Native English speakers' language skills

Sanja   Sunday, August 08, 2004, 19:10 GMT
I have noticed that native English speakers in general have pretty bad spelling and grammar skills in their own language and that many foreigners tend to spell English words better than the natives. I'm interested to know if that is only English phenomenon or if other languages suffer from the same thing.
Ailian   Sunday, August 08, 2004, 19:35 GMT
If a native speaker of any language does not study proper spelling and grammar, then, yes, they would have such problems. For a linguistics class I once did a field research project on ciBemba, one of the languages of Zambia, and was given both articles and books written in the language and several interviews with native speakers (all three that I could find in my area ;). One, who was a teacher back in Zambia yet then studying at Harvard Divinity School (thus how I met him), once complained that many Zambians have terrible grammar and spelling (despite it being "so easy!" -- his words) in ciBemba because they simply do not learn it.

I've also heard many Chinese teachers complain that their students know how to write fewer characters than they did as children (an equivalent to poor spelling, I guess) because they rely too much on word processors.
mjd   Sunday, August 08, 2004, 20:28 GMT

As I said to you last time you brought this up (type your name into the archive), this phenomenon occurs in all languages and seems to have peaked on the Internet...chats, message boards, e-mail etc., in other words, our modern, fast-paced and cyber-influenced lifestyle. This is certainly not restricted to English. Check out chat rooms in other languages and you'll see similar "abbreviations" and trendy spellings.

As for your comments regarding non-native speakers and's rather easy to understand. When you're learning a language, you take your time making sure what you wrote is correct. Sometimes we tend to get lazy and careless in our native languages because we're not as focused on sounding/writing good and being understood.
Sanja   Monday, August 09, 2004, 14:24 GMT
Thanks for the answers. Unfortunately, English is the only foreign language I speak, so I can't check other languages' speakers and their spelling. And in my native language spelling system is completely phonetical, all the words are spelt the same way they're pronounced, so we don't have problems like that (even though less educated people do make some mistakes, of course). I understand that uneducated people in all countries make mistakes in their own languages, but in English a lot of rather educated people seem to be poor spellers. That's why I wondered about this phenomenon. But during all these years of talking to the people from all around the world, I came to the conclusion that people from non-English speaking countries usually tend to have better language skills in general, they know how to speak and write English and maybe even a few more languages, so I assumed they were pretty good at their own languages as well, and when I asked something about their native languages I would usually get a very exhaustive answer. On the other hand, I have asked a native English speaker something about English spelling or grammar so many times and they often said "I have no idea". And that wasn't limited only to the languages, I have noticed that non-English speakers usually have a better general knowledge as well, especially geography, history, culture etc. So I have a few theories which might explain that phenomenon:

1.) All English speaking countries tend to be a little bit "egocentric", they turn to themselves more than the rest of the world and don't really study other countries' geography, history, languages etc., because English is international language nowadays and those countries lead the world in many ways, so they just stick to their own country and don't really bother to learn about others. On the contrary, non-English speaking countries and their people are forced to learn English (and other languages too) as well as many other things about the world, because that's the only way they can communicate with the rest of this planet.

2.) I tend to think that the education system in the English speaking countries is getting worse than it used to be and it's probably worse than in Europe or Asia, so that could also be one of the reasons.

3.) English speaking countries use computers more than others (and longer), so they became dependent on spell-checkers and maybe they don't write and read as much as they used to.

4.) When you learn one or more foreign languages, that automatically helps you get better at your native language as well. Native English speakers usually don't learn foreign languages (for obvious reasons - everyone speaks English nowadays), so they don't become proficient enough in their own language either.

Those are just some of my theories and of course they don't have to be true. I hope I expressed myself well enough, even though my English is far from perfect. I will appreciate any kind of answer or opinion, it wasn't my intention to offend anyone, that was just my view of the problem. Thank you very much.
Easterner   Tuesday, August 10, 2004, 15:31 GMT

First of all, I think you use very good English.

I think there is much truth in your first and fourth theory (as for the other two, I don't have enough first-hand experience to judge whether they are correct). Some British contributors to this forum said that in Britain at least some people have been considering to abandon learning foreign languages altogether, which I think is alarming. You can certainly better appreciate your own language if you learn at least another one, and you are more open to the world, too.

I had some experience about this, because I grew up bilingual (Hungarian and Serbian), and from my eighth year I started learning English, so I virtually became trilingual (sort of). I can say that speaking another language certainly makes you more aware of your own language, for example if you have to find an equivalent of a word in your own language, that makes you more conscious. What I also suspect is that many English speakers learn less English grammar at school, so they are not much aware of grammatical structures. While as a non-native speaker, you simply have to cope with grammatical structures, even if the more advanced teaching methods are not so much grammar-based.

Finally, I do think that speaking a world language like English as a first language has its drawbacks. It makes you take it for granted that everybody speaks your language, so you lose the inclination to learn about other cultures, because the way of getting to know a culture mostly leads through being familiar with its language. So I think that in an English-speaking country, learning a foreign language should be made compulsory, but I'm afraid that things are going into the opposite direction (in Britain at any rate, this is so). I have just read that British students spend more time abroad than before, but mostly in English-speaking countries, not in Europe as they used to, because in this way they don't have to bother learning another language. So what I think for most of them it should be made into an obligatory part of their curriculum to spend at least a year at an European country and to study its language, too (although I know this is just wishful thinking). However, for me this forum is also a proof that there are still enough English-speaking people to turn the tide:-).
Mi5 Mick   Tuesday, August 10, 2004, 16:09 GMT
mjd is spot on. When learning a second language, you pay extra attention to finer detail, particularly with spelling in a language such as English that isn't phonetically well represented. You have to; you can't reflect the spoken language adequately as a native can in written form. eg. foreigners simply don't have the innate ability for the placement of a schwa in speech. "ya no wod I'm sayin'?"

