What Can Be Done to Fix English Spelling Problems?

There’s long been a debate over difficulties with English spelling – since the 15th century, in fact, when printed documents were first widely produced in England. It has been so many centuries since English was first written down that today we’re more or less used to it, and just accept the eccentricities of English as part of the natural form of the language. However, there are people who continue to argue that English spelling is unnecessarily complicated, and that it causes problems in literacy, education, and even future career prospects on a personal and national level.

As we mentioned in this post, English is vastly more complicated than many other languages because of the sheer number of different ways that letters can be combined to form sounds (the term for these letter/sound combinations is graphemes). As an example, look at all of these different ways the sound “A” can be spelled:

vein
table
player
ballet
weight
straighten
greater

This causes serious confusion among non-English speakers, and some studies show that it adds an additional two to three years to the process of learning English, something that has a major impact on a child’s educational development.

There was an interesting on-line conversation recently at The Guardian between someone who advocates a complete revision of spelling rules for simplicity and consistency, saying, “It is our language and we can spell it how we want.” In response, another reader cautions against wholesale simplification, partly due to the fact that so many words use the same sounds and can only be distinguished by their spelling. For example, would you be able to immediately understand this sentence, or would you have to think twice about what it meant?

The cheesemaker needs to way the way and then set it aside out of the way.

If you realized that the cheesemaker needs to weigh the whey and set it out of the way, then you’ve got an excellent ability to get meaning from context. Unfortunately, many people would just be confused.

What’s your opinion? Should we keep English spelling as it is, and take pride in its sometimes baroque construction? Or should there be an effort to make English spelling a little simpler and easier to learn? If you’re of the second opinion, you might be interested in learning about The English Spelling Society here.