[Transcribed by Masha Bell, SSS member.]
[See Journal, Newsletter articles, Leaflet, Personal View and Media items by Masha Bell.]
Masha Bell on The Learning Curve,
BBC radio 4 on Tuesday 18 May 2004.[The pressure which Libby Purves put me under affects my speech and coherence towards the end of the programme. She was not friendly.]
Intro by Libby Purves: Now, welcome to the first Learning Curve of the summer term. Today we are looking at adult education. [and something else] ...
...and give space to a revolutionary demand for spelling reform, to tidy up the mangy, beloved old mongrel that is the English language, because it does muddle children...
(You hear a child spelling out): F L E A S E
(Another child): F L A E C E
Teacher: That's interesting A E instead of E A.
(Another child): F L E E C E
Teacher: Hands up who thinks that Kate is right there...
L Purves: She should have put a U in it somewhere .... All of that later.
(12 mins into programme.)
L Purves: Now we are staying, sort of, with adult literacy, or an aspect of it, because we lie very close to the bottom of European league tables, and one voice at least is suggesting that this is not entirely our fault. You can blame the English language itself. Masha Bell - the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee born in Germany and educated between both countries - is the author of a book called Understanding English Spelling, which is a long and detailed tome about all its irregularities. Masha, we were counting before the programme, but lost count. Its about six languages you speak, including Russian.
M: That's right. Yes.
L Purves: And you learned English starting at 14. Is it really harder than most languages?
M: It is far harder than most languages. It's harder to learn to read because so many words have identical letters that have to be pronounced in different ways. For example, you start with 'the', then come across 'he', 'go' - 'do', 'so' - 'who'. The same with ....
L Purves: We keep breaking the rules.
M: Yes. You can't learn a pattern. When my grandmother taught me to read Lithuanian because I started school two months after everybody else and I needed to catch up quickly, she taught me the alphabet in a couple of afternoons and by the end of the week she was showing me words in the newspaper...
L Purves: The phonic teacher's dream!
L Purves: Stay with us a moment because we have an illustration of the treacheries of English spelling straight from the horse's mouth. Caroline Swinburne has been to Petersfield primary school in Orwell near Cambridge to see 9-year-olds and their teacher Nick Murphy...
Helen: S L I P P E D
Teacher: Why?... Will!
Will: Because you have slip and because it's another word, you have to put another P in there.
Teacher: The problem is related to exceptions to the rule. At the moment we are looking at the rule that a letter sound will always be short before a doubled consonant, but realising that there are going to be exceptions to the rule. ...Literal!
Girl: L I T T E R A L.
Teacher: There is the short letter sound, so it must be double T, but unfortunately, the spelling is L I T E R A L - just one T. Oh dear ....
Child: I find some words really difficult to spell. Things which have an EE-sound in them.
Boy: L E I S U R E
Other child: I thought it was L E A S U R E...
Teacher: Quite tricky? Is he right though? Hands up who is not sure! It is L E I S U R E. How did you learn to spell that?
Boy: I always used to go to (inaudible) and ...
Teacher: You see it and just remember it? - Last one. Tricky one: friend. Not tricky really, is it? You are gonna tell me what it is.
Child: F R I E N D.
Teacher: In 'friend' I E makes the sound of E like 'leisure', except the other way round.
Another child speaking to reporter: There are lots of words you just have to remember. One that really surprises me is 'because'.
Reporter: Why? How did you think it was spelt?
Girl: I thought it was B E C U S.
Rep: That's quite logical.
Rep: When you were told, what did you think?
Girl: I was quite surprised!
Rep: How does a spelling lesson compare, let's say, with a maths lesson?
Girl: Maths is quite easy, because once you know how to add, that's all you really have to know.
Rep: So the rules work?
Girl: Yes. In spelling they don't work.
Teacher: Children are comfortable with maths because there is a rule, and that's the end of story. With spelling there is a rule, but right at the end of the lesson, always highlighting the exception to the rule brings out a sigh. Because, yet again, they have to learn the exception to the rule which makes life a little more complicated for them.
L Purves: Petersfield primary school and Caroline Swinburne's report more or less making Masha Bell's case for her with all these problems. But people like me say, "Look. It's a really fun mongrel language. You have Latin and Greek roots, Norman, Saxon, Celtic...All the history of the language is contained in the odd spelling of the words.
Masha: No! Not in the spelling. Not in the spelling. The history of the language is beautiful, and it is a mongrel from different sources, but nevertheless, it's grammatically amazingly simple and quite easy to learn, and the spellings weren't always in the mess that they are now. They were introduced by people who couldn't speak English. That's something most ....
L Purves: When?!
Masha: It all happened when the printing press first came to England, in 1476. When Caxton came back from the Continent, where he had lived for 30 years and learned to print, he brought with him assistants who none of them spoke English. So they were type-setting English books and making a right hash of it. And it got far worse when the Bible was first translated into English, because bible-printing wasn't even allowed in England, so all the different editions of the New Testament of 1525, the 40 different editions, were all printed on the Continent, and that made it worse. That put the spelling in a mess.
L Purves: Whenever there is a spelling reform movement, and there have been several, and you are a spelling reformer ....
Masha: No! No! I will stop you there! I am not really. I want people to understand the problem. I want people to understand that what you were talking about at the beginning of the programme - about basic skills and the money that is needed to rectify this later - it all starts at primary level, and the government has not done anything to change it; because 25% of 11-year-olds, for the past four years, started secondary school unable to read ...
L Purves: Yes, yes! I can see the difficulty. For instance, the difficulty these children had just now with 'because'. They said that 'because' should be spelt 'becus'. But if you have 'be cause' it contains its own meaning. It is 'by the cause' that it happened...
Masha: Which would you rather ... Which would you rather have: a more literate population, a better educated population....
L Purves: But...
Masha: Because currently we have a functional illiteracy rate of 20% among adults. In other words, seven million adults cannot read to save their lives, basically. And spelling is far worse, because there are only 2000 words which are difficult to read, that you cannot predict like 'count - country - group', if you get my idea...
L Purves: Yes.
Masha: ...or 'fruit - build - fluid'. UI spelt [A mistake by me here under pressure - should be 'pronounced'] differently, but when you come to spelling, it's far worse. You have to memorise nearly 4000 words. That's something people can't cope with.
L Purves: We are going to get a mass of correspondence about this. I greatly look forward to this. Thank you very much Masha Bell. This one is going to run and run. Please get in touch with us.
Back to the top.