The Today Programme on Radio 4 has this morning once again demonstrated the ignorance of journalists about the nature of language – the main tool of their trade. This was particularly deplorable this morning (Thursday 29 January) as both its presenters claim some expertise in the subject: Edward Stourton has proclaimed himself a linguist, as I have mentioned before, and John Humphrys is well-known for his forthright views on language and its usage, including having written the book Lost for Words. On a day when a report claimed that “the number of people in England who cannot read, write and count properly is unacceptably high”, Stourton introduced a piece by saying that children find the language harder to learn because of its spelling. It cannot be said too often that spelling is an artefact, arbitrarily decided upon; that letters are not sounds, and cannot accurately represent sounds; and that the problems of learning a language and those of learning to spell are totally different. Children who, for whatever reason, leave school without having learned to read and write adequately can, in the overwhelming majority of cases, speak English as well as those whose reading and writing are excellent.
In the interview following this introduction, Stourton went on to say that other languages may be easier to learn because they have rules. Can he really believe that English has no rules? Later mention was made of Finnish as being a language whose spelling system is totally consistent. Whenever the question of the difficulty of English spelling is raised, the ‘perfection’ of that of another language is always contrasted with it. However, one of the other languages that have vied with English for world domination, which has an equally difficult spelling system, is French. What is the functional illiteracy rate for French speakers in France? Do we know? If it is very low, then presumably it is English teaching that is at fault. If it is as high as that for English, perhaps something should be done about the spelling of both languages.