As a young adult in college, I decided to learn Japanese. My father’s family is from Japan, and I wanted to travel there someday.
However, many of my classmates and I found it difficult to learn a language in adulthood. We struggled to connect new sounds and a dramatically different writing system to the familiar objects around us.
It wasn’t so for everyone. There were some students in our class who were able to acquire the new language much more easily than others.
So, what makes some individuals “good language learners?” And do such individuals have a “second language aptitude?”
What we know about second language aptitude
Past research on second language aptitude has focused on how people perceive sounds in a particular language and on more general cognitive processes such as memory and learning abilities. Most of this work has used paper-and-pencil and computerized tests to determine language-learning abilities and predict future learning.
Researchers have also studied brain activity as a way of measuring linguistic and cognitive abilities. However, much less is known about how brain activity predicts second language learning.
Is there a way to predict the aptitude of second language learning?
In a recently published study, Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and I explored how brain activity recorded at rest – while a person is relaxed with their eyes closed – could predict the rate at which a second language is learned among adults who spoke only one language.
Studying the resting brain
Resting brain activity is thought to reflect the organization of the brain and it has been linked to intelligence, or the general ability used to reason and problem-solve.
We measured brain activity obtained from a “resting state” to predict individual differences in the ability to learn a second language in adulthood.
To do that, we recorded five minutes of eyes-closed resting-state electroencephalography, a method that detects electrical activity in the brain, in young adults. We also collected two hours of paper-and-pencil and computerized tasks.
We then had 19 participants complete eight weeks of French language training using a computer program. This software was developed by the U.S. armed forces with the goal of getting military personnel functionally proficient in a language as quickly as possible.
The software combined reading, listening and speaking practice with game-like virtual reality scenarios. Participants moved through the content in levels organized around different goals, such as being able to communicate with a virtual cab driver by finding out if the driver was available, telling the driver where their bags were and thanking the driver.
Here’s a video demonstration:
Nineteen adult participants (18-31 years of age) completed two 30-minute training sessions per week for a total of 16 sessions. After each training session, we recorded the level that each participant had reached. At the end of the experiment, we used that level information to calculate each individual’s learning rate across the eight-week training.
As expected, there was large variability in the learning rate, with the best learner moving through the program more than twice as quickly as the slowest learner. Our goal was to figure out which (if any) of the measures recorded initially predicted those differences.
A new brain measure for language aptitude
When we correlated our measures with learning rate, we found that patterns of brain activity that have been linked to linguistic processes predicted how easily people could learn a second language.
Patterns of activity over the right side of the brain predicted upwards of 60 percent of the differences in second language learning across individuals. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that the right half of the brain is more frequently used with a second language.
Our results suggest that the majority of the language learning differences between participants could be explained by the way their brain was organized before they even started learning.
Implications for learning a new language
Does this mean that if you, like me, don’t have a “quick second language learning” brain you should forget about learning a second language?
First, it is important to remember that 40 percent of the difference in language learning rate still remains unexplained. Some of this is certainly related to factors like attention and motivation, which are known to be reliable predictors of learning in general, and of second language learning in particular.
Second, we know that people can change their resting-state brain activity. So training may help to shape the brain into a state in which it is more ready to learn. This could be an exciting future research direction.
Second language learning in adulthood is difficult, but the benefits are large for those who, like myself, are motivated by the desire to communicate with others who do not speak their native tongue.
The limits of our language are said to define the boundaries of our world. This is because in our everyday lives, we can only really register and make sense of what we can name. We are restricted by the words we know, which shape what we can and cannot experience.
It is true that sometimes we may have fleeting sensations and feelings that we don’t quite have a name for – akin to words on the “tip of our tongue”. But without a word to label these sensations or feelings they are often overlooked, never to be fully acknowledged, articulated or even remembered. And instead, they are often lumped together with more generalised emotions, such as “happiness” or “joy”. This applies to all aspects of life – and not least to that most sought-after and cherished of feelings, happiness. Clearly, most people know and understand happiness, at least vaguely. But they are hindered by their “lexical limitations” and the words at their disposal.
