WORDPOWER


There is a popular programme on television in Fiji called Spell Well. In each transmission two teams of two children, no older than about twelve and sometimes younger, compete to spell words that would be hard for many adults. Among the ones when I watched were jocose, halcyon, exacerbate, hilarity, indifference, respective, obsequious. There was a word I'd never heard - fartlek - apparently a Swedish term for a form of athletic training. The competitors didn't always know the meanings but from the sound of the words they were able to construct the orthography, more often than not.

How many Australian schoolchildren could spell such words - how many PhD students come to that, or their supervisors? My experience is that Australians are a bit patronising about Fiji - nice place to go to stay in a resort but hopelessly backward otherwise. Well, if its education system is backward, on the evidence of Spell Well it still has something going for it. Knowledge of the meaning of words and how to spell them is not the ultimate goal of education but it's a step towards the acquisition of articulacy which ought to be one of them. I suspect that learning in Fijian schools hasn't changed a great deal from the system bequeathed by the British, which would have been modelled on their own then excellent system. After independence Fiji was too small and unimportant to merit the attention (or be able to fund the career advancement) of the two generations of pedagogical experts who with their theories and ideologies have wrecked primary and secondary education in less "backward" countries such as Australia.

21 January 2013


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