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.