As English speakers, we inherit, rather haphazardly, a set of words and phrases to represent and describe our world around us. Whatever vocabulary we have managed to acquire in relation to happiness will influence the types of feelings we can enjoy. If we lack a word for a particular positive emotion, we are far less likely to experience it. And even if we do somehow experience it, we are unlikely to perceive it with much clarity, think about it with much understanding, talk about it with much insight, or remember it with much vividness.
Speaking of happiness
While this recognition is sobering, it is also exciting, because it means by learning new words and concepts, we can enrich our emotional world. So, in theory, we can actually enhance our experience of happiness simply through exploring language. Prompted by this enthralling possibility, I recently embarked on a project to discover “new” words and concepts relating to happiness.
I did this by searching for so-called “untranslatable” words from across the world’s languages. These are words where no exact equivalent word or phrase exists in English. And as such, suggest the possibility that other cultures have stumbled upon phenomena that English-speaking places have somehow overlooked.
Perhaps the most famous example is “Schadenfreude”, the German term describing pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Such words pique our curiosity, as they appear to reveal something specific about the culture that created them – as if German people are potentially especially liable to feelings of Schadenfreude (though I don’t believe that’s the case).
However, these words actually may be far more significant than that. Consider the fact that Schadenfreude has been imported wholesale into English. Evidently, English speakers had at least a passing familiarity with this kind of feeling, but lacked the word to articulate it (although I suppose “gloating” comes close) – hence, the grateful borrowing of the German term. As a result, their emotional landscape has been enlivened and enriched, able to give voice to feelings that might previously have remained unconceptualised and unexpressed.
My research, searched for these kind of “untranslatable words” – ones that specifically related to happiness and well-being. And so I trawled the internet looking for relevant websites, blogs, books and academic papers, and gathered a respectable haul of 216 such words. Now, the list has expanded – partly due to the generous feedback of visitors to my website – to more than 600 words.
When analysing these “untranslatable words”, I divide them into three categories based on my subjective reaction to them. Firstly, there are those that immediately resonate with me as something I have definitely experienced, but just haven’t previously been able to articulate. For instance, I love the strange German noun “Waldeinsamkeit”, which captures that eerie, mysterious feeling that often descends when you’re alone in the woods.
A second group are words that strike me as somewhat familiar, but not entirely, as if I can’t quite grasp their layers of complexity. For instance, I’m hugely intrigued by various Japanese aesthetic concepts, such as “aware” (哀れ), which evokes the bitter-sweetness of a brief, fading moment of transcendent beauty. This is symbolised by the cherry blossom – and as spring bloomed in England I found myself reflecting at length on this powerful yet intangible notion.
Finally, there is a mysterious set of words which completely elude my grasp, but which for precisely that reason are totally captivating. These mainly hail from Eastern religions – terms such as “Nirvana” or “Brahman” – which translates roughly as the ultimate reality underlying all phenomena in the Hindu scriptures. It feels like it would require a lifetime of study to even begin to grasp the meaning – which is probably exactly the point of these types of words.
I believe these words offer a unique window onto the world’s cultures, revealing diversity in the way people in different places experience and understand life. People are naturally curious about other ways of living, about new possibilities in life, and so are drawn to ideas – like these untranslatable words – that reveal such possibilities.
There is huge potential for these words to enrich and expand people’s own emotional worlds, with each of these words comes a tantalising glimpse into unfamiliar and new positive feelings and experiences. And at the end of the day, who wouldn’t be interested in adding a bit more happiness to their own lives?
This year’s winners – Jairam Hathwar from Painted Post, New York and Nihar Janga from Austin, Texas – present a familiar combination of co-champions. Jairam is the younger brother of 2013 co-champion Sriram, who also dueled with a Texan to ultimately share the trophy.
As a topic of intense speculation on broadcast and social media, the wins have elicited comments that range from curiosity to bafflement and at times outright racism. This curiosity is different from past speculation about “whether home-schooled spellers have an advantage.”
The range of responses offers a moment to consider some of the factors underlying the Indian-American success at the bee, as well as how spelling as a sport has changed. Immediately following the 2016 bee, for instance, much of the coverage has focused on the exceedingly high level of competition and drama that characterized the 25-round championship battle that ultimately resulted in a tie.
