Our children can read but they can’t speak

A global study on 400,000 pupils aged 9 and 10 ranked them for their reading skills.

And what do you know – English tots came fourth in the world, behind only Singapore, Hong Kong and Russia, and way ahead of the rest of Europe and the US.

Rishi Sunak was ecstatic, declaring that pupils and teachers “should be incredibly proud of this achievement”. Incredibly is the right way to describe it: I for one find the results hard to believe.

Then again, the findings are comparative. They don’t necessarily mean that English pupils aren’t functionally illiterate – only that most of the others are even worse.

My incredulity, I hasten to disclaim, is based on little personal experience. It has been a long time since I knew (or had) any children in that age group. But there are many schools in my area, and I hear swarms of tots talking every day, in the street, on public transport, in the parks.

I make a point of listening, what with English being my lifelong love, passion and profession. And I have to admit with some chagrin that most exchanges I overhear don’t resemble the English that has been my lifelong love, passion and profession. In fact, and here my chagrin is replaced with despondency, they don’t resemble anything traditionally known as human speech.

One gets a distinct impression that these children see Mowgli as an aspirational role model. There are no discernible sentences in their speech, and very few discernible words. Mostly they communicate in interjections that only have a semiotic, rather than semantic, meaning.

Whenever an intrepid child does attempt to put a sentence together, it’s done with no regard for any conventions of grammar. As far as I can understand, that is. For whatever they do say is delivered in accents occupying the infra area way below prole speak.

I have no problem whatsoever understanding any British dialect, even those that baffle my English wife. But what I’m talking about is sub-dialectal and sub-phonetic – it’s some kind of oral cipher designed to keep the uninitiated at bay.

Children who read a lot don’t talk that way. Say what you will about some books, but most of them are written in complete and fairly grammatical sentences. A child who devours books has to regurgitate them into at least a semblance of coherent speech.

Of course, the study has only established that our children can read, not that they do read. It’s entirely possible they keep that skill in reserve to take it out later in life, when they have to read the questions in job applications.

I know nothing about those overachieving children in Singapore and Hong Kong, but I do have some idea of their Russian counterparts. After all, I was one of them, if lamentably long ago.

I went to a bog standard Moscow school, in no way an equivalent of a decent public school in England (the way they used to be, at any rate). The entry age was seven, and perhaps only about 10 per cent of the pupils knew how to read and write in first form.

But by the time we reached the same age group as the one involved in the test, everyone could read fluently, even the pupils teetering on the edge of mental retardation. Whether they read and especially what they read are different matters, but they all knew how.

Now, Russian may be a devilishly hard language for foreigners to learn, but reading it comes easily to native speakers because the language is phonetic: most words are spelled the way they are pronounced. English is different, and don’t get me started on Finnish and Hungarian.

So I’m not surprised that Russian pupils came out ahead of their English equivalents. I have no idea how those Russian children talk, other than being sure that adults have no problems understanding them.

But I refuse to believe that children who sound the way they do in our (rather affluent) neighbourhood ever read anything they aren’t forced to at school. I find it much easier to believe other studies, showing that some 75 per cent of our school leavers have reading difficulties.

Again, Descartes did say that all knowledge is comparative. I’m not sure I agree with the whole sweeping range of that statement, but the study in question certainly was comparative. If our children beat the French, it says more about French educational standards than ours.

While we are on the subject of English, I collect solecisms uttered by our sports commentators and from time to time share them with you. I focus on the speech of professional journalists, not ex-footballers.

The latter group grew up only ever using English to swear at referees, and they spent all their school years kicking either balls or their opponents. But sports reporters are my colleagues, people educated and trained to use English professionally.

That’s why, rather than unsportingly picking on the likes of Glenn Hoddle, a midfielder of genius but a walking thesaurus of solecisms, I concentrate on the other chaps in the commentators’ booth.

Two pearls I picked up recently reinforced my conviction that the use of long words must be licensed. First, a commentator spoke of a player who used to be a “young protégé at Chelsea”. Contextually, one has to believe he meant ‘prodigy’ – an easy mistake to make, for functional illiterates that is.

His colleague was talking about another player hitting a pass straight to an opponent who “received the gift gratuitously”. It took me a second to figure out how it’s possible to accept a misplaced pass wantonly or unnecessarily, before I realised that the fellow meant ‘gratefully’.

Admittedly, both ‘gratefully’ and ‘gratuitously’ come from the same Latin word, gratus. But somehow I doubt that hack was led astray by his perusing Virgil and Horace.

He was just providing an illustration to what some unkind philologists call ‘prole drift’ – the urge to use posh-sounding words to appear more sophisticated. My message to him is: “don’t be a bleedin’ smartarse”.

But at least we can take solace in the knowledge that the chap’s children know how to read, although probably not Virgil and Horace.

P.S. It’s not just sports journalists either. Speaking of the Troubles in Ireland, documentary director James Brummel said the English show a “shameful disinterest” in the subject. It’s ‘uninterest’, mate.

3 thoughts on “Our children can read but they can’t speak”

  1. I shudder when I hear my own children speak and work hard to make sure the youngest does not learn from his brothers. Sounding cool is much preferred to sounding educated. “Bruh” replaces all names and pronouns. “These ones” sets my teeth on edge.

    As for the survey in question, I would suggest that the British pupils were hand-picked and not random choices. Should we ask those same students, or those in your neighborhood, to define “disinterested” and “uninterested”?

  2. And to comprehension of what you are reading? How is that scored and how do the English lads and girls compare to others?

  3. If British children are so good at reading, why do they have trouble answering the easy questions asked in the recent “SAT” tests?
    Note that some teachers are said to have had similar difficulty answering these easy questions. Note also the assumption that no test may include any questions that any children may be unable to answer. Note above all that our civilisation is doomed.

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