FROM THE CLASSROOM : Spelling in English Part 2

Sunday November 18 2018

Waheeda Samji

Waheeda Samji 

By Waheeda Samji

So last week, we established that written English is a complicated language with all sorts of quirks, and is incredibly difficult to learn, based mostly on memorizing how words look rather than how they sound.

At its most basic level, this means that it takes a whole lot of effort and an awfully long time to become proficient at English. By some estimates, it is expected to take learners up to 10 years to become even moderately skilled in it. It is also fair to say that the extensive time schools put into learning English is at the cost of learning other things.

Young children find English extremely hard to learn as they do not develop the abilities necessary to master the language until their pre-teen years. This means that they can be easily discouraged in their pursuits, and are more prone to failure. It’s fairly logical – the harder something is to learn, the more likely that fewer people will be able to learn it well, and that a significant number of people will never get beyond the basics. Because it is so hard, many students give up on reading, limiting not only their overall learning, but also their employment prospects.

Functionally English speakers

Frighteningly, it is estimated that one out of every five English speakers is functionally illiterate. This means that while they can manage to read simple things like menus and street signs, they struggle to read more complex things such as contracts or medicine labels. Obviously, this is problematic on all sorts of levels, as the high cost of functional illiteracy effects entire swathes of welfare communities, and the economy as a whole.

Clearly, some change is called for, if only we could all agree on what that is. Should the English language be officially revised to rid itself of all its idiosyncrasies, becoming more phonetic and therefore easier to learn and master? There are already a number of initiatives by learned linguists to create a new form of English, such as Unspell and NuEnglish, but predictably, these will require people such as ourselves to remaster what we know of English. Are we ready to do that, or do we believe that we should continue to persevere on the known English route, building character along with mastery?


Perhaps change is already happening more subtly and informally, with the simplified spellings which people use when texting (c u l8er, 2moro), and the endless abbreviations which make spelling almost irrelevant (lmao, rotfl and lol), but whether this becomes an acceptable form of formal communication remains to be seen.

So just as food for thought, when we are pushing our kids to be the next Spelling Bee champions, lets take a moment to reflect on how hard it actually is.