[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 July 2007, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
Should we simplify spelling?
Scene from radio play Spelling Bee

They've been campaigning for a century to make the spelling of the English language easier and recently picketed a spelling bee in the US to make their point. Welcome to the Simplified Spelling Society.

Masha Bell, a member of the society and author of Understanding English Spelling, believes that reform of the spelling of the English language could help children learn to read and make life easier for some adults too.

Learn - lern
Slow - slo
Beautiful - butiful

Prof Vivian Cook, a linguist, expert in second language learning and author of Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary, believes changing spellings would be unnecessary, expensive and could harm children's ability to read.

We pitched the two, spelling reformer and spelling traditionalist, into a battle to persuade the other. Here they debate the merits of spelling systems, in the form of short e-mails.

Some of Ms Bell's entries are partly-written in simplified spelling.

Masha Bell
MASHA BELL: The Simplified Spelling Society believes that the spelling of English needs simplifying so children's literacy can improve. The US spelling bee's winner summed up the problem neatly: "Spelling is just a bunch of memorization."
Vivian Cook
VIVIAN COOK: Obviously anything that can help children become literate in English is worth considering.

MB: If u hav a por memmory yor chances of becumming a good speller ar lo. But wors stil, yor chances of lerning to read ar not good either, because of phonnic nonsens like "cow-crow, dream-dreamt, friend-fiend" and hundreds mor like them.

The problem for the SSS is that most peeple ar not aware of the educational disadvantages which stem from spelling inconsistencies or how they came about.

VC: Don't forget English has many other aspects that are a problem for children and adult learners. Our "standard" pronunciation is very hard for many people; our vocabulary is vast and drawn from virtually every language in the world; our grammar is a mystery (try explaining to a speaker of any other language when you say "I have been to Warsaw" rather than "I went to Warsaw").

This makes it like any other human language, full of features that seem illogical but add up to a whole that works for human beings.

MB: Yes, as a language, English is exceptionally easy to lern. Compared with the six uther European languages which I hav studied (Lithuanian, Russian, German, French, Spanish and Italian), it has almost no grammatical difficulties whatsoever.

I did not begin to lern English until the age of 14, and the onely linguistic aspects I found tricky wer idiomatic expressions like "get off, back up, turn up". - "I have been" and "I went" wer easy. The difference between them is consistent and logical.

VC: English is a great success story, used by hundreds of millions of natives and being used and learnt by a billion non-natives: it is so efficient that there are problems about it wiping out other languages.

I cannot agree that it is absolutely easier or more difficult than any other language: it depends on what first language you start from and many other circumstances of learning.

MB: But the alphabetic unreliability of English spelling is a huge problem. Foreign lerners can never be sure how to pronounce an English word without hearing it first [sun - sugar, and - ask, on - once]. That's why onely English dictionaries have pronunciation guides and why I regularly annotated the words I was lerning: woman [wooman], women [wimmen].
VC: A problem for what? When reading simple words I don't turn letters into words but words into meanings: "the" is not "t+h+e" but a whole symbol "the" like "@".

Perhaps you could explain how any changes to spelling would affect the issue of English globally and how you would change spelling in a way that would help children and not hinder the rest of the English-using world?

MB: The most serious disadvantage of English spelling lies in making literacy acquisition for Anglophone children exceptionally slo and difficult - roughly three times sloer than the European average, acording to the most recent reserch (Seymour, 2003).

In English, even practised newsreaders occasionally still mispronounce words. (I hav herd Anna Ford struggle with "counterfeited" or "reneging"). That's why moast English speakers stick to a fairly simple vocabulary.

VC: Well I think this brings us to the crunch of the problems with spelling reform: the mistaken idea that spelling exists for reading aloud and the belief that the human mind works better with a few rules rather than with lots of individual items.

MB: Children certainly learn to read and write much faster with a logically consistent spelling system than with an irregular one. When in 1963-4 the London Institute of Education together with the National Foundation for Education Research compared children's literacy acquisition using the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) and normal English spelling, they found that the ITA users learned roughly three times as fast.

ITA also left far fewer children making the sort of really poor progress that invariably occurs with normal English spelling.

