Thursday, 8 July 2010

Newspeak is coming.

Children are stupid these days. It's the only logical conclusion from this story.

Children are struggling to read and write at a young age because of the sheer complexity of the spelling system, says Masha Bell.

I knew a kid at school called Masha. It was a nickname. This can't be the same one because the Masha I knew was male and could barely communicate without certain hand gestures that generally connected with someone's face. He had no need of language to make his point.

Okay, learning to read and write wasn't easy but it's a cumulative thing. You learn a bit at a time and add it all together. It takes time, some kids take longer than others, some leave school not knowing they shouldn't use a preposition to end a sentence with. Some, even now, manage to boldly split infinitives no man has split before. It doesn't make them illiterate. English rules can be broken and the result can still be perfectly intelligible, if sometimes grating.

Yes, English is a swine to learn because it's developed over centuries and it's had bits added and taken away all the time. How many people use 'dastardly poltroon' as an insult these days? I have a nasty feeling it's going to be only me, isn't it? So, what's Masha's solution?

Masha Bell, author and literacy researcher, will tell a conference of English teachers on Friday that sweeping reforms are needed to the spelling system to improve children’s linguistic skills.

This might, after all, be the same Masha or maybe a close relative. What she proposes is right in Masha's old skill set. If it's too difficult, don't learn it. Make it easier instead and then you'll look clever without having to work for it. Dumbing down the entire language will not improve anyone's literacy skills. They'll all be calling each other 'bro' and ending every sentence with 'innit' just the same. The only difference is that the rest of us will be expected to do it too.

Learning the full set of English skills is very difficult. Learning enough to be intelligible is not. If you want to write like Milton or Shelley or Dickens, you'll need to know all the rules. If you're going to write a business letter, you only need the basics.

I hang around writer's websites and they have the full spectrum from 'Look, it's just a story' to 'You can't put a comma there. It has to be a semicolon.' Hardly anyone uses semicolons any more; few people even know what they are for. A misplaced comma, a confusion of 'its' and 'it's' are things I'll notice but let's be honest, most people won't. One business contact who sends a lot of work my way peppers his Emails with random commas. It irritates but it does not prevent me understanding what he's talking about. I've been in his car. It has seats that you can adjust every aspect of, electrically, with a set of buttons on the door. The cellphone is built in to the dashboard. It cost more than I earn most years. So his shotgun approach to comma use hasn't really held him back at all.

See, the thing about English is that it is hard to learn and takes time. While learning it, you learn how to learn. The mad spellings of some words, the changing meanings of others depending on context, force you to concentrate. You have to watch for subtleties and nuances. It produces philosophers and scientists precisely because it is hard to learn.

According to academics, children in Britain normally take three years to read to a decent standard.
But in Finland – where words are more likely to be pronounced as they look – children can read fluently within three months.

Yes, but the Finns are descended from the bloody Vikings, who were hardly famed for the libraries they built in their conquered lands. Not too many books on the longships, I think you'll find.

So a child takes three years rather than three months to learn how to read fluently. What's the rush? They are in school from the age of five to sixteen (have they increased it further yet?) and they should be expected to be fully conversant in English and at least one other language by then. It's what was expected in my school days - although my French O-level was never put to use and I doubt I could make myself understood these days.

The English teacher at my school never struck anyone. She had no need. Her command of the language was such that she could reduce the toughest bully to jelly with nothing more than words. Now that was inspiring. That caught our attention. Nobody failed that class because she taught us English as a weapon.

Nobody failed, also, because there were rumours that the last person who did had their head on a pole at the school gates, but that was most probably untrue. Believe me, if you'd been in that class you wouldn't have been sure.

Ah, wait, here comes Masha's 'proof' -

“The antique, inconsistent spelling system of English is probably the main reason why the UK has a far longer tail of educational underachievement than any other European country, why more of our young people are Neets (Not in Education Employment or Training), why many end up in jail, and why improving their chances of re-offending while in prison is much more difficult too.”

The UK is underachieving because of the language? It was no hindrance when we occupied a large part of the planet. It did not deter Stephenson or Brunel or MacAdam or a host of others. This education collapse is recent, Masha. It has nothing to do with the language. It has to do with the dumbing-down of the entire education system and bringing the language down to the same level as the rest of the now-worthless subjects is not going to fix that. It is going to make it a hell of a lot worse.

Masha want newspeak doubleplusgood innit? Masha make all to Poet and Author and all speak sameway write sameway easygood. None better than other. All same. Innit? All thicko, innit?