Since 2013, I have been conducting research on competitive spelling at regional and national bees with officials, spellers and their families, and media producers.
My interviews and observations reveal the changing nature of spelling as a “brain sport” and the rigorous regimens of preparation that competitive spellers engage in year-round. Being an “elite speller” is a major childhood commitment that has intensified as the bee has become more competitive in recent years.
Let’s first look at history
South Asian-American spelling success is connected to the history of this ethnic community’s immigration to the United States.
For instance, the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act solicited highly trained immigrants to meet America’s need for scientists, engineers and medical professionals and opened the door to skilled immigration from Asia and other regions. In subsequent decades, skilled migration from South Asia continued alongside the sponsorship of family members.
Today, along with smaller, older communities of Punjabi Sikhs and other South Asian ethnic groups primarily on the West Coast, South Asian-Americans constitute a diverse population that features a disproportionately high professional class, although with differences of class, languages, ethnicities and nationalities – differences that are often overlooked in favor of a narrative of Indian-American educational and professional success.
The question is, what gives the community an edge?
For upwardly mobile South Asian-Americans, success is in part due to moving from one socially and economically advantageous societal position in the subcontinent to another in the United States.
Moreover, the English-speaking abilities of most educated South Asian-Americans clearly give them an edge over immigrants from other countries. My research indicates that fluency developed in English-medium schools – a legacy of British colonialism – makes them ideal spelling interlocutors for their children, despite their variety of British spelling. Members of this population with elite educational qualifications have likewise emphasized the importance of academic achievement with their children.
Over the past few years spelling bees have been established exclusively for children of South Asian parentage.
For instance, the North South Foundation holds a range of educational contests, such as spelling bees, math contests, geography bees and essay writing, among others, whose proceeds contribute to promoting literacy efforts in India. The South Asian Spelling Bee, partnering with the insurance company Metlife, offers a highly competitive bee as well.
Taken together, this “minor league” circuit gives South Asian-American spellers far more opportunities to compete, as well as a longer “bee season” to train and practice.
This is particularly helpful because, as past champions confirm, ongoing practice and training are the key to winning.
Another factor to note here is the parental ability to dedicate time to education and extracurricular activities. Predictably, families with greater socioeconomic means are able to devote more resources and time.
These parents are as invested in spelling bees and academic competitions as families with star athletes or musicians might be in their children’s matches or performances. As several parents explained to me, spelling bees are the “brain sports” equivalent of travel soccer or Little League.
Of the 30 families I interviewed, the majority had a stay-at-home parent (usually the mother) dedicated to working with children on all activities, including spelling. In dual-income households, spelling training occurred on weeknights and weekends.
Like elite spellers of any race or ethnicity, South Asian-American spellers I spoke with studied word lists daily if possible, logging in several hours on weekends with parents or paid coaches to help them develop strategies and quiz them on words.
A few parents have been so invested in helping their children prepare that they have now started training and tutoring other aspiring spellers as well.
Like any national championship, the pressure on all spellers at a competition on the scale of the National Spelling Bee is intense. South Asian-American children are already subject to living up to the model minority stereotype and feel no reprieve here.
This is especially important to consider when South Asian-American spellers come from lower socioeconomic classes, but nonetheless succeed at spelling bees.
Among the 2015 finalists, for instance, one was the son of motel owners and a crowd favorite, as I observed. He had competed in the bee several times, and his older sister was also a speller, having made it to nationals once. Remarkably, they prepared for competitions by themselves, with no stay-at-home parent or paid coach.
Another 2015 semifinalist was featured in a broadcast segment living in the crowded immigrant neighborhood of Flushing, New York. When I visited this three-time National Spelling Bee participant in 2014, I realized that she lived in the very same apartment complex that my family did in the 1970s. This Queens neighborhood continues to be a receiving area for Indian-Americans who may not have the economic means to live in wealthier sections of New York City or its suburbs.
Many possible explanations
The point is that the reasons that Indian-American spellers are succeeding at the bee are not easily reducible to one answer.
South Asian-Americans, like other Asian immigrants, comprise varying class backgrounds and immigration histories. Yet it is noteworthy that even within this range of South Asian-American spellers, it is children of Indian-American immigrants from professional backgrounds who tend to become champions.
