A barrier to happiness

The director of the Wellbeing Programme at the LSE, Lord Layard, suggested on Radio 4 last week that future UK Chancellors should become more focussed on promoting the nation’s wellbeing and less concerned about economic growth. He believes that happiness is much more dependent on health, personal relationships and social connections than on wealth. I agree with him but believe that the cheapest and most effective way of improving happiness is to reduce obstacles to it, instead of teaching people how to be happier.

Most European countries, and especially Finland, are more able to let their children experience happiness, rather than teach them about it. This is because they have writing systems which enable their children to learn to read and write much faster and more easily than in English. Finland can afford to give its children more time for fun and play, by not starting formal lessons till age seven, because it has a spelling system which makes literacy acquisition exceptionally quick and easy.

Nearly all Finnish children become fluent readers in their first three months at school and can write well by the end of their first school year. They don’t need to work hard at their reading and spelling throughout primary school, with much testing and retesting of literacy standards, as in Anglophone countries. Finnish pupils have no formal school tests until the age of 18. Nor are their teachers subjected to relentless blaming and shaming with Ofsted inspections and the publication of SATs scores like English-speaking ones. Their pupils are able to do well without such measures, but with a much more relaxed and confident attitude to learning.

The learning difficulties posed by the irregularities of English spelling make literacy acquisition ten times slower and costlier than in Finland. They incur more failure and misery, leave less time for play and creativity and entail many other personal and social costs and disadvantages. I am pretty certain that the main difference between countries that consistently score highly on measures of happiness, such as Holland and Finland, and the well-documented misery of Anglophones is due mainly to their writing systems.

I therefore believe that the simplest and easiest way to improve the wellbeing of English-speaking countries is to modernise English spelling, so that at least learning to read becomes substantially easier. Children get baffled, depressed and demotivated by the many English spellings that have several pronunciations, like ‘sound – southern, soul, soup’. They make their schooling harder and the life chances of many much poorer than need be. English spelling could easily be made much more learner-friendly.

I appreciate that for people who speak only English and have become used to its spelling quirks during the many years they had to spend getting to grips with them, this is not immediately obvious. But looked at objectively, English spelling has too many shortcomings, wastes too much time and effort and causes too much failure and misery

The scholar and writer John Hart described it as ‘tedious, long in learning, learned hard and evil to read’ as long ago as 1551. It has been made even worse since.  It is now the only Latin-based writing system that poses reading as well as spelling difficulties, and exceptionally many of both. It causes too much needless stress and misery . It prevents too many speakers of English from becoming successful learners and leading happy and fulfilled lives. Having a spelling system that makes an essential modern necessity like learning to read much harder to access than need be is a major roadblock to happiness.

There is currently a great boom in books about happiness, including ones for teaching  kids about happiness. Reducing the stresses and miseries which stem from irregularities of English spelling would be far more effective in making them happier.

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