A rant in favour of Standard Spelling Systems – but not for the purpose you think (Arok Wolvengrey)

Thanks to Arok for letting me share his recent Facebook rant about the relationship between writing, sound and meaning. Arok writes:

The best tools for learning spoken language (besides face-to-face interaction) involve video and/or audio files so people can actually hear the language. Spoken language equates sound with meaning. That is what people need to learn when speaking a language – the equation of sound and meaning. Anything else (such as writing) can be a distraction. Similarly, sign languages equate visual hand shapes and gestures with meaning. Trying to spell words out in sign language is a “long-cut” which is far less effective than using the meaningful gestures/signs themselves. The same can be said for written languages.

The problem with a writing system that tries to equate symbols to sound before getting to meaning is that it is distracting and takes the long way around. If it is only a tool for sound, it can never be standardized because people (speaking many variable dialects, all of which must be respected) will continue to sound things out every time they see a word (especially when that word is written differently every time anyone writes it), and will never develop actual literacy in the language because no single form will ever come to be recognized for the meaning it represents, only an approximation of sound. The best way to teach sound is with sound, not silent symbols on a page.

In order to help with literacy on the other hand, the best writing system equates complex symbols (consistent spelling of words) with meaning and has far less to do with sound. So when fluent speakers see a word spelled, they should know what it means instantly (and already know how it sounds in their dialect) without having to sound it out. Fluent English readers know what “knee” means without bothering to think about how the ‘k’ sound contributes to the pronunciation of the word only to discover it doesn’t contribute at all and then have to reject it every time. Fluent English readers know what ‘tomato’ means (whether they pronounce it [toMAYto] or [toMAHto], etc.) and don’t need to sound it out every time (or argue about the spelling when we do pronounce it differently). The one spelling works no matter the pronunciation. That’s why the English spelling system (rather than the English symbols) is so powerful – because everyone agrees on that link between spelling and meaning.

In essence, what I am saying is that spelling shouldn’t be used to teach sounds because if it is, then it can’t do the work that spelling is good for. Sounds should be used to teach sounds and these should be learned before spelling. In turn, sign language gestures and consistent written spelling should be used to teach communication in the ways they were designed for. With all the tools at our disposal now, we should be teaching sound with sound, leaving the (consistent) spelling in the background until such time that learners know enough of the spoken language that they can just learn spelling as the secondary means of communication that it is meant to be.

2 Responses

  1. Yes, yes and yes!

    The relationship between sound and meaning is first and foremost when learning how to comprehend and to speak a language. Since our languages “live” in our relationships, learning/teaching oral/aural communication is paramount in my view. At the same time, for those who are already literate in another language, using a standardized orthography for the target language and learning how to read and write can be an excellent learning adjunct to listening and speaking practice.

    As you noted, we cannot attempt to “standardize” how people actually speak. To do so would be highly disrespectful and meet with considerable resistance. Rightly so! How we speak reflects our kinship ties and other relationships. However, having standardized ways of writing the building blocks of words (morphemes) can make learning both lexical (“vocabulary-related”) and grammatical parts of our languages easier. I think this can be said of all languages, including Cree, Michif and other Algonquian languages as well.

    Just as in immersion, if we hear the same sounds over and over againand are able to attach meaning to them, we will learn to comprehend what is being said and begin to notice patterns of sound and meaning. And, if we utter those groups of “meaningful sounds” over and over and play with them as children often do, this practice will eventually lead us to proficiency.

    In the same way, if we ALWAYS spell words and parts of words the same way, we will eventually be able to attach meaning to the groups of graphemes or letters we use to spell out words. And, then we will be able to recognize patterns in words–both lexical and grammatical. This can be very helpful when trying to parse or figure out a new word–what roots, prefixes, suffixes, etc. make it up–in order to get a basic understanding of its meaning. Thus, we can use our knowledge of written patterns and their meaning to support our learning of new or modified aural/oral patterns of sound and their meanings.

    Still learning how to listen and comprehend and then speak and express ideas/stories needs to come before reading and writing in most cases…

  2. I absolutely believe this! That’s why I want to attend a Cree Immersion Camp! I am learning but I do need to see things phonetically and when the words are spelled phonetically along with the proper spelling then I can learn it easier…..so I feel the sound..yes..audio ALL that…but sometimes I really need to see things sounded out phonetically as well.

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