VC: There are two broad types of writing system in the world: those that link written forms primarily to meaning like Chinese and those that relate written forms chiefly to spoken sounds like Italian. English has aspects of both; we treat the 20 most frequent words like "the" and "for" as single signs that relate to meanings, just like "%" and "£" - it does not really matter how eccentric their spellings are as they are recognised as wholes.

The rest we link to sounds via a complex system of rules that relate the letter "a" to particular sounds in "at", "tart", "date", "away" etc and that sometimes rely on so-called silent letters like "e" and "u" to show the different spellings of "mat/mate" and "guest/gesture".

MB: Unlike Chinese pictograms, the spellings of English words give us no clue to their meaning. And much of the irregularity is down to history.

There is no advantage in spelling the most often used words unalphabetically. Quite the opposite: the irregular spellings of common words like "to, you, your, very, many" are particularly noxious because they keep undermining the basic English spelling system and so make it harder for children to learn it. If they obeyed the basic English code too [tu, u, yor, verry, menny] they would help them to grasp the whole system much faster.

Children cope with the regular complex spellings, such as "mat - mate, guest - gesture, dine - dinner", easily enough. Their reading and spelling difficulties are all caused by random irregular spellings: laid, paid - said; our, sour - your; chat, chart - character; fatter, latter, late, latent - lateral.

VC: The human mind can deal with a vast number of individual signs; a Chinese dictionary has about 30,000; Japanese children have to learn 1,945 in primary school. Cutting down on the number of individual words, we need to know as wholes is no particular advantage. If Chinese can manage to learn so many symbols so can English children.

By the way most Chinese characters are no more pictures than are English letters - turn a capital "A" upside down and you will see the animal it once pictured, as remote from its origins as most Chinese characters.

MB: A few minds can deal with a vast number of individual signs or spellings with relative ease, but the vast majority can't. Many rural Chinese are reportedly still completely illiterate. Literacy acquisition is certainly very difficult in both Chinese and Japanese. Children learn to read and write with an easy phonetic system first and then gradually acquire the more difficult traditional orthographies.
VC: Yet some researchers claim that Japanese children do not have dyslexia. The problem is that spelling reform and indeed much school teaching expects all of English to link spellings and sounds rather than whole symbols. Only a few of us need to read aloud seriously, such as the handful of trained and highly selected newsreaders; otherwise we read aloud rarely, except perhaps to children.

MB: Worldwide, English spelling wastes zillions, not onely in terms of time and effort, but in real munny too: for remedial education and to suport functionally illiterate adults. The latter ar also mor likely to becum yung singl parents, end up in jail, be adicted tu drugs and alcohol and hav poor helth.

Spellings that make learning to read, and therefor getting a footing onto the road to educational success, exeptionally difficult ar particularly nasty. Having to waste time on memorising thousands of quirky spellings wun by wun is of no bennefit tu ennywun either. I can sugest a cupl of simpl mesures for reducing this lerning burden verry substantially too.

VC: The danger is that if children are encouraged to think of reading as turning letters into sounds and we change spelling to make this easier, they will forever be reading only as fast as they can speak rather than at the reading speed two or three times greater than speech that fluent readers reach. We want children to be able to read and understand what they read, not just to read it aloud.

MB: Sweden and Denmark show most clearly what spelling reform can do. The two languages are very similar and children in those two countries are also educated in similar ways. Sweden has gradually given itself a fairly sound spelling system. Denmark has been far more indifferent to the consistency of its orthography. In international comparisons of literacy standards, the Swedes invariably come near the top. The Danes are usually nearer the bottom, along with English-speaking countries.
VC: How can spelling reform help silent reading and reading for understanding?

MB: Logically highly consistent spellings like Finnish or Korean do not hinder silent reading or understanding. Regular spelling systems merely make getting to this stage much easier and faster.

What spelling reform would do is drastically reduce the time it takes children to learn to read and write, thereby cutting teaching costs and freeing up time for other. More importantly still, it would reduce our high rate of functional illiteracy which has persisted at around 20% for at least a century and keeps entailing enormous costs. In Finland it is just 4%, in Sweden 8% and in Germany 10%.

VC: The languages that people cite as having simple, desirable spellings are almost invariably those that had their writing system standardised very recently, like the Scandinavian languages in the 19th Century. As languages grow old their spelling systems apparently drift away from a straight sound-to-letter relationship.

MB: If we could bring ourselves to improve the spellings of just 200 of the most frequently used words that have silly spellings, like "once, only, said", we would completely transform yung children's lives and educational progress.

