Some successful modern reforms of writing systems

Adapting to spelling reform in Greenland

Little information is available detailing how people adapt to spelling change, apart from English-speaking children's transition to conventional spelling when they have been first taught in Pitman's Initial Teaching Alphabet.

One of the rare studies is Birgitte Jacobsen's 1987 account of how children in Greenland adapted to the radical phonemic spelling reform of Greenlandic in 1973.

It was relatively simple to make a reform from the etymological spelling that had been adopted in 1851, since the population is small and isolated, although they still had to make a choice of which among their dialects was to be their standard. As the language is infiltrated by Danish the new spelling was still not ideally consistent, and the remarkable length of words in the language still causes reading and spelling problems.

However, Jacobsen found that that greater simplicity of the reformed spelling gave it a clear advantage in learning. The Greenlandic children who were already literate were able to switch 'spelling set' from one context to another without difficulty, since the new spelling was consistent.

Learners could both read the old spelling and write in the new spelling, and could even keep the Danish spelling distinct again.

This demonstrated that people have the ability to switch between spelling systems. This is an important factor in being able to read and write in more than one writing system, and to be able to use different systems that are based on the roman alphabet, for different languages. It is also of great potential use when it comes to any spelling reform.

Reference: Birgitte Jacobsen (1987). A report on a pilot investigation of Greenlandic school children's spelling errors. In Luelsdorff PA (ed) 411.L948.0. Orthography and Phonology. Philadelphia: John Benjamins