Native English speakers' language skills

Mi5 Mick   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 09:56 GMT
"As a matter of fact spelling as it has been handed down by our ancestors was also created by the speakers themselves, for practical purposes. I have also wondered why on earth are we obliged to write words in English as they were pronounced in the 15th century?"
"I think one should look at this spelling as another type of writing SHORTHAND and then you can feel more comfortable with it."

Well said! Or should I say, well written?!
Damian   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 12:05 GMT
im 4evr in txtspk wiv m8s in sms bt nt apprp8 in hre

I am forever using text messaging with friends but it is not appropriate in here
Jordi   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 13:46 GMT
I would like to make it clear that younger and younger children are chatting in the Internet. Many of my friends are primary, secondary and university teachers/professors and they seem to be quite worried since these "Internet spelling reforms" are seriously affecting their pupils' school work and projects. Internet is a very young device and although most of you are still very young (late teens and twenties) imagine children 10 years younger than yourselves. You haven't come to the Internet as late as I have but most of you certainly learnt to spell before learning to chat online. I might be a man of another age but I've been programmed to deeply respect my grammar.
Spelling, as we know it, is an evolution that allows us to read more ancient and more contemporary works and links us to our national past for several centuries at least. Perhaps that is what our cultures are all about. It would take a lot more of thought and I'll leave it up to you. I certainly wouldn't enjoy reading D. Quijote or Shakespeare in an Internet spelling fashion, which would have to be unified in the first place to make it useful for us all.
Sanja   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 14:47 GMT
I wasn't really referring to the "shortcuts" and abbreviations in chat rooms or SMS messages; I'm sure it happens in all languages and it's not that bad if you write that way only when you're in a hurry and otherwise you know how to spell properly. I was actually referring to the real spelling and grammar mistakes, when the user doesn't even know the right form. In my experience, even a lot of official web pages in English are full of spelling and grammar mistakes and (as I already said) a lot of educated people who should know better consider themselves lousy spellers.
Now, as for French, I don't speak that language so I can't say anything about it, but a friend of mine who speaks good French and communicates with the French people very often, says that French people make much less mistakes in their own language than the English people. They may abbreviate things when they write quickly, but if they know the correct spelling that's OK. However, bad spelling seems to be a really big problem among native English speakers, which I can say from my own experience with those people. And I can't say if that friend of mine was right about the French people, because I can't confirm it with my own experience (but French spelling does seem harder than English to me).
Sanja   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 15:57 GMT
I just found an interesting study on the Internet, so I will copy and paste the most important things. It was done in a British university by Dr Bernard Lamb, who compared the local students' and the foreign students' spelling, and here are the results.
Undergraduates can't spell

As the information in the following table shows, many English native speakers seem to be in more need of spell checkers than their non-native counterparts. The data comes from The Times Higher Education Supplement (Oct.2, 1998).

The frequency of spelling errors and word confusions
for UK and overseas students
(by Dr Bernard Lamb)

------------- -------------------

Word Percent wrong Sample Percent wrong Sample

complementary 27% 45 0% 11
effect 82% 11 67% 3
independent 39% 31 50% 8
its (possessive
pronoun) 78% 9 25% 4
miniature 43% 53 29% 14
occurrence 79% 28 75% 4
occurred 81% 37 55% 11
separate 53% 36 0% 6
drosophila 17% 53 8% 13
melanogaster 9% 33 14% 7
Hardy-Weinberg 32% 53 13% 15
lysine 31% 17 50% 2
Mendel's 79% 42 17% 6
saccharomyces 5% 55 14% 14
Total 40% 503 24% 147