If this lunatic wench gets her way, we could solve the energy crisis by wrapping the corpse of my old English teacher in copper wire and putting a magnet on either side. She'll spin fast enough to generate power for the whole country.


Curmudgeon said...

And we conquered all that Empire using the "difficult" Imperial measurement system too...

BTS said...

“The antique, inconsistent spelling system of English is probably the main reason... why many end up in jail"

There'll be a flood of 'It woz seeing Spot run what made me do it guv' defences over the next few years.

And why on earth is she so concerned with improving the idiots' chances of re-offending? I thought that was a bad thing..?

Anonymous said...

Everyone needs to be made equal.

We must level the playing field in order to enable diversity.

Without equality, we will never have absolute health, safety and security for all.

We must enable those who are language-disabled to learn on each their own, the form of language that makes most sense to them and is least likely to cause them unpleasantness in the learning environment.

Persons attempting to overpower the language-disabled with English of the old-fashioned, grammatically correct sort, should be discouraged by way of classroom training that recognizes and empowers the language disabled as equal to all others.

By doing so, education should demand that the non-language-disabled speak, write and think appropriately in a manner understood equally - by all - including the language-disabled.

We must restructure the education system to accomodate and accentuate the needs of the language-disabled and discourage the hateful, hurtful speech patterns of those still using obsolete English.

As for learning grammar, spelling, punctuation and a large vocabulary, we need only reserve those requirements for those who will be educated for purposes of serving in a government capacity.

It is only those serving in the government capacity who will be required such language skills, because enscribing EU laws into written form requires a very large volume of words, much more than the number of words needed for those unto whom the laws will apply.

This will usher in a new age of equality and diversity lasting a thousand years.

Anonymous said...

I could read and write before I started primary school. I read my first 'adult' book (Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett) at seven (so I of course grew up wanting to hunt tigers rather than drive a train); started reading sci-fi at nine (and how weird are some of the words in Golden Age scifi?). Soon learn the meaning of new words - even nonsense words - through the context in which they're used. I could also do basic numbers at three - I used to help my uncle run hia chicken battery - had to keep a running total of how many eggs were produced at each cage (cages also numbered - hundreds of them) as I went aeound collecting the eggs in buckets every day. Also had to keep a record of how much feed I gave each chicken. This was so we could work out which chickens/cage numbers were no longer cost effective and we would gather them up and spend a couple of days slaughtering/plucking/gutting them to sell.

Want a little kid to learn stuff? Make him have to use what he's learning. Loved every minute of it. Made me feel important having to do stuff just like a grown-up.

Of course, these days it would be considered "child abuse" to have a 3+ yr old boy participating in killing and gutting things on a daily basis.

A different world back in the fifties/sixties. You're right about the education dumbing down - but it had already started back in the sixties - I stopped going to school at thirteen - was bored out of my tree (and once got a thrashing for "you think too much" Early experience came in handy then for raiding farms to steal and prepare food - chickens, tomatos, eggs etc - a boy gets hungry around midday-ish down in the woods, and needs something to eat. Making a fire and using it to cook was no problem to a voracious reader like I was.

Been more years than I care to think about since I met a teacher I wasn't cleverer than, even when I was a boy.


JuliaM said...

"If it's too difficult, don't learn it. "

Great! Our education system is on the verge of adopting the Homer Simpson methodology...

JuliaM said...

"I read my first 'adult' book (Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett) at seven..."

OMG! You're me!

Chuckles said...

Left to themselves, children will learn to read. Preventing them doing so takes active, focussed, destructive involvement. Something at which Masha and colleagues obviously excel.

Yes, spelling in English is not the simplest,but it is hardly insuperable. The biggest problem is the asinine methods employed by the educationalists; perhaps they should go back to teaching.

PT Barnum said...

My mother, who left school at 13, taught me to read before I went to school. My grandfather, a brewery drayman, read Shakespeare in the evenings. How dare this woman equate economic poverty with illiteracy?

Combine piss-poor teaching with can't-be-arsed parents and you produce a generation of kids who are proud of being ignorant and who feel obliged to teach their own lessons to those who actually like reading.

Dick Puddlecote said...

So let's get this straight. Barmy socialist ideas on education screw the country's youngsters up, and the solution is even more barmy socialist ideas on education.

Good grief.

"some leave school not knowing they shouldn't use a preposition to end a sentence with"

That was class, by the way. :)

The Wasp said...

