It’s no secret that English spelling is complex. What’s often forgotten is that it takes children a long time to master the skill, and let’s not kid ourselves: plenty of adults still grapple with it too (to? two?). In light of these reasons, some people are advocating for a reform of the system, whether through a complete overhaul or more targeted changes. So is there any weight to their (there? they’re?) argument?
What’s so weird about English spelling? Well to start with, it has 205 ways to spell just 44 sounds. Then it has the quirk of both representing the same sounds with different letters (neighbor, way, whey) and of representing different sounds with the same letters (cough, through, furlough, bough). Then there are homophones—words that sound the same but have different spellings—like weight and wait and heteronyms—words that sound different but have the same spelling—like read. In fact, by one analysis, of the 7,000 most common English words, 60 percent of them have one or more unpredictably used letter.
This system requires abilities that most kids don’t develop until middle or late elementary school. There’s no systematic way to become literate in English; it entails lots of memorization. Plus, with a system that’s hard to master, not everyone is able to conquer spelling and achieve a high literacy level.
And in case you’re thinking all languages are like this: they’re not. Languages like Finnish or Korean, and to a lesser extent Spanish, have very regular spelling systems that children are able to pick up quickly. According to one study, children in most European countries needed just a year or less to master the fundamentals of reading and writing; by contrast, English-speaking children needed about three years. Furthermore, English-speaking children generally need at least 10 years to reach moderate proficiency in spelling.
So, what do you think? Is the English spelling system in need of reform? Or is it fine just the way it is?
For more information on this topic, check out this great piece from The Atlantic.