Judged by nationality, as in the passport, about one quarter of the students were from overseas: including them in this survey was expected to increase the average spelling standards. My previous comparison of overseas and UK students showed that overseas students were significantly better at spelling ordinary English words, but were little better at scientific words.
The results in Table 1 show error frequencies for different words ranging from 5% to 82% for British students, with five out of 14 words being wrong 78% of the time, or more. The error frequencies for different words ranged from 0% to 75% for overseas students, with none in the 78% or more category.
Table 1 shows that the overseas students were significantly better than British students at spelling its, separate and Mendel's, and had an overall error level of 24%, which was significantly less than the 40% error level for British students, confirming my earlier findings.
On the 14 selected words, of the 78 British students, 12% made no errors, 65% made 1 to 3 errors, 18% made 4 to 6 errors, and 4% made 7 to 9 errors. Of 19 overseas students, 42% made no errors, 37% made 1 to 3 errors, 7% made 4 to 5 errors, and none made more than 5 errors.
With such high error frequencies, e.g. 78-82% in the accurate selected word data (Table 1), and such a wide range of mistakes, it is clear that even good undergraduates at a prestigious college have generally poor standards of spelling. They have had English lessons in primary and secondary schools, and have produced many items of returned written work in many subjects, including English. All teachers, if they are doing their job properly, should correct spelling errors in general and technical words, but many students tell me that their errors have generally not been corrected, so that they do not realise that they are errors. Many students also say that they have not been taught grammar, including punctuation, so do not understand apostrophes.
English language education in Britain must generally be poor because the overseas students, whose first language is often not English, were so much better at spelling than the equally intelligent British native-speakers of English. The overseas students have generally had more grammar teaching, more correction of errors, and more emphasis on correctness than have the British students, which suggests easy ways of improving British standards.
The worst spellers' nationalities (with the number of different errors by that student in brackets) were in first year: UK (31 errors by that student), UK (24), Israel (24), Japan (21), UK (19) and Yugoslavia (17). In third year, the worst spellers were from UK (28 errors), Sri Lanka (27), Singapore (19), UK (15) and Yugoslavia (14). Even some of the strangest errors were made by students of British nationality and ancestry.
Staff are also often poor at spelling, sometimes setting students a bad example with handouts containing a range of errors. I have to make a lot of corrections to staff submissions for departmental publications.
The teaching in schools of rules of spelling and of the need for accuracy, and the application by students of a few simple rules of spelling, can greatly improve standards. I used to be poor at spelling, but severe criticism by a Sri Lankan research student made me learn some rules and use a dictionary more, resulting in a very useful improvement.
Sanja   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 16:01 GMT
Oops, sorry, this table didn't come out right, but I hope you can see the percentages were much lower for the foreign students and they made much fewer mistakes.
Easterner   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 18:08 GMT

I think you are right at this point. For my part, I was certainly referring to people who know the difference between normal spelling and chatroom "shorthand" (being a thirty-something I have also been less affected by the models set by SMS messages and chatrooms). And I wasn't aware that the situation was so bad for younger children. I seem to be more tolerant about "alternative spelling" than you are, but now I should perhaps think twice about it, with regard to the bad model it sets for younger children.


I think that the issue at the core of bad spelling is that English being a language with a peculiar spelling (I would say "lax" spelling rules with a lot of ecxceptions), a lot more attention should be given to correcting spelling errors. I had a colleague who taught American children for a while and reported that they mostly had no clue about correct spelling. Maybe non-native English speakers learn to respect their own language more and therefore they have a different attitude to English spelling as well. As a matter of fact modern English spelling was created on the basis of preferring certain forms traditionally used by some eminent people over other forms, therefore there is not much "logic" behind it. The case being such, teachers should take more care to enforce respect for those spelling rules based mostly on tradition.

