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The Founding of Special English Program - 2002-03-05

A VOA Snapshot - Part of VOA's 60th Anniversary Year Coverage

In the 1950s some VOA managers became concerned that our English broadcasts were not as understandable as they could be. Many listeners didn't know English well enough to understand a newscast or talk show, and poor shortwave reception made the problem even worse. So VOA came up with a solution.

Special English went on the air in 1959. It used a limited vocabulary of 1500 words, and a slow delivery. But its programs covered the news and other sophisticated subjects. Special English became one of VOA's most popular services. But it nearly never happened.

Richard Borden, who helped create Special English, says VOA asked several leading U.S. universities to study whether a limited vocabulary broadcast would work.

"Those universities came back with a unanimous finding that it was impossible," Richard Borden said.

But VOA managers trusted their instincts instead of the experts, and they put Special English on the air.

"With our hearts in our mouths, we ventured into a VOA studio, and on the air we went with the words, 'This is the Voice of America, broadcasting in Special English," Mr.Borden recalled.

Reaction to the broadcast was immediate. The U.S. Embassy in Manila, for example, said, 'Your programs would be demeaning…an insult!'" But listeners disagreed. VOA still broadcasts three hours a day in Special English, and it's also on television and the Internet . Many listeners use Special English as a bridge between English lessons and listening to standard English broadcasts, like this one.

To write to us about our anniversary, send an email to Or, send regular mail to Anniversary, VOA News Now, Washington, D.C. 20237, USA.