Unspell


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Getting Started --- KEthN stArteT

To start with, let's establish what this project is not:

• It is not an attempt at English spelling reform
• 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 languages as they are spoken and the way they are written down.

A spoken language is based on an evolved human capacity. Spoken languages are passed on effortlessly from generation to generation, from parents and grandparents to children and grandchildren. They need not be taught in school: kids arrive in school already knowing how to speak. All human languages consist of words, which consist of syllables, which consist of phonemes—vowel and consonant sounds. Distinctions between phonemes signal differences in meaning.

A writing system is a way of writing down a given spoken language. It is completely artificial, and there can be any number of ways of writing down the same spoken language: using symbols or pictures that represent phonemes, syllables, parts of words, entire words or, as in the case of English, nothing in particular. The best and most popular way to write down languages around the world is phonetic—based on an alphabet, where a letter or a combination of letters invariably represents a certain phoneme.

When you learn to speak a language, then, you first learn to hear, make and differentiate a certain set of sounds (phonemes) and then use them to hear and speak words. If that language is based on an alphabet, and is written phonetically, then learning to read and write it is straightforward: once you learn which letters and combinations of letters represent which sounds, you can then read and write most anything you can speak, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with English. Sure, there are some words that can be said to obey some set of rules, but they are vastly outnumbered by the exceptions. Any given sound can be written several different ways, and any letter or combination of letters can be pronounced in several different ways, such that learning to read and write becomes largely a process of memorization. This isn't just tedious—although it's definitely that—but it also gets in the way of learning other, more important things.

Now that these basics are out of the way, we can 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 expands the reading horizons of children by removing the barrier of learning English spelling, allowing them to immediately start reading whatever they like. For some kids, this will allow them to jump ahead of their classmates; for others, it can be a way around dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

• It gives kids of all abilities a shortcut to learning how to read and write English by focusing on the important part of language learning first—the words themselves, and the ideas they represent— leaving the rote memorization of how they are spelled for later.

• It enables parents to take an active role in teaching their kids to read and write. Any parent who can read and write English can learn Unspell quickly, or even learn it alongside their children, transforming what might have been an ordeal into a fun family activity.

Now, here's the full explanation.


The Problem and the Solution
For speakers of other languages, it takes just 2-3 years to learn to read and write what they know how to speak, but it can take on the order of ten years or so to do the same with English. Not surprisingly, English also has a higher rate of failure, resulting in functional illiteracy rates that approach 50% in some English-speaking countries. Illiteracy has many wide-ranging effects:

• Students waste years on a memorization task they may not be ready for, rather than learning something interesting.

• Job training and retraining is more difficult for trainees as well as potential employers.

• Public health and safety is impacted when people can't read safety brochures or health information.

• It can put you in jail: as a barrier to legitimate employment in the modern-day world, illiteracy can force people to commit economic crimes.

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.

Unlike most other languages, written English isn't based on how it's spoken, but on how words were spelled in other languages, some going back centuries, and most of them extinct. Barely half of the English language is spelled “regularly”; having learned the words “over,” “open,” and “only” sound alike, the learner finds to their dismay that ”other“ and “osprey” do not.

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. The human mind is wired for the distinct tasks of speech perception and speech production, and phonemic memory is the vital link between the two.

In essence, every child comes equipped for building a mental dictionary, and the symbols that comprise this dictionary are not letters but phonemes. In most languages, in which letters map directly to phonemes, this distinction is largely irrelevant, but the incomplete mapping of 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, effortlessly picking up English spelling is a feat worthy of a savant, while much of the population does not possess such special talents, and struggles. 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 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 which accounts 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 a simple set of just 13 symbols which, with 4 equally simple modifications that group symbols into sets (vowel vs. consonant, voiced consonant vs. unvoiced, etc.) represent all of the 40 speech sounds of the English language that signal changes in meaning. Most of these symbols are not part of the Latin alphabet, making spelled English and “unspelled” English impossible to confuse. The student learns to sound out each symbol, then group sounds into syllables, syllables into words, and words into phrases in what is essentially a self-governed, self-motivated process.

Not only is Unspell easy to learn, it's easy to teach: all parents and teachers need to do is guide the student through the process of learning the Unspell alphabet, all of which fits on this wallet-sized card:
In fact, for people who are into code-breaking, this card contains all that they need to start decoding Unspelled English. But for everyone else there is a gentle, gradual introduction to Unspell that uses lots of pictures. Please take this guided tour.