Your Kiwi accent is not the problem – English spelling is
OPINION: Recent claims by literacy tutors that the New Zealand accent may be impairing child and adult literacy tell us more about continued cultural cringe in New Zealand than they do about the relationship between writing and speech.
Two literacy tutors are quoted as saying that the New Zealand vowels are a particular problem for children and dyslexics when learning to read. But this cannot be true. Kiwi vowels are no more of a problem than anyone else's vowels are.
The problem with learning to read English is not our Kiwi accent; the problem is the crazy English spelling system.
Any speaker of any variety of English today has trouble with the mapping of spelling to the actual sounds of the words. Blaming any of this trouble on the New Zealand vowels is historically ill-informed and simply feeds the old chestnut that if Kiwis spoke English "properly", they would be immeasurably better off. And that's just not true.
The English spelling norms we have today are a mess for a number of reasons, all of which cause problems for anyone born since – oh, let's say – about the year 1500. Our spelling system has its roots in Chancery English which dates to around the 14th century.
Unfortunately, even then, there was no standardised mapping of one sound to one spelling for the vowels in English. The Chancery norms were a hybrid of what was spoken in London, Oxford and Cambridge and some of the scribes would have come from dialect areas even further afield.
To make matters worse, not too long after these norms started to settle down, English underwent several cataclysmic changes that changed the way it sounds. One of these was the Great Vowel Shift. This involved the dramatic movement of the long vowels in Middle English and left them with very different pronunciations than they previously had. This is how meet and meat ended up sounding the same, even though they have different spellings. It's also how a word like boot ended up losing the lovely, long open "oh" sound that its spelling retains.
Also at about the same time, English finally lost a number of unstressed vowels that had been lingering at the ends of words. The reason we have a so-called "silent e" at the end of a word like bite or ate is because they used to be pronounced. It was probably something like the vowel we have today at the beginning of words like ago.
These two changes were actually linked together, but that doesn't matter terribly much to speakers of English today, except that when kids are learning to read, it can help them to know that a "silent e" goes with a long vowel in the body of the word. (My son was taught that the "silent e" sprinkles some kind of fairydust on the short sound of bit and makes it a long vowel in bite. Did that really help more than just knowing that bit and bite are different words? Hard to say without a control group who didn't have the fairydust.)
As a result, everyone born in the last five to six hundred years has found that how they pronounce words will only take them so far when learning to read English. There are some very conservative varieties of English that maybe have less of a learning burden. I remember a Glaswegian man telling me that to open the train carriage door I needed to put out my "heed" (head) and reach from the outside.
So if our vowels are not the problem, is there any evidence that our literacy levels are? In fact, not. A 2016 report from the Ministries of Education and Business Innovation and Employment show that the literacy panic being sold by some of these literacy experts is not a problem either.
New Zealand ranks fourth in the OECD for overall literacy skills, on par with The Netherlands, Australia and Sweden. In fact, more New Zealanders have "high" literacy skills than have "low" skills. This ratio puts us (along with Australia) in a better position than Canada, England and Northern Ireland and the United States. Obviously, for the 12 per cent of New Zealanders who have low literacy skills this is a major problem, but it seems unlikely that targe–ting their vowels will make even the slightest impact on their ability to read.
There are two reasons why you should take with a grain of salt any "expert" advice that tells you Kiwi vowels are to blame for poor literacy levels. First, our literacy levels are no worse – and in some cases, significantly better – than our OECD peers. Second, our vowels are no further removed from English spelling than other speakers' of English are. When you combine those two facts, it makes any suggestion that our accent is fuelling a literacy crisis highly suspect.
If someone tells you our vowels are a problem, they may not know their "ah"s from a hole in the ground.
Professor Miriam Meyerhoff is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Victoria University.