Another thing: the fact that English is spoken all over the world may lead many people to think that they may write as they like, you will understand them anyway, whereas you have to work really hard to learn correct grammar and spelling to be taken seriously. As I said earlier, the remedy for this should be to make learning a foreign language (preferably a difficult one) obligatory to all English-speaking students. Until that becomes the rule (which unfortunately I doubt much), you can set a good example by following high norms with regard to spelling and grammar yourself. Maybe it will make some people think twice if they see that a non-native is better at spelling their own language than themselves.
Easterner   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 19:48 GMT
I have a feeling that the problems of English speakers with spelling stem partly from the arbitrariness of the spelling itself. Some thoughts on this and information on attempts at spelling reform can be found at:
Ovaltiney   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 02:22 GMT
I've heard from my parents that many of the abbreviated web spellings came from the telex era, when each telex was charged on the number of letters typed or something like that.
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 06:02 GMT

I've been using the Internet for almost 10 years; so I'll be the first to admit it had no place in my early schooling or acquisition of spelling skills. (not that I ever paid much attention in English classes anyway) I never actually thought of the Internet as being a harmful thing for language until you brought it up. I always considered it as a positive thing to encourage kiddies to read and write (or type) because I felt this area was the most neglected, at least in my experience. I remember how a good portion of fellow students had gone through school, (up to and including high school) without ever having read a novel and "just getting by". My philosophy would be: any reading and writing is good; the more the better.

My nephews know "crazy" English on Blog sites from proper English used on professional and commerical web sites. I actually think the use of "crazy" English in their instant messages is creative and the discriminatory processes involved in identifying these differences in web sites, enforce the correct spellings they learn at school and from books. They are good "readers" though.
Sanja   Friday, August 13, 2004, 14:06 GMT
I agree with Easterner completely. Unfortunately, native English speakers don't seem to care much even if they see that non-natives spell their language better. Even when I correct them or say something about this spelling problem in English speaking countries, they just say: "Oh, who cares about that, spelling doesn't matter" etc. and they keep repeating the same mistakes. So I guess it's all about their attitude and the way they were taught to approach this problem since their early childhood. Many of them don't consider spelling so important because they weren't taught to pay much attention to this while they were growing up. I really don't understand how so many people can finish school without learning the difference between "to/too", "there/their/they're" etc. when it is their native language.
CG   Monday, August 16, 2004, 14:41 GMT
You know what annoys me about many of my fellow 'native English speakers'? Their apparent inability to tell the difference between an 'a' and an 'o' in certain words, such as 'bald'. My best friend pronounces this in an identical way to the way she pronounces 'bold'. I could scream, I really could. She also scalds young children for being naughty and scolds herself with hot water. Yes. Mmm-hmm.
Vernita   Monday, August 16, 2004, 15:44 GMT
Sanja, you are getting on my very last nerve. Girl, you better stop whining about how other people spell or else I'm gonna go over there and slap you upside the head!
Juan   Monday, August 16, 2004, 23:03 GMT
nic wrote:
<<I think it began with the "sms" (messages you send by phones, i don't like it and it's sometimes difficult to understand, you need to reread it and you feel like if you were speaking to a "debile". Luckily it's not all the people who write like that. Most of them are young.>>

Off-topic but would native speakers say:

1. An SMS ( I would)
2. A SMS ( I wouldn't)

I think I've seen, I can't recollect exactly where, "a SMS" written in a document and it didn't feel right to me. I know that words that begin with an "S" (i.e. "a sport") don't have a vowel before them but the letter "S" by itself does!
Juan   Monday, August 16, 2004, 23:11 GMT
CG wrote:
<<You know what annoys me about many of my fellow 'native English speakers'? Their apparent inability to tell the difference between an 'a' and an 'o' in certain words, such as 'bald'. My best friend pronounces this in an identical way to the way she pronounces 'bold'. I could scream, I really could. She also scalds young children for being naughty and scolds herself with hot water. Yes. Mmm-hmm.>>

I have the same issue as well. For me, some of English vowels are almost indistinct from each other so much so, that I often confuse them! It's only now that I'm starting to come to the realisation of the ubiquitous nature of the "schwa" vowel whereas previously I was under the wrong impression that is was very rarely used. How wrong I was! It is the most prevalent vowel in the English system! It's everywhere, it's present almost in every single word, often more than once!