Even just shedding the surplus letters from 100 of them, as in "friend- frend, beautiful - butiful, slow - slo, have - hav" would make initial phonics teaching much easier and mor succesful than it is now. And a brief look at those words makes it clear that regional differences in pronunciation ar not a barrier to this, and there ar not menny such difrences ennyway.

VC: It is precisely the most frequent words that we don't need to reform because they can be remembered as wholes. Surely most pre-reading children can recognise large numbers of such whole, say McDonald's and Coke signs? Learning the 200 words as wholes would equip children to read probably most of the running words in any ordinary sentence; treating "say" and "does" as weird exception rather than as unique symbols is what may do the damage.

MB: In the 17th Century hundreds of English words wer shorn of their surplus letters [eg atte - at, worde - word, shoppe - shop}. We could easily resume such culling again. But this will not happen until mor people understand how English spelling impedes educational progress, or the costs which this entails.
VC: Spelling reform for English based on links between sounds and letters has to relate to a single accent [witness the difficulty with Middle English texts spelled in many dialects]. This disadvantages once again children with non-standard accents, say those who would naturally spell "bath" as "barf". It also cuts accents of English off from each other; a Londoner would not be able to read Geordie, a person from Sydney a letter from someone in Ottawa.

The cost of any change would be astronomical. Imagine the number of books in English that would need to be changed. If they were not changed the children taught by the new system would be effectively cut off from their written heritage. Imagine the conversion of every computer, every programme written in English.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Making the english language even simpler is a big mistake. I managed to learn it in half a year while living in America. But her idea is already happening in internet chatrooms where making words shorter is top priority. English pronunciation is tough but I would not be helped by saying ennywun. Also as a high speed reader this would definetly slow me down. And it doesnt make children more literate it just makes them put speech on paper. Look at this classic Shakespeare qoute: Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em. Translates to: Som r born grate{or greight?}, Som achiv gratenes, and som hav greightnes thrust upon tem. Poetic no?
Felix Schott, Berlin,Germany

Re: "Dumbing down to the lowest common denominator, how awful!" Reforms make life easier and that's not dumbing down it's smart. The US adopted decimal dollars hundreds of years ago and the UK clung to pounds-shillings-pence-farthings until 1976(?) Hardly anyone but older Britons can even imagine how to divide a bill for 7 Pounds, 5 Shillings and five Pence among three diners, or the painful calculations involved. The system was absurd, and adoption of decimal currency was good for the "lowest common denominator" and everyone else. There are fast learners and "lowest common denominators", but it is best if all who can possibly learn to read, do. We have 20% functional illiterates, Sweden 8%. Which is better for society?

Iconic systems of writing take years to master. Alphabetic writing is a brilliant invention that takes about two weeks -- in those languages that respect the principles. We have allowed English to degenerate so far that we must waste years on it, just like the Egyptians of 2000 BC. We have wrecked a wonderful tool and should be ashamed. And fix it.
Alan Mole, Boulder Colorado USA

Ms. Bell's reasoning definitely shows that she has not taken into consideration the universality of the English language. In a country like Uganda, where I come from and where English is the official language, the word "becoming" can be rendered pronunciations like: "bikaming", "bekkaming" and "bikaamingi" depending on the tribal and linguistic background of the speaker. Does that mean that we should have a pronunciation that makes learning easier for every English speaking child, whether native or non-native? English has already gone through the evolution of American and British spellings, let that be enough. English is a universal language and we should let it preserve its common denominator, i.e. its universal spelling.
Robley Kisitu, Greensboro, NC, USA

Let's ditch ALL languages, and have everyone embrace esperanto as our unifying saviour.
Luis Cerdas, San Jose, Costa Rica

During a recent holiday in the UK I found myself behind a coach full of teens. As with all teens, they must have amused themselves writing graffiti on the sooty back of the coach. Irrespective of the nature of the comments (we had a good laugh over most of them) my partner and I were mortified to notice that not a single graffiti had been spelled correctly. Having learnt English from my father and from reading books (raised abroad), I wondered if the British education system is failing its pupils or whether the pupils are simply not trying hard enough. It's not rocket science, for crying out loud, it's just spelling!
Sandy, Antwerp, Belgium

