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This House would simplify the English Language
This House would simplify the English Language
English is widely regarded to be one of the most difficult languages to master. Despite its widespread use, both English-speakers and people learning English as a foreign language have complained about how hard it is to spell English words correctly. Although English is not alone in its linguistic nuances and occasional variations on accepted rules, the development of the language has had perhaps the most diverse and varied influences from other languages, most significantly French, Latin and German. This conglomeration of very different influences is not, however, the main point for debate in this case, although it is one of the main reasons for the complexity of English. Where people generally have the most issue with English is in the fact that spelling very often does not dictate correct pronunciation - For example, "cough" is pronounced "coff", "women" is pronounced "wimmen" and "nation" is pronounced "nayshun". Rules of spelling are taught in schools, but there are many exceptions – “tomb”, “bomb” and “comb” do not rhyme with each other. Some words which are said the same way have different spellings for different meanings, like “to”, “two” and “too”, or “their” and “there”, so evidently there are many cases in which English seems to be illogical and unnecessarily difficult. Of course, there are generally clear explanations for all these difficulties, and taking into account the speed with which the language itself changes, this debate must focus on whether or not imposing a new set of phonetically-orientated rules would be preferable to the current system, or whether this would simply create a new set of problems.
|Points For||Points Against|
|Simplifying the language could improve child literacy.||English isn’t too complicated - if it was it wouldn’t have survived, so there is no need for change.|
|Making English easier would be especially beneficial to people learning English as a second language.||The logistical implications of making such changes are impossibly impractical.|
|Changing the language could have social benefits - it would remove a layer of class superiority which is presently judged by literacy.||There would be significant cultural consequences to consider, the English language has evolved over a very long time, and to change it just to make it ‘easier’ would in fact complicate matters in many cases.|
|Changing would not be difficult|
Remember to choose a winning argument!
Simplifying the language could improve child literacy.
A survey taken in 2003 which shows that English children take as much as three times longer to learn basics of the language than the European average. It seems that the main problem is the fact that there are illogical inconsistencies in spelling, pronunciation and meaning at a fundamental level in words that are essential in everyday use. Masha Bell suggests that “ the irregular spellings of common words like "to, you, your, very, many" are particularly noxious because they keep undermining the basic English spelling system and so make it harder for children to learn it”. If we wish to improve child literacy across the board, there would potentially be a great economic benefit in the future, as a higher standard of consistency would reduce the burden on the education system and provide a more literate workforce.
The language itself isn’t always to blame. It is often argued that too much emphasis is placed on the relationship between spelling and sounds, and that English can be taught more effectively using the ‘look and say’ method. If this was implemented more widely, so that children associated the word with what it represents rather than what it sounds like, then the teaching process would almost certainly accelerate. Languages such as Chinese and Japanese which are based on symbols rather than letters rely heavily on this method of teaching, and it is this difference that often makes learning their languages such a challenge for Europeans and Americans. The frequency with which words such as "to, you, your, very, many" are used has, according to Vivian Cook, moved them into the realm of signifiers (like “£” registering instantaneously as “pound”) rather than words that rely on sound. Because we use them so often, we are soon aware of the subtle differences and tend only to misspell them when not fully paying attention.
Making English easier would be especially beneficial to people learning English as a second language.
English is the third largest language in the world in terms of the total number of native speakers. When the people who speak English as a second language are taken into account, it becomes by far and away the biggest language in the world - a fact that could easily change if English isn’t made easier to learn for those who are not native speakers. Masha Bell once more suggests that “Foreign learners can never be sure how to pronounce an English word without hearing it first”, so in a period in which nations such as China and India are becoming more powerful economically than the likes of the USA and European nations, then changing to a more phonetic system would surely help maintain English as the main language of commerce.
The very fact that English has been so successful shows that it is not too complicated for people to learn as a second language. Although specific pronunciation may take longer to master in English than most other languages, this does not hinder people in becoming literate to an acceptable standard. If anything, making the language phonetic would make things much harder for non-English speakers. Other than context (something which is often difficult to grasp) there would be no way to tell the exact meaning of words like “your/you’re” and “there/their/they’re”.
Changing the language could have social benefits - it would remove a layer of class superiority which is presently judged by literacy.
Research by the National Literacy Trust found that “A key ingredient in determining future social class is language: the basic tool for thought, argument, reasoning and making sense of a confusing world”. If language is such a key part of what makes up the class system, and people in general believe in equal opportunities and the eventual dissolution of that class system, then surely making the language more accessible to those who do not receive as good an education is a step in the direction of a fairer society. Those from affluent backgrounds are likely to hear, speak and be taught many more words in their formative years - making the language easier to learn for those who do not have this advantage is surely a good thing.
That language is a key part in the intellectual development of children is not in question. At no point however, does the research suggest anything about the fundamental make-up of the language having an effect on the social outcome of the child. The solution to the problem is better teaching and better communication - changing the system to a phonetic one will not fix the fact that poorer children are generally exposed to fewer words and have less of an opportunity to learn in their formative years.Improve this
Changing would not be difficult
Changing the whole language is going to take a long time in order to make a complete change. Even if the all the English speaking nations agreed on a method of simplifying the language there would be millions who would need to unlearn some of what they were taught. The new simple form of English would be taught in schools so the next generation and subsequent generations would grow up knowing it.
There would be a significant divergence in how different people spell many English words. However this would not be a problem as there are already many instances where different generations, or different regions spell or speak the same language in different ways. Indeed standardisation of spelling only dates from the 18th Century when Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language. As such it should not pose a problem to have different the different formats of English operating alongside each other.
