Voice of America: making English "special"

An article on page A15 of today’s New York Times (also found here, registration irritatingly required) alerted me to the existence of the Voice of America, a 64-year-old news organization which broadcasts in 45 languages, including one I’d never heard of before this morning: Special English. From the article:

Special English was developed nearly 50 years ago as a radio experiment to spread American news and cultural information to people outside the United States who have no knowledge of English or whose knowledge is limited.

Using a 1,500-word vocabulary and short, simple phrases without the idioms and clichés of colloquial English, broadcasters speak at two-thirds the speed of conversational English.

Okay, fair enough. English is a complex language (because all the others are easy?) which includes as many exceptions as it does rules, and idioms and clichés only further complicate matters. Cutting those out makes English more accessible. On the other hand, if you take out the pieces that differentiate a language from of a collection of words and grammar rules, what’s the point? Avi Arditti, an editor at VOA, argues:

There is a fine line between simplifying and simplification. It’s not so much simplifying, but clarification. Simplifying can seem somewhat demeaning. You’re not dumbing it down, but you’re making it understandable to your audience whether they have PhDs or are in middle school.

Again, I get it: aim for the lowest common denominator. This is a government-sponsored news organization, after all, and it wants to reach as many people as possible. Speaking of which, I wondered why I’d never heard of either Voice of America or Special English. A possible answer?

A 1948 law prohibits Voice of America from broadcasting in the United States.

Oh. That seems odd…with the recent focus on immigration and the ever-present movement to make English the official language of the United States, I should think the government would be helping cultivate language learning resources, not banning them. But maybe I’ve missed the point – maybe the Voice of America is, as Iranian professor Ali Asqar Khandan puts it,

a special program for advertising American life and culture, not a simple radio station for broadcasting news or teaching English.

Sigh, politics. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Ryan has been proudly maintaining and contributing to Language Lab Unleashed since 2005, and is the current President of SWALLT. Since the summer of 2013 he's been causing trouble with his all-star colleagues in the UMW DTLT; when not wrangling websites Ryan can be found doing strange things with heavy objects.


  1. barbara · July 31, 2006 Reply

    Tee hee…Anita campbell’s podcast is broadcast via the VOA. I am sensing a theme here.

  2. Pete · August 1, 2006 Reply

    Politics? Of course…no surprise there…that’s VOA mission and it *is* governmentally funded. “Lowest common denominator?” How does that differ from our own teacher talk in the language classroom?

    We all do something akin to “special English” in our language classes as teachers, although we likely don’t formalize it so methodically as VOA, say, from a lexical sense–but then again, we haven’t been perfecting the schtick for decades, either. It has many names and flavors, one of which is, gasp, “comprehensible input.”

    There are other examples. Deutsche Welle doesn’t tailor lexis, but rather delivery: that service offers daily news in slow-paced German, which my German students in the past loved! And I myself utilize a similar broadcast from Radio Finland to learn Finnish.

    Heck, if the concept linguistically fosters and attracts learners, I don’t want to discount it. And I have heard more than one critic call blogs in the classroom (with all of their non-curricular content, slang, sloppy usage–at least as they are used by many native speaker=bloggers) to be the “lowest denominator.”

  3. Sharon · August 2, 2006 Reply

    Ah youth!

    The Voice of America “special English” broadcasts–once known as the “slow news”–were a lifeline for some of us living abroad during the turbulent 60s and 70s. In many places access to news about the States was extremely limited. As I remember the broadcasts, only the language–not the news–was simplified. And in those years, the news was no more biased than standard network coverage.

    Political? Of course, but the VOA’s purpose was never as blatantly propagandistic as something like Radio/TV Marte. You might want to take a look at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as well. It’s always good to know what the government is doing. Note, too, that languages like Japanese, Italian, and German are not available from the VOA; French used to be known as French-to-Africa. Clearly folks in Japan and Western Europe are assumed to have other sources of information.

    Lowest common denominator? As Pete points out, many countries/services deliver “simplified” or “slower” broadcasts; I point my students to RFI’s “Le Journal en français facile,” an excellent tool to make a bridge between classroom/textbook language and broadcasts for native speakers. News and information programs are extremely difficult for language learners; anything that helps is worthwhile.

    The existence of the Internet has made the “no broadcasting in the US” provision obsolete. The VOA has been distributing its broadcasts electronically since at least the days of gophers; in the early days of computing in languages, its files were always cited as a resource, particularly for less-commonly-taught languages. Now, of course,
    the Internet gives us access to resources far beyond what the VOA can offer, so it’s no surprise that younger people aren’t aware of it.

  4. Robert · August 9, 2006 Reply

    I see that VOA has a “Simple English” [SE] package for sale on one of its websites. I’m not going to buy it, but would really like to know from the for-purchase-program or another source what SE’s specifics are. We could all, probably, come up with SE’s 1500-word vocabulary and compose a complete news item in the active voice, but how, this writer wonders, does VOA compose its individual SE sentences that contain only one “idea”? And what’s a single “idea” to VOA and its news writers?

    An essential factor missing in THE NY TIMES article is: Other than the slower speed at which it is delivered, what does SE sound like? How does a news story [of how many minutes’ duration?] “come across [forgive, VOA, my use of an idiomatic expression, which SE eshews]? That would put SE in a useful “received perspective” and tell us, who are genuinely curious about SE, more than the article does, which concentrates on SE’s discrete parts and is absent an audio-evaluative report on SE’s affect and effect on its purported “PHD down to farmer” listeners.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: