Friday, January 16, 2015

Finding Logic in the English Language

Many people will tell you that English is a crazy language. Because it is derived from so many disparate languages—English is based mostly on a West Germanic language but peppered with influences from Greek, Latin, and other European languages—there are plenty of exceptions to English spelling patterns, grammar, and punctuation usage. Sympathetically agreeing with a child that English spelling doesn't make sense or that rules governing comma use are simply crazy may seem like a kind gesture. After all, the rules can seem endless and complicated, and we don't want to make kids feel bad about their errors.

But simply falling back on the excuse that English is just wacky and devoid of logic is not only damaging to kids' motivation to improve, it's untrue. English does contain exceptions, but there are actually plenty of rules that govern correct usage. These rules are not only fascinating to learn about, they're tremendously helpful.

For example, the /ər/ sound at the end of words that define a person's job can be spelled in two ways: "-er" (painter) and "-or" (senator). Though the two suffixes are pronounced the same way, they're spelled differently and many people will tell you that the only way to know which one to use is to memorize the word in question. Not so, according to Solving Language Difficulties, a fascinating and useful book of exercises by Amey Steere, Caroline Peck, and Linda Kahn. Although there are a few exceptions, spelling of the /ər/ sound corresponds with the level of education needed for the job. An "-or" spelling is generally used for someone whose job requires a great deal of education (doctor, editor, governor) while the "-er" is used for someone who doesn't need as much training (barber, farmer, waiter).

Want more? TED-Ed is an outstanding source of interesting educational videos. A great one to get you started is a fun, story-like video that anthropomorphizes the comma, lending logic to rules about when commas are called for and when they're unnecessary. 


Another video we love provides a brief, fascinating explanation of how English spelling that seems completely illogical, like the "tw" in the word "two" is actually reasonable and meaningful.


Learning these rules is empowering for kids. After all, nothing is more frustrating than being told that the guidelines don't make sense but you have to learn them anyway. And young people generally enjoy discovering explanations for concepts that were previously shrouded in mystery. Solving Language Difficulties and TED-Ed are just the beginning. But be warned: start digging and you may become hooked.

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