Even robots need to rest for a spell

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 October, 2003, 12:00am

Almost every English-language phone conversation that I have with a government department or a local company seems to involve the spelling of words. I do not recall such an emphasis on spelling in other non-English-speaking countries in which I have worked. In other places, the other person and I have usually resorted to using synonyms, slower speech or descriptions whenever conversations became 'stuck' over a particular word. Here it is almost as if spelling IS English.

Hong Kong students are excellent spellers. But this begs the question; how can people who are good spellers be so unsure of their listening or pronunciation skills?

In an alphabetic language to know the spelling of a word should be sufficient to be able to attempt its pronunciation. It should also be a great help in recognising the word in the speech of others. But, this is not the case in Hong Kong.

Here, English vocabulary is slowly built in three separate formats: a visual snapshot of the whole word, a verbalising of its letter sequence and the memory of the pronunciation.

We have probably all sat on a bus near a child rehearsing for the day's spelling test. 'R-O-C-K-E-T', 'rocket', says the child over and over again. To this youngster, the word 'pocket' would involve an entirely new learning sequence without any connection to 'rocket', or even distant links to words like 'bucket' or 'packet'.

The time spent by this student in verbalising the correct sequence of letters is actually longer than the time spent in saying the word itself.

For children taught in this spelling-first style, every English word stands alone. This is the core problem underlying such phrases as: 'My vocabulary is so poor'.

Local publishers enjoy high sales of vocabulary-boosting books that are easy to produce and far too easy for tutors and teachers.

Such a preoccupation with vocabulary ignores the fact that all alphabetic languages are self-teaching once the learner has grasped the underlying alphabetic principle that letters are a shorthand device used to capture the sounds of the language in writing.

Chinese literacy skills, however, involve an entirely different learning process. Here, the learner must make a lifetime commitment to the active acquisition of new characters. A Chinese speaker's spoken vocabulary usually far exceeds the same person's written skills.

An alphabetic-language speaker can attempt the pronunciation of newly-read words, and recognise newly-heard words when in written form. This is the self-teaching effect. It does not suggest, as some people have, that one language is in any way more 'practical' than another. The teaching and learning styles appropriate to one will just not work when applied to the other. Unfortunately, for young learners this concept of linguistic difference is beyond their comprehension, so English often becomes a lifelong spelling marathon.

When students grow up without any knowledge of the alphabetic principle, they tend to become 'spelling robots', unable to see the forest (words) for the trees (letters).

Pauline Bunce is conducting doctoral research on the underlying problems faced by Hong Kong's adolescent learners of English.