Special English: A Language to Air News of America to the World

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Aug 1 14:19:29 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes,
July 31, 2006

A Language to Air News of America to the World


WASHINGTON, July 29 Voice of America, the government-sponsored news
organization that has been on the air since 1942, broadcasts in 44
different languages 45 if you count Special English. 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 clichs of
colloquial English, broadcasters speak at about two-thirds the speed of
conversational English. But far from sounding like a record played at the
wrong speed, Special English is a complicated skill that takes months of
training with a professional voice coach who teaches how to breathe
properly and enunciate clearly.

Mario Ritter, a Special English writer and producer, arrived at Voice of
America five years ago with many years of experience. Mr. Ritter has been
training for six months to be a Special English broadcaster. In August, he
said, he will be ready to go on the air live. Its kind of ironic that I
normally speak slowly, but it doesnt give me a leg up in being a Special
English broadcaster, Mr. Ritter said. Shelley Gollust is chief of Special
English at Voice of America. People in this country have likely never
heard of Special English, Ms. Gollust said, and, if they have, they often
dont understand the significance of it to people in other countries. They
hear it and make fun of how slow it is.

A 1948 law prohibits Voice of America from broadcasting in the United
States, but audio and text files of Special English are on the Voice of
America Web site, www.voanews.com/specialenglish. Students and teachers in
other countries say Special English is a good learning tool. I like that
the program is based on 1,500 words, Sarah Paulsworth said in an e-mail
message from Azerbaijan, where she works as a journalist and a volunteer
English teacher. It is a very tangible goal for students. I can literally
see some of my students counting the words they know. A vocabulary of
1,500 words is adequate for news reporting, but for features and
biographies, more words are allowed if they are explained in the context
of the sentence.

Words can be added or dropped from the vocabulary. Sabotage, a word used
often in the World War II era, may be dropped because it is rarely used in
news stories today. Jim Huang Jiwen, a 69-year-old mechanical engineer
from Hangzhou, China, said he had listened to Special English on the radio
for more than 20 years and, more recently, on the Internet. He said it had
helped him improve his ability to write and understand English. The
pronunciation is beautiful, the sentence is sweet and short, and the
content is interesting and friendly to our daily life, he said in an
e-mail message, adding that he particularly liked technical programs.

Francois Rennaud, 56, a teacher at a vocational school in Paris, has found
Special English useful in his business and economics classes. It closes
the gap between textbook English and traditional broadcasts such as BBC or
CNN, which are too difficult for the average student, Mr. Rennaud said. A
Special English editor at Voice of America, Avi Arditti, said: There is a
fine line between simplifying and simplification. Its not so much
simplifying, but clarification. Simplifying can seem somewhat demeaning.
Youre not dumbing it down, but youre making it understandable to your
audience whether they have Ph.D.s or are in middle school.

But some listeners, like Ali Asqar Khandan, 36, an assistant professor
from Tehran, said Special English seemed like a special program for
advertising American life and culture, not a simple radio station for
broadcasting news or teaching English. We hear this message everywhere:
not even in education reports and culture reports, but in science reports
and agriculture reports, Mr. Khandan wrote in an e-mail message.

The link between learning English and learning about America has been a
constant thread in the debate in Congress this year about revising
immigration policy. But at home, the Special English branch at Voice of
America would support the use of its programming for recent immigrants in
a bilingual model if the law did not prohibit it. If new immigrants could
turn on their radios at 8 oclock and listen to a half-hour of Special
English to listen to the news, it would be very beneficial, Ms. Gollust
said. Mr. Ritter added, That would be a great use of a resource that
already exists.


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