Saturday, July 10, 2010

Spelling Beef

Age of Unenlightenment by Pants

My grandfather was a carpenter. He used to say 'only a poor workman blames his tools.' A British academic has told a conference that the English language is too difficult for young children to learn, according to The Telegraph.

Yes, well it is a bugger, we all know that. The beauty of schooling, however, is that you get about eleven years to master a working knowledge of the language. You're at least sixteen before you're confronted with any forms to fill in that require a binding signature. And in any case, these are almost always written in a language that no one is ever taught and is as far removed from literary English as Tumshuqese.

Granted, there are many irregularities in English that possibly don't make sense if you haven't ever seen home-baked food and therefore expect everything in the world to be explicable only in the context of bureaucratic uniformity.

Fortunately, English has a built-in antidote for difficulty which is called 'degree'. You start out with simple words and progress through to the more complex ones. The irregulars you memorise at the leisurely rate of a few dozen a year. I know we mostly think of memory as a remote function that lives in a thing called Google, but we have a perfectly decent one parked in our heads that is capable of compiling a compendium of essential homophones over time.

Teacher-turned-author, Masha Bell does not share my confidence in our native language's uncanny ability to inveigle itself into our collective consciousness. She suggests that sweeping reforms are needed to the spelling system to improve children’s linguistic skills'. She explains to The Telegraph,

'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.'

Oh gawd, I think we need logic cop. Ms Bell rather neatly skirts the requirement for pesky old empirical evidence here with deft deployment of the word 'probably'. The words 'jumping' and 'shark' might find themselves in the same sentence if it were up to me alone but logic cop is on the case now.

It is true that there is a disproportion of people in jails with low standards of literacy. It is also true that a lot of those people have either a recognisable learning disability or have grown up and been schooled in an environment of multiple disadvantage. It is more true than ever that the poorest areas of Britain in socio-economic terms are where you will find the worst schools. And guess what - they have the lowest attainment levels in English and Maths.

A study by The Dyslexia Institute published in 2005* reviewed the incidence of hidden disabilities within the prison population in Yorkshire and Humberside. The study determined that just over half of the 359 prisoners surveyed had literacy difficulties severe enough to hamper their work and life chances. Around twenty per cent of the sample group had an identifiable literacy disability such as dyslexia or dyspraxia. Half of the male prisoners surveyed had been excluded from school and a third had been regular truants. The research also found that around two-thirds of participants had low levels of numeracy. That's right. More prisoners had problems with Maths than English.

From my days working on educational programmes with under-performing London schools I recall that the attainment stats were very often even lower for Maths than they were for English. So how come the lowest attaining British children do even worse in a subject taught in a universal language? Anyone want to propose bad teaching as a possibility?

Public education is a one-size-fits-all affair. It can't really be done any other way unless the rich people in Britain demean themselves and pay some tax. Why would they? They can afford to send their children to the best of the fee-paying schools.

Most people manage to get through your bog-standard state education provided the teaching is adequate. Even in the prison population, where the incidence of learning disabilities directly affecting literacy is known to be a huge magnification of the occurrence in the general population, the figure is only twenty per cent. Surely it makes more sense to maintain good standards generally and supplement the needs of struggling children with high quality, one-on-one remedial tutoring.

The disaffected minority who are underserved by education now might be a problem but it will be as nothing compared to the anger that could result from a generation of young people who wake up in the near future to discover their access to the wider world has been barred for no good reason. They may discover that most of the interesting things about the world, like spiders and trains and general fiction were prohibited from their experience because their parents and teachers were caught up in some weird paranoiac illness in which they somehow thought that a child's experience should never actually be direct, but rather an extension of the parental or pedagogic imagination. I sure don't want to be around for that tsunami of realisation.

As it happens, this week a suburban couple was reported to Social Services in London for letting their children aged eight and five, ride bicycles to school along a safe route. It was the children's school who dobbed them in. London mayor Boris Johnson has something to say about it in his Telegraph column. I know I've mentioned this before but I can't help it. Every time there is a story about Boris and bikes I just have to relate the time I nearly ran over him in my BMW in Islington. He was doing circles in Liverpool Road. Some might say he was asking for it.