I was one of the unfortunate one's who was initially taught to read using the ITA spelling system that MB mentions. I was a prolific reader - and very, very quickly consumed all available books at school and at the public library. I can still remember my frustration when I couldn't read the "normal" children¿s books (or my Dad¿s Glasgow Herald!). Such relief when we moved on to real spelling! I assume this is what it would feel like for someone taught "simplified" English whenever they attempt to read "old English". The existence of different dialects makes this suggestion a complete nonsense ¿ though I¿m sure it could produce a good joke or two ¿ Did you hear about the Scotsman, Englishman and Irishman at the spelling bee? It also must be remembered that English has become the most widely adopted language in the world - we can't randomly change it now - what chaos worldwide!
Stephen, Cambridge

We've been here before with ITA haven't we look what happened to that. Once you reached 7 or 8 you had to learn the entire English language again this time correctly. If that was the great success Ms Bell says it was would it not still be in use now? Why should we dumb down our language, hasn't that happened enough?
Simon, Hinckley, UK

When I first learned about the 'spelling' class, I was very curious, for we have no such thing in the Japanese education system. Since Japanese language is always written as it is pronounced, we do not have to master the orders of letters in words, which are often irregular and illogical. But I feel as if by learning spelling, we are acquiring a special and important ability - an ability to recognise words visually thus almost instantaneously. Perhaps it is equivalent to the complicated Kanji (Chinese characters) system in Japanese.
Kiya, Tokyo, Japan

We teach children how to read, write and add-up, but we don't teach them how to learn or remember. There are simple and powerful techniques that could be taught in schools. The problem is not our language but the Victorian methods we still use to teach it.
Stephen Simpson, Middlesbrough

Don't forget either that when Germany decided to change some of the spelling rules, it turned out to be catastrophic, some people refused to use them, most of the others didn't really understand when and what they were supposed to change in the original spelling... and German is a language where spelling and pronunciation are closely linked.
Yann Seal, Marseilles, France

I agree that the way many English words are spelt doesn't give you any clue to how they should be pronounced(e.g. tomb), which is sometimes bewildering. Nevertheless I'm more convinced by Vivian Cook. And then, if foreign students can cope with it, why should it be a problem for natives?
Natasha, Moscow, Russia

Still not sure how Ms Bells has managed to turn "only" into "onely", which I kept reading as "won-lee". Wouldn't "ownly" be a better spelling? But of course, as soon as you start trying to change things like spelling, you need to have agreement on the new, and who is going to arbitrate?
Richard Peers, Croydon

I notice that the example you gave, anyone -> ennywun implicitly assumes that we all speak with a southern accent. Ennywun from the north knows that it should be spelled ennywon. This highlights the fundamental problem with spelling words phonetically - we all speak differently. And how exactly does making spelling easier make children 'more literate'.
Chris, Lyon, France

Unsure how changing 'becoming' to 'becumming' cannot do anything except cause confusion, cause derision, and provide food from which cruder comedians could feast. Shall we just leave this one as 'becoming'?
paul donnelly, Cambridge

Presumably we would have to have different spellings depending on where in the UK you live. Barth (south) or Bath (north), Grasss (north), Grarss (south) etc. Not very sensible. English is fun like what she is.
Mike Thompson, Kent, UK

Why is it that we always have fall to the lowest common denominator? Why can't we have a push to improve standards instead of always catering for those who are too idle to learn the language? Some things simply have to be memorised and it would be much better if the education system simply recognised this instead of constantly inventing new ways to 'help' children learn.
John, Bracknell

I found it difficult to understand what Masha Bell was trying to say. Surely I can't be the only one.
Daniel Smith, London, UK

For God's sake - can't we just raise the standard of education? I was the thickie in English classes but I still know how to spell better than anyone under thirty. Stop the dumbing down!
Kerry Murdock, King's Heath, Birmingham

Text speak and the 'language' of hip hop music are bad enough. By Ms Bells reckoning we should actually all be learning Inglish.
Brendan Taggart, Chippenham UK

As others have said, devising a spelling system based on pronunciation is fraught with difficulty and would invariably benefit only those who speak standard English. As a Sheffielder, the spelling 'poor' makes much more sense than Ms Bell's preferred 'por' (which to me is a skin feature), although spelling the former 'pooer' would be even better.
Helen, Manchester, UK

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific