Thursday, October 02, 2014

An important announcement

[Update: the new book is now in its second printing, with a few typos fixed.]

As some of you may have noticed, I didn't crank out my usual weekly essay this week. I didn't even edit and run a guest post. This is not, I assure you, due to a shortage of interesting topics. I could have written on any of the following ones:

• The ways in which US+EU policy toward Russia is analogous to autoerotic asphyxiation. It's not about what works; it's about what titillates the officials. All that borderline-psychotic posturing, meddling, toothless sanctioning and fake military escalation feels oh so good to them! Until it doesn't. As Henry Kissinger recently put it, “The Russians have already won beyond their wildest dreams,” and “It's very late in the game.” Cue image of NATO's Andras Fogh Rasmussen hanging by his neck, wearing nothing but a pink tutu.

• How ISIS/ISIL/IS/Islamic Caliphate are a bunch of postmodern hipsters redefining what it means to be a “state.” Their version of “state” has nothing to do with public welfare; it's all about the hip new style with which you (a member of a global human population in extreme overshoot) get dispatched to hell. This is what post-peak-oil governance may look like.

• About the US airship of state, which has to busily shuttle about around $8 Trillion of debt every year. It's all very short-term, to keep interest rates low enough to be (temporarily) affordable, and much of it has to be rolled over every year. Just a bit of financial turbulence (which is coming right up) could easily cause its wings to shear off, and after that US Treasury checks start bouncing, directly affecting half of the country's households, and indirectly affecting much of the rest.

• How Hong Kong's Occupy Central protests are another attempt at an orange revolution by the US State Dept. and Washington NGOs. The movement's leaders have been groomed, funded and promised a life of ease in the US if they do their bidding. The purpose is obvious: currently, Hong Kong's officials are vetted by Beijing. But once Hong Kong is transformed into a bastion of “freedom and democracy,” they will be appointed by the US State Dept., just like in Ukraine, with a bit of help from some giant bags of fake money, to make sure the people “vote” the right way. Something tells me Beijing won't stand for any of this. But what the Americans always do when they don't get their way immediately is turn the place into a battleground. Let's see if Hong Kong follows the pattern spelled out by Putin: “ matter what the American touch, what they get is either Libya or Iraq.”

• How prepared to contain the Ebola epidemic is a country where millions of people refuse health care because they can't afford it—either because they have no health insurance or because the health insurance they can afford requires a co-payment that is beyond their ability to pay? These people will only stumble into the emergency room once they are vomiting blood while leaving a trail of bloody diarrhea, infecting everyone who steps in it. Will those in charge of this flawed system fix it by announcing that all emergency room visits are henceforth free? Are you kidding? Of course not!

But I didn't write on any of these topics, because this week there is a far more important topic—for me at least, and I hope for you too, if you want to do something beyond getting your fill of collapse porn every week and actually do your bit to make the world a better place. I know I do!

You see, as an author who writes in English, I have encountered a very general problem: too few people in the English-speaking world are capable of reading anything non-trivial (narrative drivel by popular authors doesn't count) and those few who can often suffer from a debilitating uniformity of thought caused by too many years of schooling. Much of the problem stems from the illogical and fractured English orthography—probably the worst in the world—and the ridiculous amount of time and effort it takes to learn it. But instead of just complaining about this problem, I decided to go ahead and try to fix it.

To this end, I have just published another book. Unlike all of my previous books, which were black and white, chock-full of text, and required of their readers a rather high level of intellectual development, this one is written for children—and not even particularly studious or clever ones. It is colorful, has rather few words in it, and is full of cute pictures of animals. The words that are there are in large print and quite short and simple—third grade simple.

This book teaches one to read English—not the horrific standard orthography, but a simplified, largely phonetic form of English called Unspelled English, which I have spent the last two years inventing and perfecting. It achieves its effect in 12 short lessons, each followed by a simple fill-in-the-blanks exercise. After going through the lessons and the exercises, the student becomes able to read any text (provided it's been unspelled). The obvious next step is to provide a selection of unspelled titles. At the top of the list are a few children's favorites: The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. That's what I'll be working on next. The eventual plan is for Unspell-On-Demand, a web app that delivers unspelled content upon request.

In the meantime, I need you to do something—something much more important than reading blog posts about the ways in which US+EU policy toward Russia is analogous to autoerotic asphyxiation.

I am making it available at cost—the price is just the cost of printing it. Learn it, try teaching it to kids, and—very important—be sure to let me know how it goes. Before I can hope to successfully promote Unspell, I need to accumulate a reasonably large number of positive testimonials. My experience so far is that kids love it and eat it right up. It quickly becomes unclear who is teaching whom, making for a super-fun family activity. Many kids—especially those who struggle with learning to read—get a huge confidence boost.