Changing to a 'simplified' english would really complicate everything as many people would continue using the more complex version and it would still be taught. Could we really expect parents who were taught one way not to pass that way on to their children. This change would take much longer than one generation and would create a mess while the change is taking place.Improve this
English isn’t too complicated - if it was it wouldn’t have survived, so there is no need for change.
The problems people face when learning English are more often than not idiomatic. Even those who campaign for the simplification of the language like Masha Bell admit this (she writes in phonetic English) - “Yes, as a language, English is exceptionally easy to lern. Compared with the six uther European languages which I hav studied (Lithuanian, Russian, German, French, Spanish and Italian), it has almost no grammatical difficulties whatsoever..the onely linguistic aspects I found tricky wer idiomatic expressions like "get off, back up, turn up". Languages develop and evolve naturally, and it is only through artificial intervention that any have become phonetic - such as the standardization of Finnish in the mid 20th century.
If other languages found it necessary to change because of complications and increasingly vague definitions then why not English? The English Spelling Society (tESS) argue that the problems with the language run far deeper than a few confusing idioms, showing that 55% of English words do not actually conform to the rules of the language. Just because English has managed to survive doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. tESS also suggests that there are significant economic impacts to the complications in the language, making a connection between education and crime: “Education is the proven best way to prevent re-offending. In countries where the literacy rates of prisoners are generally higher, improving their education while behind bars is also much easier. The poor literacy skills of many English-speaking offenders make this more difficult and repeated returns to jail more likely, with very high social and economic costs”. Changing the language to improve literacy could be beneficial, and surely even if there is no ‘need’ to do this, it is a positive thing nonetheless.
The logistical implications of making such changes are impossibly impractical.
Probably the strongest argument against the motion to change the English language is that the fundamental process of doing so would be utterly impossible. As we have seen, English is spoken or at least understood by more people than any other language. This begs the question, where would you begin teaching the new system? Any money that might be saved teaching students for a shorter time would be dwarfed by the resources required to “re-educate” the 2 billion people alive today that can already understand the language to some degree. Add to that the innumerable books (Google claims to have worked out that there have been just under 130M books written - of course not all in English), road signs and even labels on food packaging that would need to be changed, and the scale of the problem can perhaps be understood.
The language has been changed in the past, and even in more recent times languages have been standardized and altered to make them simpler. The scale of doing this for English would undoubtedly be massive, though the process wouldn’t have to happen quickly. With the advent of modern technology, we have seen English adapt and become phonetic all by itself in the form of “text speak”. The logistical difficulties could as such be made less of a problem by using these natural advances to implement the new phonetic system. The changes also wouldn’t have to be that drastic - English could be greatly simplified, as Ken Smith argues, by “putting the 20 or so of the most commonly mispelt words in the English language on the same footing as those other words that have a widely accepted variant spelling”
There would be significant cultural consequences to consider, the English language has evolved over a very long time, and to change it just to make it ‘easier’ would in fact complicate matters in many cases.
Words that carry cultural backgrounds often carry specific meanings which align with their seemingly odd spelling or pronunciation. The cultural background to words such as “February” are more than simply an inconvenience. They form an essential part of our cultural history that would be instantly erased were the language to be changed. If anything, these words are made more memorable because of their historical background - the fact that they are spelt in an unusual and seemingly illogical way can, if the teaching method is good enough, be used to help people remember both the word and its etymological background. Especially in the case of words with historical backgrounds it is surely important that they are preserved and taught, just as any other historical event or artefact should be preserved and learnt from. The very meanings of the words would also be altered if the spelling was changed - in an article in The Times, Libby Purves points out that “the prime purpose of language is to convey meaning: a lawyer’s tort is neither taut nor taught, nor a restaurateur’s torte”. Words do not conform to general rules often because they mean something different to a word which sounds the same.
Many people believe its lengthy and varied historical past is actually the language’s main problem. Perhaps more than any other language, English has taken influence from numerous foreign invasions, the rise of international trade with London at the heart of the world, all on top of the natural development of the native tongue. In the Times Higher Education Supplement, Ken Smith argues that these historical nuances in the language are unnecessary: “We spell the word "February" the way we do only because it is taken from the Latin word februa, the Roman festival of purification. Similarly, the "correct" spelling of the word "Wednesday" comes from the Old English Wodnes daeg, or Woden's day. But why should we still pay homage today to a pagan god or a Roman festival of purification?” This point is especially poignant when we consider that it is these irrelevant historical relationships which are making English so difficult for people to master.
BBC News Magazine, ‘How hard is it to learn Chinese?’, BBC News, 17 January 2006 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4617646.stm
Kemmer, Suzanne, ‘The History of English’, 17 March 2009, Rice University, http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Histengl/spelling.html
McGee, Matt, “How many books are there on Earth? Google knows”, 6 August 2010: http://searchengineland.com/how-many-books-are-there-google-knows-48244
Purves, Libby, “Proposturos! Words wud lose there meening”, The Times, 8 September 2008: http://www.wnd.com/2008/09/74772/
Smith, Ken, “Just spell it like it is”, The Times Higher Education Guide, 7 August 2008: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=403092&c=1
Toynbee, Polly, ‘We can break the vice of the great unmentionable’, The Guardian, 2 January 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2004/jan/02/society.schools
Bell, Masha, “Understanding English Spelling” Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie, 2004
Cook, Vivian, “Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary: Or Why Can't Anybody Spell”, Touchstone, 2005
Raven, Isobel, “The Future of Fonics: Spelling and Literacy” Trafford, 2006
Silverman, Stanford S, “Spelling for the 21st Century: The Case for Spelling Reform” Global Book, 2003
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