Photo of the day

I love, love this gallery of doodles that Charles Darwin’s kids made on the back of his manuscript for Origin of Species.  Seriously.

IMAGE COURTESY AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY AND CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

English is hard

My oldest son is a smart kid, but a poor speller.  He’s just started taking French in high school and determined that, in French, he’s going to be a good speller.  I don’t know French, but it is almost certainly easier than being a good speller than in English.  In fact, English may be the most irregularly spelled language in the world.  And it’s not just spelling errors that is a problem– it may be holding us back in global competitiveness.  Seriously!  Fascinating article in the Atlantic (and I shared it with my son so he can feel better about his spelling woes):

Masha Bell, the vice chair of the English Spelling Society and author of the bookUnderstanding English Spelling, analyzed the 7,000 most common English words and found that 60 percent of them had one or more unpredictably used letters. No one knows for sure, but the Spelling Society speculates that English may just be the world’s most irregularly spelled language…

Unlike many other languages, English spelling was never reformed to eliminate the incongruities. In a sense, English speakers now talk in one language but write a different one.

As a result, there’s no systematic way to learn to read or write modern English—people have to memorize the spelling of thousands of individual words, file them away in their mental databases, and retrieve them when needed. A small percentage of people excel at this skill, but for most children in English-speaking countries, learning to read and write their native language is a laborious and time-consuming exercise…

By contrast, languages such as Finnish and Korean have very regular spelling systems; rules govern the way words are written, with few exceptions. Finnish also has the added bonus of a nearly one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters, meaning fewer rules to learn. So after Finnish children learn their alphabet, learning to read is pretty straightforward—they can read well within three months of starting formal learning, Bell says…

A 2003 study found that English-speaking children typically needed about three years to master the basics of reading and writing, whereas their counterparts in most European countries needed a year or less…

That’s bad news for English-speaking societies, which represent about 6 percent of the world’s population. First of all, the amount of time and energy devoted to learning to read and write could have been spent learning other things. Then there’s the failure rate—the number of people who never become fully literate in the language. “One predictable consequence of any difficult-to-master system is a higher failure rate,” Bell writes on her website. “Skills that require a special aptitude are learned well by only a few. With perseverance, many others can become quite good at them, too, but a substantial number never get beyond the basics, no matter how hard they try.”

That would be awesome if we could actually reform English spelling.  Though, I figure it is far more likely that Republicans start calling for higher taxes on the wealthy.  I do remember back when I learned German and I jsut thought it was the coolest thing that if you could say a word, you knew how it was spelled.  Little did I realize how much the English-speaking world was being held back.  When the Finns and Koreans take over the world, now we’ll know why.

%d bloggers like this: