Unspell


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A significant new development

The unspelled edition of King James Bible is now available:
Old Testament
New Testament
No longer do you have to sputter and stall when when you encounter Biblical names such as Gittahhepher or Maalehhacrabim or Ramathaimzophim, but glide through them in style, like the best seminary graduate! They are being made available in two volumes because, given the constraints of print-on-demand technology, they didn't fit into one. But there is a positive side-effect: the New Testament is large type, just like all of the unspelled children's books.

For all those people who learn to read primarily in order to be able to read the Bible, this is a godsend. Why should they waste years memorizing ancient English spellings, like the difference between “prophesy” and “prophecy,” when they could be reading the Bible instead.

Not a Christian? Not a problem! Write to me, and I will have your holy books unspelled as well. The Book of Mormon comes to mind. (Remember Deseret Script?) And, of course, the Qur’an.

What's all this then?


People seem to be having a substantial amount of difficulty in wrapping their heads around this project, simple though it is. To start with, let's establish what this project is not:

• It is not an attempt English spelling reform, as that would be futile
• It is not an attempt to change the English language in any way
• It is not some sort of “dumbing down” of the way English is taught

To understand what Unspell is, first you have to make a distinction between the English language and the way it is written.

• A language is a living, evolving cultural phenomenon passed on from generation to generation, from parents and grandparents to children and grandchildren. It is not taught in school: kids arrive in school already knowing a language. Humans are genetically equipped to learn to speak and understand language. Human languages consist of words, which consist of syllables, which consist of phonemes. The fundamental unit of language is the phoneme (speech sound).

• A writing system is a way of writing down a given language. It is completely artificial, and there can be any number of ways of writing down the same language: using symbols that represent phonemes, syllables, entire words or, as in the case of English, nothing in particular. The most popular way to write down languages around the world is based on an alphabet, where a letter or a combination of letters represents a certain phoneme. The English spelling system is very strange in that it uses an alphabet in a non-alphabetic fashion, where a given letter can represent lots of different phonemes.

Now that we have these basics out of the way, are ready to explain what this project is:

• It is an alternative way of writing down the English language that is very fast and easy to learn. It adheres very closely to the alphabetic principle, in that each symbol is used to represent exactly one phoneme (speech sound).

• It helps kids learn to read and write English by teaching them a simple system they can immediately grasp in its entirety, and use to read anything they want, before tackling the much more complicated English spelling. For some kids, it allows them to postpone tackling English spelling until their minds are ready. For others, it allows a way around their dyslexia or other learning disabilities.

• It helps parents teach their kids to read and write, because it is a system that can be taught by any literate English-speaking adult with no special training or preparation. It quickly turns kids into self-sufficient readers, who are then self-motivated to learn. It also removes a great deal of frustration, transforming learning to read and write from an ordeal and into a fun family activity.

Now, here's the full explanation.


The Problem and the Solution
Students in English-speaking countries do significantly worse in learning to read and write than students in most other countries, all other things being equal. Whereas in most countries it takes just 2-3 years to learn to read arbitrary texts with good diction and to take dictation accurately (although comprehension may lag), in English-speaking countries this process takes on the order of ten years. What's more, often it never completes: the failure rate is unacceptably high, resulting in functional illiteracy rates that approach 50% in some countries. The effects of such systemic failure are wide-reaching. There is the opportunity cost: students waste years on attempting to acquire rudimentary skills instead of being taught something interesting. There is the hit to economic productivity from so many people incapable of retraining themselves on their own but requiring oral instruction. There is an adverse effect on health and public safety from so many people unable to read safety instructions and brochures. Functional illiteracy is especially widespread among the prison population and hampers the efforts to rehabilitate prisoners upon release.
In spite of the vast resources and effort directed at achieving basic literacy in English-speaking countries, and in spite of the excessive failure rate of these efforts, few people have dared to ask the simple question: Why is this? Yet all you have do is look, to find both the source of the problem and its solution. It is curious how a culture that embraces radical change in some ways chooses to remain tradition-bound in other ways, even where these old ways inflict great harm.

English spelling presents a unique set of challenges to any child learning to read, because written English is an opaque code. Unlike most other languages, it is not a rendering of speech that is based on orthographic rules but a hodgepodge of orthographic styles collected over the centuries from an assortment of languages, most of them extinct. Some 40-50% of English spellings displays some degree of irregularity; as for the rest, the student has to explicitly memorize the fact that they are unexceptional. For instance, having learned the words “over,” “open,” “only” and “okra” as unexceptional, the learner then has to discover by trial and error that “oven,” “other,” and “osprey” do not follow the same pattern. In essence, the only way to learn to read English is to memorize both the spelling and the pronunciation of many thousands of words—a task that calls for more rote memorization than just about any other task in which humans regularly engage.

What makes this task even harder is that the learner isn't being offered any way to directly translate English spellings into sequences of phonemes, for ease of memorization. The human mind is a thirsty sponge for spoken words, which are sequences of phonemes. It is neurally wired for the two very complex, distinct tasks of speech perception and speech production, and phonemic memory is the vital link between the two, for which human mind is wired for it as well. In essence, every child comes equipped for building a mental dictionary, and the symbols that comprise this dictionary are not letters but phonemes. In languages where letters map directly to phonemes this distinction is largely irrelevant, but an opaque code such as written English is a major impediment to learning. This is because the human mind, and especially a child's mind, is not especially good at memorizing sequences of abstract symbols, such as phone numbers, lists of random pictures or the spellings of English words.

Thus, the task of learning English spelling relies on something that is essentially a talent worthy of a savant, which much of the population does not possess. A second challenge posed by English is that there is no easy bootstrapping mechanism for learning to read it. The typical sequence of events in learning to read an alphabetic language is as follows:

1. learn what sounds the letters make
2. learn to form syllables out of these sounds
3. learn to form words out of the syllables

Instead, the student has to memorize the spelling of each word as a whole and then look up its sound in non-verbal memory. Any unfamiliar word becomes an indigestible blob, because the student is afraid to sound it out for fear of making a mistake and remembering it incorrectly.

The only work-around, or fallback, that is currently made available is for the student to “spell out” words. This sort of “spelled-out” English is, in essence, a language that consists of just 26 words. All human languages share some important commonalities—they all have both vowels and consonants, and they all have words that consist of syllables. Beyond these commonalities there is a wide variety of linguistic forms, but to date no human language has been found to consist of just 26 different words. The reason for this is simple: such a language would be far too long-winded and far too lacking in variety to be easily learnable.

“Spelling out” explodes a monosyllabic word like “strengths” into “Es, tee, ar, en, gee, tee, aitch, es”— a perfect example of the weakness of this system. “Spelling out” is not a mnemonic technique but a bizarre parlor trick for those who have already memorized words as sequences of abstract symbols. It is like speaking in Morse Code: another savant-type skill of which few people are naturally capable. No other language has anything similar; the usual way to convey how a word is written in an alphabetic language is simply to pronounce it carefully, placing equal stress on each syllable. In summary, the problem with teaching written English is this: the student's mind is naturally adapted to memorizing words as sequences of phonemes; instead, it is being forced to memorize words as sequences as abstract symbols that have no direct and unambiguous relationship to phonemes.

The student is not being provided with something vital: a way of converting between sight and sound, and back, that can quickly become effortless and automatic. This is the main cause of trouble with basic education in English-speaking countries—adequately accounting for both its inefficiency and its unacceptable failure rate.

The Unspell teaching method offers a way to cleanly circumvent all of these difficulties. Unspell uses of a minimal set of symbols which directly represent generalized speech sounds of the English language in a way that is maximally independent of accent or dialect. These symbols are largely disjoint with the Latin alphabet, eliminating interference effects with spelled English. Each symbol directly represents a specific sound. The student learns to sound out each symbol, then group these sounds into syllables, syllables into words, and words into phrases in what is essentially a self-governed, self-motivated process. The role of the teacher is to guide the student through this process, and does not involve imparting any specialized knowledge. Virtually all that needs to be memorized is presented on the following wallet-sized card: