The problem with the English language is basically this: close to half of the population in English-speaking countries has a lot of trouble grokking the weird old English spelling system in all its multifaceted glory. They go under the unkind label of “functionally illiterate.” Most people aren't even aware that they have a problem, beyond a strange sense of unease, and have no idea what the source of it might be. The rest are in denial. Being a language nerd, I am perfectly aware of what the source of the problem is, and we will get to it in a moment. The obvious symptoms of this problem are, basically, three:
1. Most people stumble through life afraid to speak any of the words that they only know from their reading, fearful that they will make fools of themselves by mispronouncing them in public.
2. Most people stumble through life afraid to write down words which they know perfectly well from hearing them repeatedly in context, but which they haven't encountered in their reading, for fear of misspelling them.
3. A small minority of people is at ease with both written and spoken English, but, having had to spend a large part of their lives being indoctrinated inside educational institutions, these people lack the ability to think independently, and simply recycle their acquired linguistic clichés while watching helplessly as the surrounding culture becomes ever more primitive, vulgar and banal.
And here is the cause of all this confusion: English doesn't sound the way it's written, and it isn't written the way it sounds, making written English just too damned difficult for most people. Yes, there are lots patterns, and they apply to quite a lot of the words, but since it is often hard to tell which pattern applies to which word the only way to learn written English is to memorize both the sound and the spelling of each word, separately. And while the ability to speak is innate, and rests on the ability to easily remember the sound of words, as strings of syllables, consisting of phonemes, the ability to remember the spellings of words has nothing to do with language per se and is more akin to being able to memorize long, arbitrary strings of digits—a savant-type ability that many perfectly normal people happen to lack.
Add to that the annoying feature of English spelling to sometimes spell the same word differently depending on its context (there are only some 2000 such nuisance words, but the damage this causes is disproportionate to the relatively small number of cases). Take the word that sounds like “tu.” It is spelled in three different ways: “to,” “too,” and “two.” You might think that this helps distinguish meanings, but it doesn't, because “to” stands for two completely different things: a preposition “to you” and an infinitive marker “to go.” Likewise, “too” stands for two completely different things: in excess, as in “too much,” and likewise, as in “me too.” If such distinctions were important, there would have to be two more spellings of “tu”: perhaps “tew” and “tue”? But in fact such distinctions do not exist in the living, spoken language, but only in the crufty, outdated English spelling.
In general, without piling on such artificial complications, reading is by no means a savant-type skill, and researchers in the field of psycholinguistics have experimentally determined the two factors that are key to learning how to read quickly and easily. The first factor is called phonological awareness: the ability to recognize and reproduce the individual sounds that make up a language. For instance, the “er” in the word “ermine” is a vowel—same one as “ur” in “fur” and “ir” in “fir”. The “g” in “beige” is the same consonant sound as the “s” in “Asia” and “z” in “azure.” Such things are immediately obvious to someone who has phonological awareness. The fact that the same sound can be written using different letters is at best an annoyance.
The second key factor to being able to learn how to read quickly and easily is called the alphabetic principle. The vast majority of written languages in the world use an alphabet, which evolved from just one basic insight: you can take a picture of a thing, and make it stand for just its initial sound. Then you can endlessly reuse a small set of pictures, which is easy to learn, and string them together to make arbitrary words and sentences. So, Ancient Egyptians took a stylized picture of a bull, “alp,” and used it for the sound “ah.” As it got passed along through the ages, it morphed from a stylized picture to an abstract symbol, which lost its original meaning and was given arbitrary names such as the Greek “alpha” or the Canadian “eh.”
This historical process of starting with a picture to represent a speech sound to eventually arrive at an abstract symbol is just a bit of bootstrapping; you can just as easily start with a set of abstract symbols, and many creators of alphabets (quite a few alphabets were created by just one person) did just that. But the principle of each one is that one symbol represents one speech sound, and vice versa. This is the alphabetic principle. Languages that follow the alphabetic principle are easy to learn to read: all you have to do is make the sound that corresponds to each symbol, form the sounds into syllables, the syllables into words, and the words into phrases in a process that is intuitive and automatic.
The hilarious thing about English is that it is almost as if someone set out to create a writing system designed to thwart one's ability to gain phonological awareness or to use the alphabetic principle. Children are taught that “A is for apple” even though it is perfectly obvious that: “A is for acorn.” “Æ is for æpple” would have made more sense, but then the Dutch printers who were the first to typeset English text (because the English were a bit backward at the time) were stingy about enlarging their assortment of Latin characters. (On the other hand, they were paid by the letter, and so they doubled as many consonants as they could get away with.)
If a primary school teacher happens to be savvy about “phonics,” the children are taught that the letter “C” stands for either “kuh” or “suh”—failing to mention that it also stands for “shuh” (acacia) or “chuh” (cappuccino) or nothing at all (Leicester)... unlike, say the letter “S,” which also stands for “suh,” and “zuh,” as well as “shuh” (sure) and “zhuh” (Asia)... unlike, again, the letter “T” which often stands for “tuh,” but also “shuh” (nation), “chuh” (nature) or nothing at all (castle). Just these three letters give you a network diagram that looks like this:
Now, it is still possible to learn to read by brute force—without phonological awareness or the alphabetic principle—by memorizing each written word as if it were a sort of poor man's Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic (composed of an abbreviated set of Latin characters) and memorizing how each word sounds on top of that. And that, unfortunately, is what most people end up doing. Such exercises in rote memorization are only possible when the mind is young and malleable, and at a certain point before too long the learning process comes to a halt. And so we have literate adults—literate by virtue of the fact that over many years of effort they have succeeded in memorizing both the spellings and the sounds of some reasonably large number of words. But this doesn't mean that they have ever achieved phonological awareness, or have even heard of the alphabetic principle.
Having recognized the problem, I went ahead and came up with a solution. My idea is to give parents a tool that allows them to quickly make their kids able to read a version of written English that obeys the alphabetic principle and is designed to impart phonological awareness, so that their kids can then go on learning largely on their own. This is what I mean by “unschooling”: eliminating the need for kids to go through eight years of regimented instruction just to gain a limited ability to read their native language. I want English to behave like many other, well-behaved languages, where teaching kids to read basically means teaching them the alphabet.
Since I wanted this tool to be useful to the largest possible audience, I did some research into what visual, graphic characteristics are likely to pose the least problem for dyslexics, the visually impaired and those with limited manual dexterity. Reusing the Latin alphabet was out of the question, because that would only cause confusion. After some experimentation I came up with a minimal set of symbols:
And I gave the whole thing a catchy name: Unspell.
My first attempt to unleash Unspell upon an unsuspecting world consisted of a little wallet card, which contains all that anyone needs to memorize in order to start reading “unspelled” English:
To my amazement, this was all the priming needed for a few families to teach Unspell to their kids, including some dyslexic kids on whom the teachers had given up, and who had remained virtually unschooled. Pretty soon one of these dyslexic kids was using Unspell to write birthday cards to his parents, to everyone's joy unconfined.
My second gambit involved offering to the world a lavishly illustrated booklet that taught Unspell in twelve short lessons and easy exercises using pictures of animals:
The lessons look like this:
...and the exercises like this:
I have already observed that kids learn Unspell much faster than the adults. It seems that the ability to read spelled English can be a hindrance to learning Unspell. My guess is that it has to do with the two missing ingredients: phonological awareness and knowledge of the alphabetic principles. The kids quite naturally accept the fact that each letter makes a specific sound and then merrily chew their way through arbitrary text sounding out each letter. The adults, on the other hand, only know how to do one thing: sound out entire words—from the set they have memorized in their youth—by looking up how they sound in memory. In order to become proficient in Unspell, they have to unlearn the trick of looking up whole words in memory and learn the new trick of sounding out phonemes.
And it turns out that few of them are willing to do so. A few parents might consider learning something new for the sake of teaching it to their kids, but most would rather not. Some good enough sports to suffer the indignity of having their own kids race ahead of them, but many are not. And if that's how it is with the parents, the situation with the grandparents is often even worse: not only are most of them unwilling to entertain the notion that there is a better way to teach kids to read English (after all, it was good enough for them!) but they no longer have the flexibility of mind to acquire radically new skills even if they tried. They just want to read to their grandkids.
This may seem like an insurmountable problem, but in practice it is very simple: every single word in an unspelled piece of text is subtitled in spelled English; like this:
And so the grandparents can read along in the spelled version, the grandkids can follow along in the unspelled version, and everyone is happy.
Think of Unspell as the training wheels on a bicycle. Training wheels are very useful: they let a kid get from point A to point B without falling down. But adults don't go bolting training wheels onto their own bicycles in order to teach kids how to ride.
In the case of spelled English the training wheel metaphor breaks down because here the need for training wheels is terrain-dependent: once you learn a given text (stretch of road) you may decide to take the training wheels off, only to wipe out on the very next stretch when you hit a stretch of visually unfamiliar words. And so the need for Unspell never goes away completely; it will still be needed for rare words, words of foreign origin, place names, personal names and other oddities that abound in English text.
But the need for adults to become proficient in Unspell in order to teach it can be dispensed with quite easily. Consider it done.
The most recently updated versions of Unspeller have been updated so that every single piece of unspelled text is fully subtitled in spelled English. This should make it possible for English-speaking adults with scarcely a 4th grade education to teach Unspell to children—without having to become proficient at reading it themselves—just like the many swimming coaches who lack the ability to float and who demonstrate the breast stroke and the crawl with one foot on the bottom of the swimming pool. Don't worry, all that matters is that the kids learn to swim—or to read.