Cultural child abuse

How can they do this to their own kids?” was the question that started to plague me from the moment I first encountered English spelling in 1958, at the age of 14, after Lithuanian and Russian. –  I could imagine that there might be some weird logic behind making learning to read write English difficult for foreigners. But your own children?

I realised that irregular pronunciations like ‘man – many,  on – only’ would be less of a reading problem if u already knew the language. – Words alongside the tricky ones and their context can help with deciphering them.

As a foreigner I had no such help. I just had to remember what the teacher told us. – This made reading aloud in class a very uncomfortable experience. I was constantly keeping half an eye on the teacher to see if I was getting it right or wrong.

It was also clear to me from the start, however, that when it came to learning to spell, already knowing English would be no big advantage. Memorising irregular spellings like ‘blue, shoe, flew, through, too’ is hard for native speakers too. Such gremlins just have to be learned word by word by everyone.

Starting to learn to spell such words long before the age of 14 makes it a little easier, as does constantly seeing words on road and shop signs from a young age. Being read to and looking at books from early infancy makes a difference too. – But having to learn spellings quirks for thousands of words, still makes learning to spell English very difficult for native speakers too, in comparison with languages that are spelt more regularly.

What I have come to understand since 1958, however, is that being immersed in a system, makes it very difficult to view it objectively and see anything wrong with it as an adult. English-speaking children are not consciously brain-washed by their teachers to accept English spelling as good. It simply happens to them in the course of their schooling. – Their teachers were trained to accept the system without question too, just they are. They merely do the same to their pupils.

Even during training, teachers are hardly ever made aware that English spelling is uniquely irregular and makes learning to read and write exceptionally difficult. It is certainly never suggested to them that it could be improved to make literacy learning and teaching easier. – They get taught what is believed to be the best way of teaching reading and writing, at the time. The difficulties of teaching children to read and write English have led to endless disputes about, and changes in, teaching methods.

Changing your perception of something that is culturally conditioned is very difficult. – To nearly everyone who has not grown up in a country where FMG (female genital mutilation) has been practised for centuries, the custom seems barbaric. Yet many still see nothing wrong with it.

Seeing something wrong with our own long-established habits just does not come easily. – The caning of pupils now seems brutal to nearly all of us, yet most people found it acceptable until quite recently, just like sending children down mines and up chimneys in earlier times.

Because I did not meet English spelling until the age of 14, after first learning to read and write with two vastly more regular systems, its irregularities struck me as ludicrous as soon as I came across them. Going on to learn German, followed by French, Spanish and a bit of Italian kept confirming for me that English spelling is exceptionally learner-unfriendly. Becoming a teacher of English in England in my 30s and noting the words which pupils kept misspelling, and the ones which they still misread even at secondary school, left me even more certain that the irregularities of English spelling pose big and costly educational handicaps, and make the workload of teachers much heavier too.

I have been trying to explain this in various ways for a few decades now, but with little success so far. Most people who had to spend 10 – 15 years learning the thousands of English words with irregular spellings and have come to grips with them, find it impossible to believe that this might have been a pointless waste of time. They close their minds to the intellectual abuse done to them as much as to what is being done to children now. – And so, generation after generation gets put through the same ordeal, with nobody stopping to consider how much better educated everyone could become, if they did not have to learn 10 closely typed pages of common words with irregular spellings, and if fewer letters had changing sounds, like ‘o‘ in ‘only, one, other’.

My seeing that English spelling is insane and needs to be improved, while others are unable to believe what I am saying, often makes me feel like the kid who saw that the emperor wore no clothes.

But I am not giving up hope. The easy Hagul script for Korean, which enables Koreans to learn to read and write exceptionally easily, was not fully adopted until 1946. Its was first created back in 1444. I feel certain that English spelling is bound to be improved one day too, and that I must keep drawing attention to its iniquities.

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