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VOA Special English at 50 Hits the Fast Lane


In a couple of months, VOA's Special English service will mark half a century on the air. Its programs, which simplify and slow the pace of delivery of English-language news and feature reports, are relished as gifts worldwide by those for whom English is a second language.

Fifty years ago, as colonial empires were crumbling and English was emerging as a global language, VOA program manager Barry Zorthian began receiving more and more letters from people who said they could not grasp the complex phrases and rapid-fire pace of American speech. He thought a more simplified use of words from a limited vocabulary might be effective. The concept turned into an entirely new, worldwide VOA service.

The vocabulary was limited, all right - to about 1000 words out of the 150,000 or more in the English language. Other, more complex words would be allowed, but their meaning would be carefully explained. Broadcasts would be delivered at a pace about one-third slower than the 130 words per minute of typical American speech.

At first, language experts at U.S. universities and American expatriates abroad who heard those first broadcasts in 1959 were appalled. "Baby talk," they called them. "You're dumbing down the language," they said.

But listeners said they loved the simplified newscasts, feature stories, and longer programs.

Barry Zorthian would not recognize the Special English Service of today. Its announcers present stories about America on television and will soon debut videos on the Internet social network YouTube. VOA Special English staffers are not just re-writing other people's stories in a slow format. They're producing original material about everything from politics to science. And teaching English will soon be more than a byproduct of what they do. Innovative approaches to helping others learn our language will be part of the service's 51st year.

Maybe . . . its . . . first . . . story . . . will be . . . about . . . 50 . . . years . . . of . . . very special . . . Special English . . . at the Voice . . . of . . . America

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