Eighty percent of the words in the English language dictionary do not accurately indicate how they should be pronounced. Otherwise it wouldn't be necessary to provide pseudo-pronounciation guides after each dictionary word - like "consumption kon-sum'sh(o')n."
These pronunciation guides in dictionaries demonstrate that letters can't be trusted much of the time to truly signal how a word should be pronounced. More than half of the words in English use letters in ways that require explanations and repeated promptings from other friendly people.
Most of us - in fact all of us - needed some one to prompt us, usually in the very early years - about how a printed word should be pronounced so that we could "memorize" or "assimilate" or "associate" the sight of each word with it's adopted pronunciation.
Except for our 36 million people who can't read, these assimilations occurred when we were very young. Once we made the associations in early years, the spelling anamolies became accepted and common-place. Through repeated encounters and reminders we accept that "this is how words are to be spelled." We adopt them as they were presented by parents, tutors, and dictionaries.
Eventually we come to believe that current spellings, seen in dictionaries, were dictated by a supreme authority and could never be better than they are.
Growing up, we join the circle of literate people, believing that English words are either spelled "RIGHT" or they are spelled "WRONG." Misspellings get red circles and check marks in academic endeavours. Misspelled words "Stand Out" if seen in a book or in news print.
However, If most English words were spelled consistently, they could be pronounced more easily by adults who are learning to read. Unfortunately, some of the "normalized" words would look like terribly misspelled words.
"Bequeath" looks strange if spelled as "Beqeeth." "Besides" looks strange if spelled as "Besiedz." Hence there has been reluctance to normalize English spelling standards. Standard spelling is known as "traditional orthography" - or "TO" which is the technical abbreviation.
For newcomes to the language - both children and foreign born, the difficult words are exactly those that have extra letters, or letters that signal unpredictably - like cough and bough and thought. Should "ough" signal an OFF sound as in cough? Or maybe the ough sound in bough? And there's an OUGH in "thought" - hard to explain. For non-reading adults, there are easily 20,000 of these types of words where you can't just "sound out" the syllables - you have to memorize the words.
Letters could (or ought to) be used in quite consistent ways, but the stigma of writing a word like MACHINE in some other way (like MASHEEN) would be rejected by most writers. Worse, readers would think that the writer didn't know how to spell. Therefore attempts at simplifying the spelling of even 1% of our words has been generally rejected with the argument - "I learned English, so let foreigners learn it like I did."
Unfortunately that isn't happening, as evidenced by the need to write medicine bottle instructions in several languages, street signs in multiple languages, telephone recorded messages in multiple languages, assembly instructions (bookcases, swing-sets, bicycles) all written in multiple languages. Thirty six million of us simply avoid the hassle of learning this complex bunch of inconsistently-spelled English words.
Next to Chinese and Japanese, English is most difficult to learn. For an adult to become literate in English, they must have many repeated encounters with written words. They require frequent promptings from other persons - tutors with time and patience - until they gradually associate (memorize) the erratic placement of letters and what those letters are signaling in each specific instance. This is not true in most other languages.
Some English words have extra letters like lam(b) or dum(b) or i(s)land or (a)i(s)l(e) - aisle. But, almost anyone can manage to mask out these extra letters. Surely.
We have 24 letter combinations that signal us to make the OO sound as in MOON, THROUGH, RULE, BRUISE, CANOE, FRUIT, SLEUTH, etc. They could all rely on "OO" to convey the single desired sound.
We have 15 ways to spell the vowel in MET, such as MANY, SAID, HEAD, FRIEND, DAMAGE, GUEST, BELLE, HEIFER, BURIAL, etc. They could all use the single letter "E" to signal the desired sound.
Others use c, k, and s erratically. (comb, coat, kite, cite, site, sight, city, scene, sword)
The letters "TI" signal us to make an SH sound in many words that end in "TION" as in NATION or CREATION - except when they sometimes signal other sounds.
These examples are short and simple so the scope of the problem is hidden from view.
People who know how to read will argue that it's not that hard to master 10,000 to 20,000 of these inconsistencies.
Others will go even farther - arguing that these "anamolies" in our spelling standards are what make the English language beautiful - something that should never be changed. Wierd spellings are part of our heritage that ought to be protected - rewarded in spelling bee contests, and honored because classical writers wrote impressive things in traditional orthography.
Spelling as codified in dictionaries, has been the basis for our novels, our national discourse, legal documents, patents, and scientific journals. Therefore the topic of spelling improvement has been met with considerable resistence.
Yet 36 million people are outside our national reading circle - growing by 2.4 million more each year. "Why don't they just learn to read like we did?"
President after President announces initiatives such as government programs, literacy grants, and volunteer programs. They weave illiteracy statistics into every speech after elections.
We have their recordings - Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Regan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush. But, if there are 36 million illiterate citizens this year, there will be 38 million next year. This free-fall continues despite all that government has done, given current immigration and unenforcement policies. One in five persons can't read.
Many of our non-reading public also can't read Spanish or other native languages. So the mantra "Let them learn the language like I did" indicates that the scope and nature of the problem is not understood. People who suggest this should be forced to teach one migrant worked how to read - during the months they aren't working in the fields. And, since the workers may not have transportation, the tutor should drive to their cabins and provide tutoring after dark.
Perhaps illiteracy increases because many non-reading persons have been down this path before. They've encountered some one who offered to tutor them, or they came to a literacy center once or twice where it was guaranteed they would definitely learn to read. But soon they realized that learning to read was beyond the time they could give to it, and it would require many dozens of prompting sessions with their tutor before they would assimilate the assiciations that English demands.
Once illiterate adults encounter 10,000 or more words whose spellings are inconsistent and arbitrary, they often give up trying. Unike Spanish or French, English pronunciations can't be learned in a few 30 minute sessions.
In a vocabulary of 40,000 words, about 20,000 are spelled irrationally - the letters don't accurately signal the pronunciation of the syllables. The written form of the English language has over time deteriorated into a hodge-podge of unexplainable forms that learners must either master or remain illiterate.
Spelling is not a subject of study in Spain, Germany, Holland, Russia, Sweden, or Norway because their written languages use letters quite consistently to signal intended sounds and syllables. If arithmetic allowed for occassional variances in what 3 + 124 equals, few would learn to do arithmetic. There's no other area of thought that requires us to filter out unecessary "noise" - noise that's placed there intentionally to make it harder to figure out - as is true in the written form of English .
For those of us who learned at a young age to scan a word, filter-out the unecessary letters, or rearrange letters mentally so that a particular word arouses a memory of the intended pronunciation or meaning, this handicap has become invisible as we grow older. We learned to read at an early age. Now it's "second nature" and we don't understand what's so hard about learning to read. Fact is that teaching English as a second lantuage is very difficult. If in doubt, try teaching just one adult person how to read.
The problem might be appreciated more if we literate people were dropped one by one (alone) into Russia or Portugal for six months, soon to be tested on how well we adopted that other language. In most cases other languages use their letters quite consistently, but even with that advantage, you might not pass your driver's license test in that new country for some time.
Learning to read and write in a new second language requires commitment and enormous mental effort - especially if you're an adult migrant worker or short-order cook working 15 hours per day, moving from location to location frequently - and unable to give time or thought to something as demanding as learning English. Thirty-six million non-reading Americans demonstrate this to be true in 2006..
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