The time and resources Indian-American families devote to this brain sport, as I have observed, appear to be raising this competition into previously unseen levels of difficulty.
This can take a toll on elite spellers, who have to invest far more time studying spelling than in the past. With more difficult words appearing in earlier rounds of competition, spelling preparation can take up much of their time outside of school.
Nonetheless, they emphasize the perseverance they develop from competitive spelling. They learn to handle increasing levels of pressure, and alongside this, what they identify as important life skills of focus, poise and concentration.
Ultimately, what makes Indian-American children successful at spelling is the same as children of any other ethnicity. They come from families who believe in the value of education and also have the financial means to support their children through every stage of their schooling. And, they are highly intelligent individuals who devote their childhood to the study of American English.
Are they American?
Some comments on social media, however, seem to discount these factors and years of intense preparation to instead focus on race and ethnicity as sole factors for spelling success.
In a refreshing shift in tone, this year’s topics also included the ferocity of Janga’s competition style and the inspiration he drew from his football hero Dez Bryant.
Nonetheless, such comments, directed toward nonwhite children when they win this distinctly American contest, do push us to reflect: what does it mean to be an American now?
In alleging that only “Americans” should win this contest, Twitter racists ignore that these spellers too have been born and raised in the United States. Recent winners hail from suburban or small towns in upstate New York, Kansas, Missouri and Texas. They express regional pride in these locations by mentioning regional sports teams and other distinctive features in their on-air profiles.
With their American-accented English and distinctly American comportment, it is merely their skin color and names that set them apart from a white mainstream.
Like generations of white Americans and European immigrants, Indian-American parents spend countless hours preparing word lists, quizzing their children and creating ways for their children to learn. They encourage their children in whatever they are good at, including spelling.
As a result, they have elevated this American contest to a new level of competition. Clearly, this is an apt moment to expand our definition of what it means to be an American.
This is an updated version of an article first published on June 4, 2015.
Growing up in China, I started playing piano when I was nine years old and learning English when I was 12. Later, when I was a college student, it struck me how similar language and music are to each other.
Language and music both require rhythm; otherwise they don’t make any sense. They’re also both built from smaller units – syllables and musical beats. And the process of mastering them is remarkably similar, including precise movements, repetitive practice and focused attention. I also noticed that my musician peers were particularly good at learning new languages.
All of this made me wonder if music shapes how the brain perceives sounds other than musical notes. And if so, could learning music help us learn languages?
Music experience and speech
Music training early in life (before the age of seven) can have a wide range of benefits beyond musical ability.
For instance, school-age children (six to eight years old) who participated in two years of musical classes four hours each week showed better brain responses to consonants compared with their peers who started one year later. This suggests that music experience helped children hear speech sounds.
But what about babies who aren’t talking yet? Can music training this early give babies a boost in the steps it takes to learn language?
The first year of life is the best time in the lifespan to learn speech sounds; yet no studies have looked at whether musical experience during infancy can improve speech learning.
I sought to answer this question with Patricia K. Kuhl, an expert in early childhood learning. We set out to study whether musical experience at nine months of age can help infants learn speech.
Nine months is within the peak period for infants’ speech sound learning. During this time, they’re learning to pay attention to the differences among the different speech sounds that they hear in their environment. Being able to differentiate these sounds is key for learning to speak later. A better ability to tell speech sounds apart at this age is associated with producing more words at 30 months of age.
Here is how we did our study
In our study, we randomly put 47 nine-month-old infants in either a musical group or a control group and completed 12 15-minute-long sessions of activities designed for that group.
Babies in the music group sat with their parents, who guided them through the sessions by tapping out beats in time with the music with the goal of helping them learn a difficult musical rhythm.
Here is a short video demonstration of what a music session looked like.
Infants in the control group played with toy cars, blocks and other objects that required coordinated movements in social play, but without music.
After the sessions, we measured the babies’ brains responses to musical and speech rhythms using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a brain imaging technique.
New music and speech sounds were presented in rhythmic sequences, but the rhythms were occasionally disrupted by skipping a beat.
These rhythmic disruptions help us measure how well the babies’ brains were honed to rhythms. The brain gives a specific response pattern when detecting an unexpected change. A bigger response indicates that the baby was following rhythms better.
