Nostalgic for letters in an age of spell check

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 February, 2011, 12:00am

How do you spell 'decline'? How do you spell 'obsolete', or 'archaic'? For most people, spelling tests were not one of their favourite parts of growing up. Let's face it, the people who actually looked forward to weekly spelling tests usually wore two-inch-thick glasses and calculator watches. Yet, when I went to school, spelling was important.

That was in the 1990s, before Microsoft Word became ubiquitous and Macs were still bulky white boxes. Fast forward to 2011 and the decline of literacy standards is evident all around us. Major publications from The Sun to The New Yorker report that an increasing number of children think text-speak is a proper form of writing. That's just 'gr8'. Essays are now littered with 'dunno', 'u' and 'btw'. Teachers the world over report that it is increasingly rare to see correct grammar, punctuation and spelling in exams and papers.

Here in Hong Kong, children as young as six years old are turning to spell check. As an English teacher, I am saddened by the decline in spelling and other literacy standards. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that, no matter who you are, you should be able to properly write an e-mail to someone without typos and errors. My students quickly point out that they absolutely can do this - by 'simply pressing spell check before you send it'.

I get it. I really do. Like everyone else, I think spell check is a godsend. And yet I cannot help but cringe when I think that this generation, with their cavalier attitude towards spelling, is somehow missing out. But missing out on what?

Why exactly must we learn to spell if there are more and more tools so readily available that make it almost impossible to misspell a word? What is the big problem? Am I simply clinging to spelling the way that my mother clings to the cassette tape player?

My centre, The Kelly Yang Project, has been preparing for our annual Spellbulary, Hong Kong's only citywide spelling bee competition, next month. As we talked to sponsors for the event, I found myself defending spelling over and over again. I struggled to answer questions like, 'Who cares if someone is a good speller?' It is a perfectly legitimate question. Unfortunately, I could not come up with a single convincing answer.

The truth is, spelling is important because I'm a traditionalist. Recently, Coventry University in Britain conducted a study on texting and found that texting is actually good for children's literacy skills because it encourages them to read and write to their friends. Despite this finding, I think that texting is junk food for the brain.

I'm also a romantic. I'm nostalgic for the days when people used to write thank-you cards and letters by hand. And no matter how many e-invites I receive, a part of me still thinks we will suddenly one day return to the beautiful age of the pen and paper. And, when we do, I know I will be the first to correctly spell 'hooray'.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.