Have you seen this article in the Daily Telegraph?

It’s about some ‘research’ done by a bloke called Bernard Lamb, Emeritus Reader in Genetics at Imperial College London and President of the Queen’s English Society.

According to Dr Lamb, British undergraduates have a poorer grasp of written English than overseas students from China, Singapore, India and other countries.

A tiny sample of students

His evidence? A sample of 28 of his students – 18 from Britain, and ten from elsewhere.

His findings? Home students had an average of 52.2 errors in two pieces of assessed work and a final exam. Overseas students balanced out with 18.8 errors.

I’m no statistician (although Lamb is a geneticist), but I wouldn’t trust very many assertions extrapolated from those results. The only pattern I can see is that Dr Lamb is very good at finding errors in his students’ work and getting his sweeping generalisations published in the newspapers. Just like he did two years ago.

That said, newspapers are notoriously bad at reporting stories accurately. They’re also quite superb at making cock-ups, such as in this extract from the Telegraph article I’m banging on about:

Spelling mistakes littered the work of UK students. They included entigen (antigen), Chron’s (Crohn’s), angulation (agglutination), relevant, occasions, occourance, usually, coconut, superiority, proffered, aerosols, Cypreates (Cypriots), conceiving, nutrience (nutrients), pharmosutical, singal, adultery and infidelity.

Now, whether you’re a copywriter or not, you’ll probably have noticed that not all of those words are spelled incorrectly. Whether it was the fault of the writer or the subs, the fact remains that someone has blundered.

Anyway, seeing as we can’t trust the newspapers, I had a look for some of Dr Lamb’s other work on the subject. I found it here. It’s a piece about spelling standards amongst undergraduates in 1997-1998.

What are the spelling standards?

It’s interesting. It contains assertions like this:

I have excluded results from dyslexic students and obvious ‘foreignisms’ such as cleate (create), flavourable (favourable), flavour (favour), fries (flies, entirely consistent) and roaster (rooster); some ‘foreignisms’ were made by British students of overseas ancestry.

Which, to my ears, sounds like Dr Lamb is discounting errors made by overseas students because a) the words sound the same and b) the mistakes are consistent.

And that makes me wonder why he then decides to judge the two groups on these words:

  • complementary
  • effect
  • independent
  • its (possessive pronoun)
  • miniature
  • occurrence
  • occurred
  • separate

They look to me like words that native English speakers would learn to speak first, and to spell (or not spell) later. The sort of words they would spell incorrectly – consistently. They also look to me like words that overseas students would learn how to spell first (i.e. would read them before speaking them) and pronounce later. Amazingly, overseas students are better at spelling them.

Not comparing like with like

I don’t think this study is comparing like with like. What also interests me is when Lamb compares home students’ and overseas students’ ability to spell scientific terms – the ones, I suspect, that both groups will have first encountered in writing, not speech. They are:

  • Drosophila
  • melanogaster
  • Hardy-Weinberg
  • lysine
  • Mendel’s
  • Saccharomyces

According to Lamb, 5% of 55 home students got these wrong, compared to 14% of 14 overseas students. Seems to me that British students are good at learning to spell new technical words, in the same way that overseas students are good at learning to spell new words in a foreign language.

Anyway, what are Lamb’s conclusions from all this poor science? Just this:

The very high error frequencies on all kinds of words – names of humans and of organisms, chemicals, special biological terms and ordinary English words – show poor standards of teaching spelling in schools, and a woeful lack of correction of errors in primary and secondary schools. If a student has never been told that a particular spelling is wrong and that it gives a bad impression or the wrong meaning, one cannot expect the student ever to get it right. Many of the errors affect the meaning and understandability of the work.

Er, no. Errors, by and of themselves, do not show poor standards of anything. That’s a basic extrapolation error, and one that a scientist should be ashamed of. There’s nothing in the study that properly examines why spelling might be poor amongst home students. Apart from idiotic generalisations like:

Many students also say that they have not been taught grammar, including punctuation, so do not understand apostrophes. If that is true…

Great. A ‘scientific’ paper’s conclusions based on ‘if that is true’. Tedious. Smug. Boring. Almost certainly wrong.

Where’s your evidence?

And there’s my point. If – and I emphasise the ‘if’ – British students can’t spell English as well as overseas students, then we need some proper research why this might be. Not a load of amateurish cack-handed nonsense.

As it happens, I think that kids would spell and punctuate a lot better if books and stories hadn’t been reduced to a joyless chore by Government interference in the curriculum. Telling kids how to perfect something they’ve been taught to hate by the emphasis on ‘literacy’ rather than ‘reading’, ‘texts’ rather than ‘books’, will not work. You can’t shove grammar and spelling down the throat of someone who has been brought up to think the printed word is an onerous burden – but if you capture the imagination with words, then you’ll uncover curiousity about the way language works.

The other option is to force kids to write leaden, accurate, dull, boring sentences – under duress. That’s what I think Bernard Lamb wants; and, if so, the Queen’s English ain’t for me.

But as I’ve got no evidence for my theory, I ought to shut up. And I suggest that, until Dr Lamb has something that’s rather more scientific and a lot less political, he does the same.