"Oaf … ?"

"Really?" I asked. "Are you sure?"


"So you are sure? OK. I get it."

My five-year-old was calling me an "oaf." That's alright. I'd been called stupid before, and by people even younger than her. Toddlers rolled their eyes at me and used a patronizing tone. Infants made sarcastic goo-goo-ga-gas.

"He's kidding, Grace." My wife gave me "the look," all raised eyebrows and Brooklyn.

"The O is pronounced like a U." I pointed to the book I was reading with Grace. "Uh."

"Uh-, Uh-, Uh-. Uff?"

"That's not a word, honey. But close!" I threw the exclamation point in for positive reinforcement. I didn't want the literacy police to cite me for bad parenting.

Grace squinted at the book. "Off. Off? Yeah, off!" She used the exclamation point in a fit of misguided certainty.

"No. Keep trying."

Grace frowned. "If?"

"Colder," I said.

"Colder? But there's no K or C. Both of them are pronounced like kuh."

"True, but what I mean is, you're getting colder. The word isn't if. There's no I."

"Oh yeah." Grace stared at the page for nearly a full minute, or as long as her attention would last. Maybe two seconds. She tapped her jawline with an index finger. "Hm … Why don't you tell me."

Nice move, I thought, just like the Jester's Gambit. Make the other person answer his own question. When I was a professor and students asked me things I should've known the answer to, but didn't, I'd just scratch my chin, pretend to look wise and lob the question right back at 'em.

"Of," I said.

"Uh-, Uh- , Uv." Grace mimicked. "Uv? They should just spell it U-V."

"You're right."

"I mean, seriously? That would make a lot more sense."

I couldn't argue with that. Grace was brilliant! She shook her head at the stupid oafish book and stupid oafish English language. Then she stuck a green crayon up her nose, retracted it, inspected the tip for specimens and started poking it into her left ear. Brilliant-ish.

Even with a crayon up her nose, Grace was right. English spelling and pronunciation don't make any sense. It's awkward, mongrel, ridiculous, contradictory and confusing. Our language has been developing for 1,500 years from scraps and broken chunks of Latin, Greek, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, Saxon, Scots, Celtic, Norman, Dutch and bits of everything from Sanskrit to Arabic. There's also a lot of Norse, from globe-trotting Vikings who invaded England in the 9th century.1

With all these scattered word origins, which come with their own peculiar methods of pronunciation, and hundreds of years of linguistic evolution (from Old to Middle and Middle to Modern English), it's no wonder our language is complicated and bizarre. How is anyone expected to learn English pronunciation when there are seven ways to pronounce "-ough"? It's just not right. The letter A, all on its own, has four primary pronunciations plus the schwa, whatever that is, and other variations when used in combination with second vowels.

And that's just General American English. Forget about English from Britain, South Africa, New Zealand, all the dialects and subdialects. French and Japanese are much more straightforward, with stricter rules and fewer exceptions. English is even more difficult to learn as a second language because, when you learn your mother tongue, you're just listening, absorbing and repeating. You don't overthink it. But when you learn a language as a non-native speaker, you have to study hard and use logic. Since English can be quite illogical, that's a Herculean task. I mean, why do we use in, rather than by, from, for or some other preposition? Sometimes the answer is clear. Sometimes it makes sense. Other times, the answer is just because. No wonder Grace has had trouble learning to read. Her native language is impossible!

I had trouble, when I was a little older than Grace, with insanely pronounced words. Melancholy. Could. Enough. Why isn't it spelled E-N-U-F-F? I wondered. Who makes this stuff up? Do they hate kids? And then there are homonyms. Evil homonyms. Ern-erne-urn-earn. Why would you do that to poor innocent children?

Grace has trouble with of, uv course, but also with words like much, which she wants to pronounce moo-kuh-huh. But that's okay. She's doing great. Mistakes are normal. She'll get there, eventually. It's not a sprint. The best thing to do, to help your child learn to read, is to model best practices. Let her see you reading. And not just "TV Guide" and the backs of cereal boxes. When she sees this, she'll copy you. She'll pick up her own books, look at the pictures and make up stories to go along with them. Sometimes this is better than structured activities. There's no pressure. She's having fun rather than doing something horrible, like homework or learning.

And read to your child. He can just be sitting there, absorbing the language, indirectly learning to read. There's no need to push. He'll learn some words by sight. Others can be sounded out. Go slow. Relax. It'll come. If you try to go too quickly, he might get discouraged and want to quit. Go at his pace. Grace was slow to begin reading. She was frustrated with learning letters and their sounds, so I backed off. Once she started kindergarten, though, and saw the other kids learning to read, she was eager to join in. After a few months of school, she could read short, simple books all the way through. She's proud of this accomplishment and so are we. She absolutely loves school, especially lunch, PE, art and computers. Even reading. Of course, she has no idea that algebra and physics are just around the corner, lurking.

"What's this word?"

"You tell me," I said.

"Daaad! I asked you." Grace gave me "the look," her mom's scary look.

"But you're supposed to be learning."

"I am. But this word's boring. Just tell me what it is."

"O-N-E. Wun."

"Wun?" she said. "That's stupid."

"Yeah … what about this one?"

"I don't know."

"Sound it out," I said.

"E-N-O-U-G-H. En-ug-huh?"


"No, I want to keep reading," Grace said.

"The word. The word is enough."


"It's a hard one. I had trouble with it, too."


"Yep. Even I had trouble with some words."

"Like modesty?" my wife said.

"No, I was the most modest student in school. They gave me an award for it."

"Really?" Grace asked.

"Never listen to your dad." My wife winked at me.

"Time's up," I said. "I'm tired."

"I'm gonna keep reading."

Grace sat cross-legged on the floor and started reading. She got a few words right, but for the most part she was just making up a story. It was a six-page book about two cats becoming best friends, but she added a prince, princess, snowman, pizza, castle, unicorns, magic turtle, Scooby Doo and a soccer game. That's OK. It's all part of the process.

I remembered just a few years ago when Grace was a toddler. I left the room for a few minutes and, when I returned, she was sitting on top of the dining room table looking at one of my books. She was holding it correctly, though upside-down, staring with apparent intelligence at the words. She knew what to do - sitting and staring and book-holding-wise - but of course she couldn't actually read. Four years ago, but it seems like yesterday.

"Grace? Do you want me to read you one more book?"

Speaking of language and its strangeness, among the Norse leaders who controlled the Anglo-Saxon lands were the spectacularly named Eric Bloodaxe, Æthelred the Unready, Sweyn Forkbeard - declared King of England in 1013 - Cnut, Harold Harefoot and Harthcnut.

Andrew Madigan is a freelance writer. His first novel, "Khawla's Wall," is available from Barnes & Noble, Amazon and a few very hard-to-find book shops.