Babies in the music group had stronger brain responses to both music and speech sounds compared with babies in the control group. This shows that musical experience, as early as nine month of age, improved infants’ ability to process both musical and speech rhythms.
These skills are important building blocks for learning to speak.
Another researcher, Laura Cirelli, showed that 14-month-old babies were more likely to show helping behaviors toward an adult after the babies had been bounced in sync with the adult who was also moving rhythmically.
There are many more exciting questions that remain to be answered as researchers continue to study the effects of music experience on early development.
For instance, does the music experience need to be in a social setting? Could babies get the benefits of music from simply listening to music? And, how much experience do babies need over time to sustain this language-boosting benefit?
Music is an essential part of being human. It has existed in human cultures for thousands of years, and it is one of the most fun and powerful ways for people to connect with each other. Through scientific research, I hope we can continue to reveal how music experience influences brain development and language learning of babies.
Instead, it demonstrates our current ability to promulgate such nonsense words, allowing them to gain sudden currency, perhaps through “trending”, to make use of another relative newcomer to the fold, or “retweeting”. (These are not to be confused with the newcomer “subtweets” which themselves perpetuate another long tradition in English – that of making snide remarks through indirect allusion in a public arena. Alexander Pope would have been a great subtweeter.)
Some of the newly accepted words make one of the main processes of linguistic evolution clear: that of creating a new word by analogy with one already in use. “Binge-watching” is the clearest example. This is the viewing of several episodes or indeed whole series of a televised drama in one sitting. This word is clearly created by analogy with “binge-drinking”, which came to replace the phrase “going on a binge” or “going on a bender” when referring to drinking large amounts of alcohol over a short space of time.
Yes, there’s a difference here – where the earlier two phrases indicated that the occurrence was infrequent, if not actually unusual, “binge-drinking” is habitual, normally taking place at weekends, much as “binge-watching” does for many. I’d like to think that “binge-browsing” might be next, with the specific meaning of spending hours browsing the OED site when one visited to look up just one word. But possibly this is not a habit to encourage, after all, ”YOLO“.
Such changes always provoke reaction. Reliably, this varies from outrage at the abuse of language and ignorance of etymological development that such words betray, to celebration of English as a language flexible enough to admit such vibrant new forms and accommodate the creativity of its users.
But what’s interesting to me, as someone whose most frequent uses of dictionaries are to correct spelling and check historical usage, is the way that great institution, the Oxford English Dictionary, is able to satisfy two roles at once. This is thanks to its dual format – in print and online. It’s the online version that will soon include “listicle” and the rest, with no guarantee that these words will make it into the next print version (assuming there is one, which is what the current distinction between print and online versions implies).
This allows for the OED to record passing uses and trends without compromising its role as final arbitrator on whether or not a word can be said to have entered the English language. This is, after all, a decision which to a large extent depends on proving that word not only gained currency but retained a decent, level of recorded usage over a period of time and, crucially, in print.
And so print retains its sense of permanence in the face of ephemeral but ubiquitous electronic media. Or apparently ephemeral. The recent ruling requiring Google in particular to “remove” records from the internet has reminded us that it is in fact all but impossible to delete anything committed to the electronic ether – however paradoxical that seems. It’s all still out there, it’s just no longer appearing in the search results.
Googling itself is a word now accepted by the online OED, and while at first its currency was an indicator of the success of the company, it’s interesting to speculate on the survival of the word should Google itself go under, or lose its predominant position. Would we then all revert to “web-searching” for background information, or would we google, just as we hoover, forgetful the fact that the common verb once indicated a specific, dominant company?
Languages evolve and transform. If that weren’t the case, the only word in the previous sentence that would be considered English is and (which in any case used to mean if). The English we speak would not be remotely comprehensible to Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote The Canterbury Tales some 600 years ago.
Contemporary accents in particular would sound very foreign to Shakespeare’s ears, and the grammatical structure of the language has changed in subtle ways in the 400 years since he died.
For the most part, those changes don’t affect the expressiveness of the language or the ease of making certain important distinctions in speech and writing. Yet language-change is not consciously guided: it’s unpredictable and sometimes chaotic. So what if language change gets it “wrong”?