Here are a few pointers on teaching Unspell:

1. Do not refer to the names of English letters. There is no A-B-C; there are just the sounds of the English language. Do not pretend that Unspell consists of “letters” and do not attempt to give them names. Unspell consists of sounds: graphical shapes that represent vowels and consonants. The vowels are sung. Get the kids to sing them along with you. The consonants are noises: hisses, clicks, buzzes, pops, growls and hums. Do not attempt to name them; instead, just get the kids to hiss, click, buzz, pop, growl and hum them along with you. Unspell may look like an abstract set of symbols, but it embodies a simplified model of human articulatory anatomy: lips, tongue and throat—held tight or loose, closed or open. It is less like music notation and more like tabulature or a piano roll for the human mouth.

2. When one first learns to read, the natural progression is to read one sound, then one syllable, then one word at a time. This is not how it works with spelled English, which requires an entire word to be scanned as a unit before its sound can be retrieved from memory (if that memory exists). But this is how it works with unspelled English, so do not discourage or break this progression. There is no “look and say” and no “phonics”; instead, you drag your finger along the word, making each sound as you come to it. The initial goal is to convert shapes to sounds at a constant, slow rate. Speed, correct diction, phrasing and intonation all come automatically with practice.

3. Although all the text in the book is subtitled in spelled English, that's for your benefit, to help you bootstrap yourself into reading Unspell. Draw the kids' attention away from spelled English and toward unspelled English (this usually isn't hard). But the adults tend to be a bit slower on the uptake than the kids, and often need that bit of extra help in order to keep up. As we age, we tend to become all about crystallized skills, and acquiring new ones becomes harder and takes longer, while little kids run circles around us. So be it; don't get discouraged, put in a bit of extra effort, and you'll be fine.

4. The book captures standard North American English used throughout academia and broadcast journalism. Avoid regional accents when trying to teach it. Your kid can always learn to fake a drawl or a twang once she's been elected to office. As a positive side-effect, Unspell can provide you with an easy way to lose your accent, be it native or foreign. Unspell uses a generally dialect-neutral form of English, but there are enough differences between US and UK English to warrant a UK edition of this book, which is in the works.

This is probably the full extent of teacher training that's needed. Having read these 4 points, you may now consider yourself a qualified English reading instructor.

Here is what it says on the book's back cover:
UNSPELL offers a phased approach to learning to read English. During the first phase, the student learns a simple, largely phonetic rendition of spoken English—sufficiently simple to be absorbed by even the youngest learners, and designed to work around dyslexia and other learning impediments. It makes learning to read English almost as automatic and effortless as learning to speak it.

UNSPELL can provide the base level of literacy that should be the birthright of every English-speaking person, regardless of ability, motivation, access to education, or any number of mental or physical handicaps.

The first phase requires very little formal instruction beyond what is contained in this book. There is even less need for carefully graded texts, since the student is immediately able to pronounce any arbitrary text with good diction. Learning to read is de-emphasized in favor of actually reading, and achieving literacy becomes a largely self-directed and self-motivated activity.

During the second phase, the student, already having breezed through a stack of age-appropriate popular titles, is introduced to conventional English orthography. This should begin only when the student is developmentally ready—typically between the ages of eight and ten—to handle the flood of idiosyncratic and obsolete spellings. For this formidable task, UNSPELL provides a solid foundation: the student has already internalized the alphabetic principle of direct grapheme-phoneme correspondence (which English orthography largely ignores) and can approach English spelling from the starting point of a literate person who is already fluent in English.

English orthography is broken, but the student need not be broken by it. Think of written English as a dead language—or rather, a mix of several dead languages: Norman French, Vulgate Latin, a tiny bit of Greek and, last but not least, Middle English. A basic introduction to the their contributions to today's written English can go a long way toward reducing the student's inevitable stress and confusion. But this will be the subject of another book—to be written in UNSPELL, of course.

Home-schoolers, special education teachers and adult literacy teachers are all encouraged to give UNSPELL careful consideration.


Black Panther said...

They have been teaching something similar in NZ schools for years now. If I remember they call it phonetics.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Great idea! Dmitry, I've been thinking for some time that I'd like to order a complete set of your books. Where can I find a list? (I have some titles already) What's the best way make sure that you personally get maximum profit from this block purchase? My starting currency is sterling. What will be the best way to get dollars - or whatever other currency you prefer - to you?

Claire said...

Could you please clarify the reference to accent and the differences in US & UK versions?
I read about this idea in one of your books. I discounted it because there are so many differences in pronunciation and inflection across the English speaking world. Since the advent of broadcasting [radio and television] this has decreased however as recently as 2011 I was in Australia struggling to decipher what was being said in our 'common' language.

Dmitry Orlov said...


All the books are listed in the right column of the blog. One is still only available on Kindle. I need to fix that sometime.

Dmitry Orlov said...


There are lots of differences in how phonemes sound, but there are very few differences in what phonemes there are.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Um... not quite.

BrandFeelsGood said...

Laughed so hard my insides hurt.

Without reading and writing we'd have less large scale wars? Less propaganda? Just a thought...

Unspell looks awesome.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Sorry about your insides, but glad for your sense of humor.