Finnish is certainly pronounced more or less how it looks but that is only a minor part of the whole learning experience when you add in 14 different cases, word endings in place of prepositions and some seriously mind bending rules around when to correctly deploy the total or partial object.

If most of Europe can turn out kids who can read, write and speak English to a perfectly acceptable level at the age of 16 then it suggests to me that the education system in the UK is the problem and has nothing whatsoever to do with the language being taught.

Anonymous said...

As an ESOL Teacher who has moved into Dyslexia work in the last few years I think I know a fair bit about the English language. And yes, English is full of inconsistencies and the spelling rules..... well, they're not exactly rules they're more like guidelines that have been made up in an attempt to pretend there ARE rules, but you'll always find exceptions.

However, English does have the unique distinction of being a bitch to be fluent in but of being incredibly easy of making yourself understood in (whoops - preposition). While all those other languages have different endings that need to be slapped on the ends of verbs, in English, you know the verb? Just bang I, you, we, they etc in front of it and you have the present tense. No need for weird endings for the future tense, just bang "will" in front of the verb and you have the future. Past? Slap "ed" on the end and you have the past tense for 70% of verbs, and people will still understand you if you say, "I drinked coffee", anyway. This simplicity of "getting by" in English explains why it has spread so quickly. If you learn a new verb like "explicate", for example, with that one word you can cover the present tense in most of it's forms, "I explicate", "You explicate" etc; the future - "I will explicate, you will explicate" etc; and the past "I explicated, you explicated" etc. Piece of cake.

But the real problem is that we don't teach grammar. If you're working with a foreign student you can just say, "Don't use the first person in essays" and they understand you instantly. But with the dyslexic English students you have to say, "Don't use "I"." Ditto things like "Use the passive voice in reports". The foreign students get it instantly - the English students need 20 minutes of "I pick up the pen"/"the Pen is picked up" before they get what you mean.

This is all down to teaching. Now I'm being forced to do an MEd and I have to read all the "research" these numpties come up with, it's hardly surprising that they are all entirely obsessed with trends and "making a name" for themselves. Even if they did find a way of making children into mini-Shakespeare's in a one hour lesson someone would create a new theory or approach because, well.... that's what they do. They wouldn't get their research funding any other way.

subrosa said...

What a super post LI. Like you, I had primary school teachers who ensured we learned English. Not an easy task for them with wee children having a good grounding in Scots. But back in the 50s Scots was denied and English was instilled into us as 'our' language.

Nevertheless, none of us failed. The tests were too interesting and we couldn't let our teacher down. Same with arithmetic.

Have you seen Iain Dale's post on edukayshun? Read it and weep.

Ἕκτωρ said...

Even in the most expensive and academic schools in the country the pupils struggle to grasp a lot of the rules of English. I had to teach myself the subjunctive after realising that it does actually exist and it is now something about which I would be confident speaking if I were asked to do so.

Anonymous said...

Well, my take on falling educational standards is that for a lot of kids, succeeding at school looks like a hell of a lot of work for not much reward, and no real need to put in the work in the first place. They all think that they stand next to no chance of getting even a low-end job, but see the alternative very clearly: the Wlefare State.

Under the Welfare State, you don't need to be able to read and write in order to claim money; merely being obnoxious, pig-ignorant and making an utter mess of your life will have people from the Government falling over themselves to fill out forms for you to let you claim money. Being unemployed isn't a bad thing to them; being an uneducated fuckwit simply does not have a downside for them.

We really, truly need to bring in a Workfare system, if only to give living upon Government charity a very strong downside. Abolishing long-term unemployment benefits and replacing these with Government Work, paid by the hour of work actually done, paid at a rate low enough that no income tax is paid (tax reforms needed too) would then mean that the option of a life spend at leisure on someone else's coin would not be an option.

You would also need to run school trips to see these Workfare employment places, to thoroughly ram home the point that if you do not do well at school, kids, then you too will have a life sorting domestic refuse for recycling to look forwards to. Kids understand moral lessons like that.

Anonymous said...

Edward said...

Does that mean I can go back to spelling like Molesworth?

Anonymous said...

Difficult to learn commas whilst sharpening my knife and bagging drugs init?

The Heresiarch said...

Not sure where you got the idea from that the Finns are descended from Vikings. They aren't. Norwegian, Danish and Swedish have spelling system almost as difficult as English, incidentally.

