The learning of Basic in schools is only one part though a very important one, of the process by which a knowledge of this value may become general in all countries. Radio and the cinema will do much but the schools have a better chance because they have more time.
It is not uncommon for five or ten years to be given to a language, and at the end, reading, writing, and talking may all be equally impossible.
This has been true of Latin and French in English and American schools for more than a hundred years. After five years work the reading of French newspapers is still only possible with a word-book, and such talking as is attempted is certain to be a cause of amusement in Paris. In the same way, the English talked by our friends from other countries is not a good advertisement for any but their best schools; but the level of English in schools under English control overseas is even lower.
What is responsible for the present position of language teaching? Chiefly, no doubt, a bad teaching system, in which attention is given to fixed forms of words -- 'idioms,' 'collocations,' and the like -- before the structure and the root senses have been made clear; but in addition, certainly, the dead weight of a mass of unnecessary words, chiefly 'verbs' whose behavior is not regular. The memory is over-taxed when English is given to the learner as if it was no more regular, and only a little simpler, then French, which is truly a language of complex forms and fixed uses at every turn.
English is the simplest of all languages in form and structure, but if a start is made with a limited word list in which more than 'strong verbs' are given a place, it will never seem so. With this 100 go their 200 strange 'past definites' and 'past participles' -- and much more.
Take the word bear (bore, borne), used freely of parcels (carry), news (bring), fruit (produce), babies (give birth to), pain (tolerate), and so on. Even if these are kept separate in the word-list we have still to get away with
"I cannot bear him."
"He bears himself nobly."
"Bear this in mind."
"He bore down on us."
"He lost his bearings."
His 'proud bearings' is as different from the 'lost bearings' as the bear ring' with fighting animals is from a 'bare ring' with no ornaments, or a 'bare baby' from a baby 'born' but 'unbearable.' Every word of this sort has its train of tricks and the learner is certain to get it mixed up with other words of the same sound and much the same form.
The makers of 'simple' school books o happily through the range of senses, frequently without noting any change; and after the first 1,000 comes another 1,000 equally without reason or system. All this is done in the interests of a natural English which will never be natural as talked in China or Japan, India or Africa, even after ten years of school work. Such a process is only a way of humoring bad teachers, on whom the learner is made dependent --and the teacher is dependent on a book which gives no reasons for anything, but is full of tests by which the learner may be marked for memory-work and even more memory-work.
This may be seen by a comparison of Basic with any of the word-lists produced by writers who are now working so hard to get something of the same sort on the market as quickly as possible: (1) the 800 words of an American teacher (who was offering to become Basic representative in 1932); (2) the 900 word (never listed, or used without hundreds of additions) of another American woman who got all the Basic books in 1931; (3) the 1,000 words "more or less" (which will only do for school story books) of an Englishman who came across Basic in Japan in 1929; and (4) the 1,072 of an Englishman who became an 'expert' on Basic in Toronto in 1934, after meeting No. 2. Others are no doubt on the way.
There is a tendency for those who have not given much attention to Basic to take the view that the learner might be happier to have two or three hundred more words than to get control of what in most language books are named 'prepositional phrases.' The answer to this is that all the uses of the names of operations and directions given in the early stages are needed for any purpose; that those which come in late are at least as necessary for reading and talking any sort of English as the new words, would be, and are of value in building p a knowledge of the root uses; that every new word, however simple it may seem, is a new sound which may not be common in the learner's natural language, and may be a cause of trouble with other Basic words; that all common words have their tricks and special uses (like bear), of which teachers are generally quite unconscious; and that any such additions, outside a small number of 'strong verbs' which are the hardest of all, would be little help in covering the field till after the 850 themselves had done their work.
Basic is as much a protest against this new school which, with the 850 words before it, is attempting to make the first steps to English simpler without system, as against the old, which has no war-cries such as 'Correct English' but is at least wasting the learner's time with some belief of the value of hard work. Simple English as an instrument of education is something more than a short way to reading Tit-Bits, and Basic will only be of use to education authorities when they are conscious of the damage which is being done by viewing the schools as a forcing- house for hotel porters. The porters may be able to say the right thing in three languages, but so do the birds at the Zoo who have been learning by the "Direct Method' from sailors.
It is the business of the school to do something more than this; and a start may be made with The Basic Way to English, in which the 850 word are covered in four Language Books. All four have pictures on every page, with questions for testing the learner's knowledge at the end of every division. In addition, there are four Teaching Books for those who have no time for a complete training with the ABC. Simple reading-material will go with these, and details of books which are ready may be had from those who are responsible for their marketing.
Before making a start it is important to give the learner a clear idea of the range and purpose of Basic. Even the very young do better when they have a bird's eye view of the country through which they will be journeying by slow stages. They see that the end of the journey is not so far away, that there are good reasons for the rules, that there are no unnecessary details, and that if they are going on to an English of 10,000 or 20,000 words the 850 are an instrument by which new words may be controlled as they come in.
The list itself will be kept before the learner till the sounds and senses are clear and every word has been marked off in connection with the group in which it was first given. For learning and general use 'the bit of notepaper' is the right size for the pocket, and it is a common experience that even those who have never before done work out of school hours will come back with more in their heads than before.
Older learners who may have got a certain distance with some sort of English before attacking Basic will naturally be surprised if they are given something which seems to them to be designed for the first year's work only. The attraction of words is like that of money; more words seem to be a sign of power, and even if when we 'disembark' we only get off a ship, 'disembarkation' gives the simple-minded the same sort of feeling as the colored acqua pura which is so much used by medical men for other diseases of the mind. The teacher who is ready to keep away form complex and shorthand forms of language till the building of the framework is complete will be able to make the position clear. The learner has to be made to see that he will not be limited in any way after two or three months, that walking comes before running, and that he is certain to be making foolish errors all the time if he is unable to get control of the 850 words which are the key to the rest before airing his change knowledge of additions from newspapers, verse, and the market place.
The thought to keep in mind is that 850 words come before 851, and that the 851st word may be any one of those which, like other additions outside its list, Basic is able to put into operation. And if, as is clear, the 850 themselves make it possible to do all the work, even in Business or Science, for example, a discussion of the place of Basic in these important fields may be a further help to the teacher in getting his learners to see why they are taking the right first step.