Acceptance of English spelling

English spelling is irregular, but most people are not concerned about its inconsistencies and have trouble understanding why they bother me so much. – The main reason for my never-ending exasperation with English spelling is probably not meeting it until the age of 13,  after Lithuanian and Russian.

In both of those languages, letters are used pretty much as the inventors of the alphabet intended. – They have only a few more spellings than sounds and no spelling has more than one pronunciation, unlike English with 205 spellings for its 44 sounds and 69 spellings used for more than one sound (e.g. ou in sound – soup, southern).

When learning to read Lithuanian and Russian, students learn to sound out their 32 and 33 spellings, such as  ‘T – O – M’  or ‘M – U – CH’, and can then reliably decipher any word. There are no silent letters as in ‘bomb’, or bewildering oddities like ‘comb’ and ‘tomb’, and learning to read is very easy.

In Lithuania children start school in the term of their 7th birthday. When I did, my grandmother taught me to read Lithuanian in just a couple of weeks. For several reasons, I started school two months later than my classmates. They could therefore already read by the time I joined them, and I needed to catch up.

My grandma had another reason for wanting to teach me to read. – Her eyesight was failing, and she was hoping that I would soon start reading bits from her daily paper to her, and I was able to do so in less than a month.

I was very keen to learn English. I had read a Lithuanian translation of Hamlet in the summer holidays before upper school (and starting English) and loved it. I was hoping that I might be able to read it in the original before long. But that expectation bit the dust as soon as I became acquainted with English spelling. – I found its irregularities shocking and was reluctant to accept that any writing system could be so unsystematic.

Again and again, learning to read some words proved of little help with deciphering others: man – many; laid – said;  our – your. Learning to read kept being a matter of remembering how the teacher pronounced the words, and my brain kept silently screaming, “But that’s not how letters are supposed to work!”

But I was only 13, and English was not my language. And although our teacher agreed that English spelling was insane, we just had to get on and learn it.

I became fluent in the end, when I came to England, but I could not stop wondering from time to time why English-speaking people, and especially parents of young children, continued to put up with it. – Why didn’t they clamour for at least some of the irregular spellings to be made more sensible? And how could teachers bear to see pupils having a hard time with learning to read and write, year after year, and not call for change?

I eventually came to understand that they don’t, because they are so used to the system that they are unable to see anything wrong with it. – After gradual introduction to it from early childhood, followed by 10 to 15 years of endless spelling tests, they have come to regard it as perfectly normal.

Furthermore, because very few speakers of English become truly proficient in other languages, the majority don’t know that English spelling is very different from nearly all other writing systems. They don’t realise that English spelling is extraordinarily irregular and makes learning to read and write exceptionally difficult.

Most speakers of English also have no real idea of how English spelling became irregular. – They don’t realise that most of the words with currently weird spellings were earlier spelt more sensibly, such as ‘hed, sed, frend’ by the poet Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400).

Because I started to learn English relatively late, became fluent in it alongside three other languages and acquired a reasonable command of French and Spanish, with a smattering of Italian, I kept being made aware of how abnormally learner-unfriendly English spelling is. Becoming a teacher of German and English, along with some Russian and French, in the UK, made this even clearer.

What being a teacher also led me to realise is  that English spelling is especially disadvantageous to children from an underprivileged home background.  – Having parents who don’t, or can’t, nurture their children’s language development and love of reading before they start school, and who don’t help them with learning to read thereafter, is a much greater educational disadvantage in English than with better spelling systems.

Having a relatively weak memory is also a much bigger educational handicap in English than in other languages, because both learning to read and write the language involves exceptional amounts of memorisation. Since those skills are essential for other learning, English spelling dooms the educational prospects of less able learners especially badly.

I have tried to explain this to native speakers of English,  in books and the blogs and and some Youtube videos,  but not very successfully so far. I will keep trying.


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