January 08, 2007

Linguistic incompetence in Britain

Back on 16 December the Economist took up not only the three new official languages of the EU (reported on here), but also the monolingualism of Britons.  There was a leader (U.S.: editorial), on p. 14, and a news story, on pp. 55-6, about how Britons are "God's worst linguists": "just 30% of Britons can converse in a language other than their own (only Hungarians did worse)", and fewer and fewer young people are studying languages in school.  (Why bother?  Everyone else is learning English!)

We chatted about these pieces over sherry in the Writers' Lounge at Language Log Plaza at the time, but the story didn't seem significant enough to merit blogging.  Even in Europe, the Hungarians (are said to) do worse than the Britons (though only by one percentage point), and surely Americans and Australians would give the Brits a run for their money in the foreign language incompetence sweepstakes.  (Actually, that 30% figure seems high.   The figures are from a European Commission report of 2005, based on a questionnaire administered to 29,328 people, and they represent the percentages of people in each member state who "assert that they can speak at least one other language than their mother tongue at the level of being able to have a conversation."  We might expect such self-reports to be a bit, well, optimistic.)

Now there's a new twist: are Britons competent even in their own language?

In a letter in the 6 January issue of the Economist (p. 14), Jason Smith of London raises the issue:

With regard to your leader lamenting the willingness [I would have said "unwillingness"] of the British to learn Johnny Foreigner's native tongue, perhaps you could turn your attention to persuading Britons to master their own language first...  I recently received a marketing leaflet advising me: "Dont wait for new year sales when there in stock now".

Yes, it's about SPELLING (including punctuation and capitalization).  I was prepared to see a rant about non-standard grammar or the innovations of the young or even the appalling pronunciations of Estuary English, but instead -- in response to pieces about people's ability to CONVERSE in languages other than their mother tongue -- we get a hell-in-a-handbasket letter about spelling.

English orthography is cunningly mined with traps for the unwary, and ordinary people writing in English have never been particularly good at avoiding the traps.*

[* Bob Yates addresses the issue in e-mail to me:

Whenever I read statements that "things" are sliding downhill, I remind myself of this petition written by [a] white woman in Miller County, Georgie in September, 1863 to Jefferson Davis.  Fortunately, Williams, who says this was typical of such petitions from women written to Davis, did not fix the spellings.
Our crops is limited and so short [that we] cannot reach the first day of march next. . . . But little [illegible] of any sort to Rescue us and our children from a unanumus starveation. . . . We can seldom find [bacon] for non has got But those that are exzempt from service . . . and they have no humane feeling nor patreotic prinsables in thare harts. . . . they care not ef all the South and its effort fail and sink so they swim. . . An allwise god who is slow to anger and full of grace . . . will send down his forty and judgement in a very grate manar [on] all those our leading men and those that are in pwere if thare is no more favors show to those the mothers and wives and of those hwo in poverty has with patrootism stood the fence of Battles. . . I tell you that with out some grate and speadly alternating in the conduckting of afares in this our little nation god will frown on it and that speadly.

Source: Williams, David. (1998). Rich Man's War. Athens: University of Georgia Press. (p. 113-4)

This is not some email exchange. This is a text written to the leader of [the] country. ]

In addition, spelling ability is at best weakly connected to measures of verbal facility, intelligence, and the like.  Being "good at" spelling in English (note: in ENGLISH) is one of those odd language-related talents like being good at Double-Crostics or being able to talk ad lib in iambic pentameter or being able to rap.  If you're not good at spelling, you'll have to find a way to work around that in circumstances where spelling is important, but you shouldn't let spelling problems prevent you from writing; after all, some spectacularly bad spellers are very good writers indeed.

On the other hand, if you can't frame what you want to say in ways that your intended audience will be able to understand without hard work, you're in trouble.  If this is in your mother tongue, you have some sort of disability.  I've spent a fair amount of time with people with such disabilities, and it's distressing all around.  (Maybe I'll be able to post about this, maybe not.  The case I know the most about is my partner of 26 years, now dead.)

Two notes: a claim about the ability to hold a conversation in a language other than your mother tongue got turned into a rant about writing, in fact about the mechanics of writing, thus trivializing a serious issue; and all deviations from correctness, all kinds of "incompetence", are treated as equivalent, thus elevating poor spelling to a significance it doesn't deserve.  Why, someone who would spell they're as there might be capable of anything!

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 8, 2007 12:12 PM