I can assure you that the exact same thing happens in French chat rooms. The majority of users don't have the time/interest to write correctly or be caught up in linguistic challenges when they're busy socialising and doing their other business. Their focus is on rapid, efficient communication.
Easterner   Tuesday, August 10, 2004, 16:35 GMT

I have the same experience with both English and French chatrooms. While some may see this a corruption of spelling, I think it is an interesting phenomenon. I see it as some kind of a minor "spelling reform" from the part of the chatter, to bring the written language closer to everyday speech (since chatting itself is halfway between spoken and written communication). And it doesn't mean that they aren't aware how to spell words correctly. Once a French chatter wrote to me "tu f pas de fot", and when I didn't understand he wrote "Tu fais pas de fautes" (colloquial for "Tu ne fais pas de fautes", "You don't make mistakes"). Also "quoi" ("what") usually becomes "koi" or even "kwa" as it is actually pronounced ("k" is hardly ever used in "regular" written French). That convinced me that sometimes "chatroom spelling" is a deliberate (or half-conscious) effort to reflect language as it is *spoken* rather than as it should be written.
Paul   Tuesday, August 10, 2004, 17:12 GMT
Obviously contractions, abbreviations and even minor mistakes are much less of problem between 2 native speakers. Their fluency ensures that their message still gets across.

Still they would tend to avoid mistakes with idiomatic expressions, because that would lose the contents of their message.

I think English is particularly prone to errors due to its illogical and inconsistent spelling. Attempts to improve spelling has resulted in 2 sets of correct spellings for the some of same words.

What a mess. Fall-out of a civil war.
Mi5 Mick   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 04:41 GMT

c ske jvoulai dire sur le langage du tchat - ta lair d etre dacc avec moa kon f po attention ni a l ortograf ni ô maJuScuLes... et alor... pkoi fer? kan on se trouve dan zun chatroom d une centenn d utilisateur on per po son temp avec dé ptite choses insignifiante ou banale du moment kon se kompren... donc on f de son mieu pour tapé le plus vite possible et le plus efficacement possible pour kon puisse suivre toute lé discussions. nespo?

OK I could have abbreviated a little more, but you get the idea.
Jordi   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 06:40 GMT
I can only say that the lack of respect to spelling tradition and to language conventions makes me sick. Such spellings can already be detected in University papers written by students and in all languages. That goes on in the Internet in all languages and you can add Spanish and Catalan forums as well where "qué" or "què"(what) is written as "ke" and they won't even bother with the accents, which are so necessary in our Romance languages. I would say that after writing like that for several years one remains culturally and mentally handicapped for life. As you all know it's easier to programme a fresh mind than a more mature one.
nic   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 07:05 GMT
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.
Mi5 Mick   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 07:28 GMT

"Culturally and mentally handicapped for life"?
Either you're exaggerating or are a little narrow minded concerning the modes of language use.

I have to admit I've been writing like that for a number of years in live chatrooms because I obviously don't share your view and I've never been scorned for it. If 30 people are all typing at the same time in real-time, quite often the only way you can butt in is to abbreviate your language. There's no other way to communicate rapidly but to simplify how you write; this is the culture of online chatting.

I wouldn't write that way on forums, in emails or in other formal settings. So, it's all a matter of what is appropriate to your audience and the relevance of timeliness in communication.


It doesn't take long to get used to it. And again, it's the same argument: pressing fewer small buttons to abbreviate SMS messages on a mobile/cell phone is FAR more practical than having to use up all the character space.
mjd   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 07:58 GMT
I agree with Mick regarding chat rooms, instant messages and short informal e-mails to one's friends. However, I don't think it's appropriate in any formal setting or on forums such as this one.
Easterner   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 07:59 GMT

<<I would say that after writing like that for several years one remains culturally and mentally handicapped for life. As you all know it's easier to programme a fresh mind than a more mature one.>>

Dear Jordi,

While I tend to agree with you most of the time, I think you are a little too severe here. I also used to dislike the "debilitation" of spelling such as they also do it in SMS messages here in Hungary (by the way, I always write full sentences with correct punctuation in SMS messages, not bothering about character space). However, I think the "chatroom spelling" is driven by practical considerations. While this type of spelling would be more than inaproppriate in an university paper or a doctoral dissertation, chatroom language is something closer to the spoken form of language, and reflects the way the chatter would *say* what he writes down (though I often find abbreviations excessive, but I don't have anything against "nite" instead of "night" as long as the speaker uses this type of spelling in chat only, and as long as I understand what he or she wants to say).

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? The answer is clear: because this is the consensus, and of course I have to respect this, otherwise I would make myself ridiculous. But there were quite radical spelling reforms in Hungarian, Serbian and a couple of other East European languages back in the 19th century, and as a result these languages have a phonetic spelling now. Maybe chatroom spelling is an indication that it is time to consider a spelling reform in some Western languages too.
Easterner   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 08:07 GMT

I understood your message perfectly after second reading and I get the idea :-).

I think one should look at this spelling as another type of writing shorthand and then you can feel more comfortable with it.