Contemporary Standard Englishes (UK, USA, Australian, NZ, SA etc) distinguish singular from plural for all nouns and pronouns, with a few exceptions:
The few exceptions among nouns – such as “sheep” – rarely, if ever, cause confusion or lack of clarity. The problematic case is the second person pronoun “you”. All the other pronouns not only vary from singular to plural, but also generally have distinct forms that vary for “case” or – put simplistically – whether the word is the subject or object of the sentence:
“I love language” versus “language fascinates me”.
The second person is simply you, whether singular or plural, subject or object. But that wasn’t always the situation. As recently as 400 ago, second person pronouns were as follows:
You took over as the plural form for both subject and object, but then eventually also supplanted the singular forms, so that we now no longer can be certain whether sentences such as “I need you to help me” is directed to one person in a group or the whole group.
We can of course get round it by adding phrases such as “You, with the blue shirt” or “you boys,” but compared to the elegant thou versus you this is clunky, and the verbiage almost defeats the advantage of having a pronoun, a shortcut to reference, in the first place. It’s a very useful distinction.
How on earth did we lose it?
What art thou staring at? Wikimedia Commons
My favourite hypothesis is that it fell victim to the increasing taste for formality in English-speaking society in the 17th through 19th centuries. You in Shakespeare’s day was not only used for the plural, but could be used to address a single person in a formal context – usually if the person was of a higher social status or rank than the speaker, or if they were a stranger of presumably equal rank.
The use of you to a singular person indicated a kind of deference and social distance, and was formal in tone. One might say “I have brought thee a cabbage” to one’s brother or friend, but “I have brought you a cabbage” to a king, bishop, or employer (unless on intimate terms).
Many languages, such as French, still do this – they maintain a distinction between singular and plural second person, but use the plural form (vous) to a single person to indicate politeness or formality.
When I first read Pride and Prejudice, I was astonished by Mr and Mrs Bennett, married for decades, alone at a breakfast table, addressing one another as Mr Bennett and Mrs Bennett. It’s not outlandish as an expression of endearment (as some couples use Mum and Dad to one another), but we can presume that a writer as astute as Jane Austen would have been reflecting social concerns and trends.
From my non-expert reading of the history of these times, it seems the level of formality increased in all interactions, even the most intimate, after the Renaissance, reaching a zenith in the Regency and Victorian eras.
Elgin County Archives
People would have used the formal second person you in more and more contexts, and the familiar/intimate thou less, until a tipping point was reached and the singular forms disappeared entirely.
Contemporary English-speaking societies have retreated from that level of formality. Even the most formal interactions, such as job interviews and audiences with dignitaries, are far more casual than they were 200 years ago. Plus, we lost our means of distinguishing with a mere word whom exactly we were addressing.
That’s why, independently in many varieties of English around the world, the distinction has been re-introduced. Not by the resurrection of thou, but by keeping you as the singular, and introducing a new plural such as youse (Australia, NZ, SA, Ireland, Scotland), yinz (Pittsburgh, parts of UK) and y’all (US South, West Indies, Alberta).
Tony Fischer Photography
No committee approved it. Some folks starting using it and, because it filled a need, it spread. Once an old form such as thou has disappeared from a language, it is unlikely to return even if a need for it arises.
Rather, speakers will use the available resources of the living language to innovate. So youse (or yous) is simply a regular “add an ‘s’” plural, y’all is a contraction of the phrase you all, and yinz appears to be a contraction of you ones.
In some places the phrasal you(s) guys is used, and in Kriol, an Aboriginal language of the Northern Territory, the plural yumob comes from you mob.
So, will this very useful innovation become standard? That’s impossible to predict, but we know that many people react negatively to any linguistic innovation, especially one that arises from non-Standard varieties.
The paradox of this prescriptivism is this: most prescriptivists don’t want to see the attrition of a language’s expressivity and nuance. But prescriptivism rarely prevents the disappearance of forms and structures. It didn’t save thou. But what it may hamper is the arrival or spread of innovations.
Prescriptivism doesn’t like to let stuff in, but it’s no good at stopping stuff from falling out.