I'm probably not the best person to comment on child protection as I don't have children. When Niece Pants, then aged nine, came to London on her first ever overseas trip, I immediately went outside and grabbed a couple of kids who looked about her age. It's not like they were complete strangers. I'd seen them around. Anyway, I brought them in and introduced them to Niece Pants. From then on they were all out every night playing on the streets and in the parks of Hackney (i.e. the most dangerous place in Britain to live). Niece Pants came in, as instructed, at sundown. It was the middle of summer so that was about 9.30pm. Guess what. No harm came to her.

At that same age (9), Niece Pants's mother Sis Pants, won a place in a class for academically gifted children. The school was way across town from our home. She caught an open-backed double-decker bus into central Sydney and then a train out to her school every morning without escort. The following year, she was getting up even earlier and going to swimming training every morning. I think Dad might have driven her to the pool on his way to work but she would have had to get herself to school on time after training. I don't even remember the detail. That was a kid's life back then. If you wanted extra-curricula activity, you organised it yourself. I personally dragged a 'cello all around Sydney on a bus or train and had to find my own way, from the age of twelve, to the far reaches of the city every Saturday for hockey fixtures.

I've got a bit off the point. But, not entirely. These two ideas are linked by one word 'adventure'. It is abhorrent to me to think that children could ever be prohibited from the experience of discovery. I may not have had kids myself but I have plenty of friends and relatives who have. I remember that three-year-olds can memorise the name of every single dinosaur that ever was, and not because they have to. If there is something wrong with school, it's not to do with the content of the knowledge bank because children will withdraw anything that is available to them. Their minds are made that way.

And before I depart entirely from the subject of growing up in Sydney, immigrant kids would land in our primary school class on a regular basis bewildered and without a word of English. They'd have come from Greece or Italy. Teachers didn't mollycoddle in those days. The newcomers were chucked into the lowest class in their age group. They had to work their way up from there. If they were lucky, someone might mimic the Australian crawl motion to let them know what was happening to them. Their parents were not of an educated class, yet those kids would be speaking fluent English in months, if not weeks.

The article in The Telegraph also throws up this gem,

'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.'

Which gives Finnish kids plenty of time to learn English, which they do in their multitudes. Around ninety per cent of Finns can speak and read English to a communicative standard. Finns can also speak Swedish and most likely French, German and Italian. Now many people do you know who can speak and/or read Finnish or indeed French, German and Italian?

I count myself very lucky to be a native English speaker. It is already the global language of international travel and business, not to mention blogging. Should English spelling be rationalised? Yes, undoubtedly, but not because some Nanny McAcademic says British kids are too dumb to learn it. What's that saying to the wider world of English speakers who've been able to master it as a second, third or fourth language?

British magazine The Economist has begun a debate about whether or not American English should be adopted as standard. Well, it's only marginally less irregular than Standard English. I think I could probably live without the written distinction between 'check' and 'cheque'. I'd even be prepared to give up 'practise' as a verb. I'd be less comfortable with 'different than' because it doesn't make logical sense but it doesn't matter.

It will not be the Anglophone countries who define English as she is spoke and writ in the future because we're already in the minority. Those whom our ancestors presumed to conquer will have their revenge by colonisining our language. The cohort of English speakers who vastly outnumber we native-tonguers will sort it out, over time. Of course, I would love it if my adoptive god-parent the OED grasped guardianship of the venture in the short term. The new version of the Oxford Dictionary website I cannot praise enough. Now you don't need to know the exact spelling of a word to get it to talk to you. It's like Google but with brains.

My grandfather could read perfectly well even though I doubt his formal education went beyond the age of ten. He taught me the language of music and read to us from comic books. These two things I regard as major pillars in my formal education. I draw on his teachings now, as much as I ever did. Mene kuva - that's 'go figure' in Finnish.

* I've tried to add the link but there is something wrong with it. You can get to it easily enough if you're interested via a key-word search.