Various experts have been drawing attention to the complexities of English orthography for decades. George Bernard Shaw left money in his will for the development of a wholly new alphabet. The winning design was weird and squiggly and never caught on. It is, of course, the case that children whose native languages (like Finnish, Italian, Korean and Spanish) have simple spelling systems learn to spell more quickly. On the other hand, compared with the Japanese and Chinese, English speakers have it incredibly easy - and the Chinese seem to manage perfectly well. It's a silly debate, because no-one seriously believes any of these reforms will come to pass.

Anyway, other people have to learn English these days, so why worry?

JD said...

What a great article. What thickos like Masha don't get is that intelligence improves with practise. Once an individual realises this the rate of improvement in intelligence is exponential. This is probably why it seems to the not so bright that it is a zero sum issue. I am convinced that by using fractions (imperial) rather than decimals (metric) the brain is exercised and thus improves. The same applies, as you say, to language and, I think, to such activities as doing crosswords, sudoku and puzzles.
Of course someone too lazy to do the exercise is choosing to remain thick, and would like everyone else to be the same, but hey, we're not here to look after their feelings are we?
Thanks for a great article. JD.

Silly Kuffar said...

Interesting Panorama prog on Bad Teachers.

Don't forget New labour were the party who destroyed the Eduction system and the futures of our Children.

Typical of the Marxist Traitors, Don't give our Children and Education, it might help them to get Jobs that could go to Immigrants with a better Education.

JD said...

Oh, and learning language, with all its nuance is such damned good fun. JD.

DaveF said...

A great article, LI, and as ever I fully identify with your sentiments. You, me and a myriad of others are a testimony to the fact that we achieved literacy and an excellent command of the mother tongue through thorough teaching - and READING. The Communists simply don't - and won't - give up in their attempts to bring down the level of educational attainment and expectation from the proles. After all, it's about control, n'est-ce pas?

Anonymous said...

Game On!!!!

konsfboa said...

How bizarre.

The State is failing to teach children to read.
Some parents are failing to teach children to read.

And the answer is to make English more simpler?

It's not the children that need a kick up the arse nor is it the English language. The language isn't broken, it doesn't need fixing.

Make it an entry requirement of taxpayer funded schooling that children need to be able to read and replace child benefit with secondhand childrens books.

Anonymous said...


It's not "a myriad of" it's just "myriad".


This Royal Throne of Kings said...

A final paragraph of genius.

Nothing more to add.

Anonymous said...

From my own experience working in a School I regret that the standard of written English from the existing teachers is, quite frankly, p1$$ poor. Before the reports are sent to parents (many already semi-illiterate but think it means illigitimate...) the Assistant and Head Teachers read the reports and I get to correct the grammar, spelling and in some cases just write the report myself. English is a living, thriving language but should not be changed for the convenience of so called "Teachers" who can barely communicate in the language. For the historians among us I belive the "LWT" system was tried back in the late sixties featuring such gems as spelling "look" as "lwk". At the time the experiment was derided but in retrospect it may be regarded as the precursor to "Text Speak".
As a child I was raised with books ranging from Greek and Latin classics to C.S. Forester. I still read avidly and was annoyed when I suggested "The Red Badge Of Courage" to a boy at School who admitted to rarely reading to be told the Library at School did not have a copy. I discuss literature with the "lower achievers" and most have never even thought of reading a book for pleasure.

BTS said...

Anon (20:48)

Nah. The Myriads were those blokes from the Iliad. Achilles' ant buddies. Weren't they..?

Leg-iron said...

I once had an Italian exchange student for an eight week project. When he arrived he spoke no English so the first job was to enrol him in English lessons.

At the end of the first week, he spoke broken English. At the end of eight weeks he spoke clear and intelligible English and his project resulted in a publication, albeit in a very minor journal.

Students from Spain, Indonesia, Syria, have all worked with me and have published papers as a result. Okay, I had to write the papers - spoken English is not the same as written English - but they did the work.

So even those to whom English is a foreign language can soon learn enough to get by. Why is it so difficult for our natives to manage? The British students I've supervised have always passed and many have published too. It's not a widespread thing.

I've never had a failed student. It might be that English teacher's legacy. Perhaps there are rumours of heads on poles among those students...

...or maybe there's some connection between that and the way people get out of my way in supermarkets.

I think, under current law, I probably commit a breach of the peace by looking at someone.

Anonymous said...

One of the main reasons Finns learn to read so early is simple: TV. English-language stuff dominates TV worldwide, and in Finland, it's subtitled in Finnish.

Kids watch TV, kids read subtitles, kids learn to read. Simples.

Bill Sticker said...

Google Masha Bell's name; methinks this is someone with a book about spelling and English to sell.

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