Ghoti. How would you pronounce that? According to urban legend, it was George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, who coined the term in his quest for spelling reform. He pronounced it “fish” because of the sounds touGH; wOmen; and naTIOn. It probably wasn’t Shaw, but it does make an interesting point about the absurdities in English spelling. Do we need to fix it? Can we fix it?
English spelling can present problems for writers, even for those who are born into English-speaking cultures. Other languages, such as Italian or Korean, by comparison are quite phonetic (most letters are pronounced, and most letters are pronounced in a consistent way).
There are a number of letters in English that are not pronounced or pronounced differently in certain words. This pattern of irregularity affects about 25% of English words, but within that 25% are about 400 of the most frequently used words.
People who have difficulty spelling might draw little comfort from the fact that, had they lived prior to the 18th century, their “poor” spelling might have gone unnoticed. Until that time, there was considerable flexibility in the way people spelt words.
Shakespeare, for example, spelt his own name in several different ways and did not think this was remarkable. The invention of dictionaries in the 18th century “froze” the language. Thereafter, a line was drawn between “correct” and “incorrect” spelling.
Spelling errors: where do they come from?
There are other causes of spelling error apart from the irregularities of the language itself. People misspell for a variety of reasons. They may not understand the parts of speech or word classes. For example, they might mistake the verb advise for the noun advice.
It could be the result of mispronunciation. If, over a long period of time, enough people say goverment instead of government or vunerable instead of vulnerable, then the words may eventually be spelled that way.
Spelling errors can be the result of typing or writing errors. Typing errors that occur when people are using word processing programs on computers can be partly corrected by computerised spell checkers; but be warned: spell checkers are far from perfect and are not a replacement for the hard grind of improving your spelling. The same goes for predictive text on mobile phones and some keyboards.
Or perhaps the person simply does not understand the correct meaning of a word, and mistakes it for another word.
“Eggcorns” are a type of language error, usually based upon a mishearing of the original word, sometimes leading to unintentionally hilarious effects, but which still make sense at some level.
Eggcorns are close relatives of mondegreens and malapropisms. A mondegreen is a word or word group based upon a mishearing of texts such as poetry or music, so that the Scottish ballad The Bonnie Earl O’Murray’s final lines
They hae slain the Earl Amurray/and laid him on the green
was misheard as
They hae slain the Earl Amurray and Lady Mondegreen.
A malapropism is named after a character — Mrs Malaprop — from the 1775 play The Rivals, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, where words are comically mispronounced. Thus Mrs Malaprop announces at one point:
If I reprehend [apprehend] any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular [vernacular] tongue, and a nice derangement [arrangement] of epitaphs! [epithets].
Other malapropisms are also used to humorous effect in modern television programs, usually to show — as with the original character — that the person uttering the lines is not terribly bright and thus is an object of ridicule for us, the audience:
Perfect spelling, vocabulary, usage, grammar, punctuation and style do not necessarily correlate perfectly with intelligence and competence, but most people infer that they do. Perception is reality. One typo is enough to consign a resume to the dustbin.
Spelling reform: the impossible dream?
There have been many attempts throughout the history of the English language to rationalise it, making it more or even totally phonetic. While such reform efforts seem to have common sense on their side, the sheer success of English in becoming a global language, together with the conflict between orthography (spelling) and phonology (pronunciation), make such reforms unlikely.
if we decide to standardise the spelling of words, whose pronunciation shall we use?
When looked at globally, most of our spellings cater to a wide variation of pronunciations. If we insisted on strictly phonetic renderings, girl would be gurl in most of America (though perhaps goil in New York), gel in London, gull in Ireland, gill in South Africa, garull in Scotland. Written communications between nations, and even parts of nations, would become practically impossible.
Thus, we are probably stuck with the inanities of four/fourteen/forty and debt and island (with the b and s inserted by 17th-century scholars who were trying to copy what they imagined to be more prestigious Latin spellings).
Unfortunately, there is no other way of learning English spelling than by reading as widely as possible (and even then, by not trusting everything you read). Use, but do not depend upon, software spell checkers that simply use a dumb algorithm that looks at its own dictionary and then tells you if the word exists, not if it is the right word. Spell checkers, at their current stage of development, cannot read context — only you can do that.