that welcome his message. ‘If you cant remember how to spel a word, spel it how you would like to spel it’. And when enough people start doing just that, Wade thinks, then dictionaries would have to start accepting more sensible spellings, such as accommodate with no dubl letters.
I have a 16-word spelling test up on my website, to spell common words like Guardian and Occasion. And even the great and good can rarely spell all sixteen words correctly. Less than 10% of educators in literacy and researchers in intelligence have been all correct. And at an international conference of psychologists studying dyslexia, the only word all the psychologists could spell correctly was psychology.
I was proud that I was a perfect speller. My clue was, I found out when I was about six, that the most economical way to learn spelling was to think of how I thought a word ought to be spelled, and then note where the correct spelling was different. For example, Daughter, had a ‘gh’ before the ‘t’.
Then I married a man who couldn’t spell, who became a highly regarded professor in spite of this. Then I became a clinical child psychologist, and children and adults were sent to me to be diagnosed as to what sort of dyslexic (sic). I found that if I took them through what I thought it helped to know to learn to read, at some stage they would usually say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that!’ and sometimes all they needed to go ahead was to have that gap or confusion cleared up.
And one of the most common and helpful discoveries for failing learners is ‘Oh, it’s the spelling that’s stupid! I always thought it was me that was stupid!’ And once people realise it’s the spelling that is stupid, not them, they can cheer up and look calmly and even with a superior contempt to see how it is stupid, too many letters, too few letters, or silly letters.
English spelling is stupid because it is unpredictable and not user friendly. Why need only 20 vowel sounds have to have over 218 ways to spell them? It doesn’t help learners that 80% of English spellings follow some sort of rule, because learners cannot predict which words or which rule.
The final straw for me was when a ten-year-old boy was stumbling, mumbling through a reading test. In utter frustration, I transliterated a parallel form of the test. ‘Here, try this. No spelling traps.’ He began, stumbling as usual, and then he picked up speed and ended almost at a gallop. Then he looked at me and said, ‘But I could read this!’ I thought, you poor boy. That was around 1970.
Since then, I have studied spelling and its history; I have experimented; I have studied spelling reforms and the psychology of spelling reformers and the psychology of conservatives and the psychology of vested interests, because there are vested interests.
I spent seven years working on experiments to see how readers respond if useless letters are left out of the spelling of words, useless because they serve no purpose to represent meaning or pronunciation, and may even confuse, as in Heaven with an ‘A’ and Private with an ‘E’ on the end. And one way to start improving English spelling is simply to apply Ockham’s Razor to its clutter.
‘Litera non sun multiplicanda praeter necessitatum.’ No more letters are needed in English spelling than are actually necessary.
Most people hardly even notice when useless letters are dropped, which shows the letters really are useless, and many poor readers and English-language learners are helped when the briar-patch is thinned out. Only a few readers are repelled, and they are an interesting elite to study.
I thought the powers-that-be would be interested in such experiments. I thought wrong.
But over the 30 years since I became interested in spelling, the shackles are shaking, but unless there is a consistent spelling to use instead, the rebellion is unfortunately shown in mass poor literacy. Published research is now proving how English spelling is a real handicap to achieving literacy in English language compared to more regular European writing systems.
How words are written fascinates me, the history of spelling is fascinating, how for 200 years English spelling has been used as a quick screening test to keep out the vulgar mob, brand those who cannot cope with our bad spelling as bad spellers, and make good spellers feel they are virtuous.
In any science, the first thing to do is to examine the accepted assumptions. That is how breakthroughs are made. Now examine every assumption about why English spelling must stay as it is in every jot and tittle while the whole world is changing and toppling around it, and you find that every assumption turns out to be fallacious, from etymology to representing dialects.
About every other major language in the past 150 years has modernised its writing system to a greater or less (sic) degree, including even French, but not English.
Why can’t the English?
In brief, the English can’t improve their spelling because their tradition for a spelling reform was set in the 19th century and it headed in the wrong direction, considering only phonetics, the relation of letters to speech sounds.
But present English spelling represents other aspects of the English language as well, such as units of meaning and grammar, and these features may be worth keeping, simply clean them up to be more consistent. Cleaning up the basic spelling system that we have already is a pragmatic solution, because old and new can coexist during transition.
A hundred years of argument is no substitute for research. At present cognitive psychologists are like the astronomers’ establishment in the story of Longitude. They study present spelling and how people cope with it or can’t cope. But do not yet think innovatively about improvement. Yet psychologists and psycholinguists are well placed to take up research in human engineering, to investigate how spelling could be made a better match to the differing needs and abilities of users and learners worldwide, and still be backwards compatible with our heritage of print so nothing was lost.
Australians could lead the way. The Macquarie Dictionary people have already been exploring popular preferences in spelling and the moods for change. We have the electronic technology to permit change, and internet is an inexpensive place for experiments and evaluations. We need no longer idolise mess.
Spelling is an absolutely basic element in modern communications technology. It need not remain primitive. Reforms of writing systems have typically accompanied revolutions against other oppressions. If Australians want a republic, then recognise that English spelling remains our greatest colonial oppression.
Robyn Williams: Language as colonial oppression. There used to be a language test to enter Australia. Valerie Yule is a psychologist and lives in Melbourne.
Andrew Olle, you’ll recall, was a broadcaster on ABC television and radio for many years, a lover of plain, comprehensible language and bright ideas. He died of a brain tumour six years ago. Now we’re raising funds to boost research on this invariably fatal malady. If you’d like to contribute, and any amount will help, please send cheques made out to the Andrew Olle Trust and send them to me at the ABC Science Unit, GPO Box 9994, Sydney, 2001.
Next week Ockham’s Razor is presented by Stephen Martin, who’s talking about the giant mammals of the sea, the whales. I’m Robyn Williams.
Dr Valerie Yule
Clinical Child Psychologist,
Mt. Waverley, Victoria