I believe wholesale slaughter of enemy warriors and civilians alike predates any attempts at universal literacy by several millenia.

Unspell is awesome.

Unknown said...

That's really cool, I of course as an American never knew how f*cked up English is until I learned Spanish, or I should say until one of my high school's football coaches pretended to teach me Spanish, which I learned much more of working in restaurants and treating the Latino cooks and dishwashers like human beings, much to their shock I might add, and actually learning to SPEAK the language, which I find beautiful. But still, learning the basic grammar, it was like, "you mean, all the letters always sound the same, and all the words follow the same simple rules, like, ALL the time? Holy crap. That makes sense!" I still can't roll my Rs though, unfortunately. I do give my teacher-coach some credit, though. He inadvertently gave me my nickname which stayed with me for life, is part of my whole persona I guess you would say. I was pretty lucky I suppose, I had a lot of really good teachers throughout my life. I fell awful for kids these days, in Washington state where I'm at now it's utterly horrendous, the teachers and every other thing. Anyways, I'm not a very frequent reader here but I'm very impressed you did this, I'll have to get that book and try out out in my nephews and /or my friends' kids. If they let me.

And then there's the description of our US policy makers. They are freaks, and they are jerkoffs, so that's maybe the most apropos way to describe what they do. Hilarious.

Mister Roboto said...

If English orthography is broken, then Irish Gaelic orthography is downright perverse. The Irish nationalists of the previous century tried to bring back the almost-dead language when Ireland became independent from the UK, but that just didn't happen on account of how hard to learn the language is. Perhaps Irish Gaelic would have become the official language of Ireland had someone figured out how to unspell the original tongue of the Irish.

Mister Roboto said...

I'm sorry, I was a bit tired last night and phrased my comment in a clumsy manner. Irish Gaelic actually is the official language of the Republic of Ireland. Where the Irish nationalists failed was in making Irish Gaelic (which is a beautiful, musical, highly literate language, by the way) the lingua franca of the newly independent republic.

But there is the consolation that Irish authors and poets have managed to contribute pretty richly to their craft using the English language.

Winfried said...

Hi Dmitry,
just bought two, should make a nice present for some people even here in Austria.
I confess that I did not devote the time (yet) to learn the glyphs, but I find the whole concept absolutely fascinating.
Please keep up your writing, such an important voice in these times. Always enjoy your sailing yarns.
Best to you and family
Freiherr von Gutleben
Lower Austria

Anonymous said...

I ordered you book. Can we get back to doom porn?

mm said...

Congratulations on your book Dmitry. Getting a couple for my niece and nephew, and a teacher I know who works with kids with disabilities.


Here's your doom fix. Awhile ago I remember Dmitry predicting an ice age from volcanic eruptions. Though I doubt he was predicting this:

Unknown said...

When you get back to the geopolitical calculus: Did Strelkov miscalculate in Donbass?

Anonymous said...

Can we get a softcopy version for less please?

Spanish fly said...

Hummmm..A very important Off Topic:

1st Ebola contagion in Europe: spanish nurse.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Just noticed that you have an England-English version on the stocks. (I take it you won't be doing versions of the several different-again kinds of English spoken by the other nations of The Isles just yet?)

So maybe I'll wait for that. Filling in the rest of my Orlov collection promptly, though.

Dmitry Orlov said...

The differences between the UK and the US versions of Unspell come down to just two things: the alternation between the vowels in words such as bath, class, etc., and the handful of words that are pronounced differently: garage, schedule, etc. Unspell doesn't care whether you pronounce or swallow the R, or most other superficial differences. It is not intended for parroting regional dialects.

onething said...

Dmitry, I am ordering the book because I love you and I read so much stuff for free from you, and I am not even disagreeing that something needs to be done with the awful English spelling, but it isn't quite true that English words have to be memorized whole. That was called the look-say method, and from what I understand was a failure (of course). We DID sound out words in school. Sure, a quarter of the words are exceptions.

I've spent quite a bit of time studying Russian, and I love the alphabet, how it fits the language like a glove.

I have a couple of two-year-olds in my life, and this will be ready for them.

Esn said...

Dmitriy, if you ever decide to write that first essay, I will gladly read it and share it. Your words ("It's not about what works; it's about what titillates the officials") are exactly right and it's overdue for someone to say it. I've never seen it described in quite that way.

Dmitry Orlov said...

I'll see what can be done.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Phonics works better than look-say, but both run into a problem: the chairman of the English Spelling Society told me that fully 40% of English words is exceptional, in the sense of not conforming to any single, non-self-contradictory set of rules. It is not something that can be taught as a system.

Energyflow said...

I printed out the unspell thing some time ago. My kids are trilingual and a bit old for this unfortunately but perfect for learners.

Your short list of news with commentary is maybe a good idea when an essay topic is missing. So much going on nowadays and your humourous take on all these topics in short is appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Dammit it's Wed and I'm so bored that I'm listening to Chomsky.

Peter said...

I've an idea! Why don't you post your columns here in Unspell? I'm sure that will help.