Spelling Reform

WITF Spelling Bee 2010 by Artman1122 1

If you visit China with a bunch of Americans and mention to one of your fellow travelers that the Chinese language’s extremely large set of characters must make it hard to learn to read and write, you generally get nods of agreement. If you follow up with the observation that it would be easier to learn to read and write English if we simplified and regularized our spelling, and that ideally this would be part of an education reform agenda then you generally draw blank stares. Nevertheless, these guys are right—it’s absurd to be using a language where you can have spelling competitions:

But spelling bee protesters? They’re out here, too.

Four peaceful protesters, some dressed in full-length black and yellow bee costumes, represented the American Literacy Council and the London-based Spelling Society and stood outside the Grand Hyatt on Thursday, where the Scripps National Spelling Bee is being held. Their message was short: Simplify the way we spell words.

Roberta Mahoney, 81, a former Fairfax County, Va. elementary school principal, said the current language obstructs 40 percent of the population from learning how to read, write and spell.

For a long time, of course, English words were spelled irregularly because spelling simply wasn’t regularized. But for the past 150 years or so spelling words “correctly” has been an important class signifier, even as we lack an underlying set of rules to determine how letter-strings form phonemes. Thus it’s possible for “correct” spelling to differ from country to country, and it’s harder than it needs to be for children to learn how to spell. And it’s worth noting that the adverse impact falls especially hard on children from a low socioeconomic background. It would be one thing to teach such kids a finite set of spelling rules, but to ask a child to master a vast set of brute-force memorizations creates a situation wherein whether or not his parents know how to spell “correctly” is going to be a major factor in his own success.

If you look at French or Russian or Spanish (to name some languages I’m familiar with) by contrast, if you know how the language works it’s very easy to relate what a word sounds like to how it’s spelled. English is full of stuff like the “ough” letter combination that’s pronounced all kinds of ways (“thought,” “thorough,” “tough”) words that are pronounced two different ways (“wound,” “bow”) and nutty spellings like “stomach” that have nothing to do with how the word is said.