Some successful modern reforms of writing systems

Spanish spelling reforms

Matching language and writing system

“To purify, fix and give spendour ‘ to the language and its spelling.
- Aims of Tje Real Academia Española de la Lengus, founded 1714.

The world-wide spread of Spanish and Portuguese has encouraged rather than prevented a series of orthographic reforms over the past century. This is because spelling reform has been regarded as essential to help to keep forms of these languages that are separated by vast geographic distance from drifting too far apart linguistically.

The Spanish language has a relatively simple grammar, syntax, and sound structure. There are only around twenty phonemes and much vocabulary has a simple CVCV construction (consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel). A 1951 report to UNESCO described its spelling as 'an almost ideal' writing system of symbol matching sound. Language change has resulted in a tendency to voice previously voiceless consonants, but Christian (1982: 359) asserts that such mismatches are 'insignificant' by comparison with English problems.

Spanish 'morphophonemic' spelling (representing units of meaning as well as sound-symbol correspondences) is noted for its ease of learning, although Spanish scholars such as Mosterín (1982) still publish books proposing minor reforms and school teachers still see room for improvement. Such reformers want to adjust some residual pseudo-etymology and graphemes which have become obsolete, some minor spelling problems in consonant clusters, some confusions in syllables, some phonemes with more than one grapheme, and the one single silent letter, and some think there are too few or too many consonants or vowels.

Historically, the Spanish Language Academy was founded in 1714 to settle matters of language and spelling after Renaissance scholars had produced confusions with misplaced Latinisations. The Academy's reforms of 1844, promulgated by royal decree, were based on criteria of pronunciation, etymology, popular usage, and conventional differentiation. The Academy remains the official intercontinental arbiter, and is regarded with 'respect and distrust' (Urdaneta, 1982, writing from Latin America ).

Relative efficiency through occasional updating has been achieved despite the context of the Old World's political upheavals of fascism and democracy, and the New World's revolutions and dictatorships. As part of the revolt of the Spanish New World against all things Spanish, there have also been periodic proposals for indigenous spelling, such as that put forward by Bello of Venezuela and temporarily set up in Chile last century.

Its fortunate combination of language and regular writing system makes Spanish relatively easy to learn. Judith Goyen (1989) thought that the important role given to phonics methods in six successful and popular Spanish reading programs was because they suited the regularity of the spelling. Christian (1982) considered that the level of discourse and content in what children can be given to read in Spanish was well ahead of that in American schools, because the writing system matches the sound system, which means that 'speakers of Spanish can master reading and writing very quickly and can begin to acquire information from the printed page more easily and from an earlier age.' as was also concluded from a 1967 Columbia University study in Puerto Rico.

Christian claimed that in his experience 'more than a thousand' Mexican-American students showed a significantly higher level of competence in acquiring information from the printed page, than their Anglo peers reading in English'. He also claimed that a high proportion of Spanish-Americans who have had as little as six weeks tuition, perhaps taught by their fathers to read a newspaper before they were six, can read Spanish literary classics for entertainment. Surveys have found a high proportion of high-school students who read in Spanish without formal tuition and of their own volition. Carroll & Chall (1975) remarked as if it was a truism that children in bilingual schools learned to read faster in Spanish than in English, but did not state whether their eventual reading was also more efficient.

One problem in Spanish-American comparisons is that Chicanos denigrate literacy in their own language, feeling that English is essential to help school-leavers out of their socio-economic ghetto. And despite the large and growing literature on bilingual education for Hispanics in the United States, I have been unable to find any research that compares Hispanic and English reading abilities with social and cultural factors held constant.

Are Hispanic children in the U.S. are taught to read in Spanish by the same methods used for reading in English? Or is advantage is taken of the more regular nature of Spanish orthography in order to use simpler teaching methods such as Paulo Freire's, which cannot be used with English? This, curiously enough, has apparently not yet aroused serious interest.