DEV VIRAHSAWMY FOUNDATION
The Management Company of the Foundation is Abax Corporate Services Ltd of 6th Floor, Tower A, 1 Cybercity, Ebène, Mauritius.
LITERACY AND THE BRAIN
What is literacy? It “is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individuals, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, one’s income, and one’s relationship with the world… A literate community is a dynamic community, one that exchanges ideas and engages in debate. Illiteracy, however, is an obstacle to a better quality of life, and can even breed exclusion and violence (UNESCO)”.
The acquisition of literacy and language learning should not be confused as is often the case in our country. We may want to learn several languages for different reasons but if we want the learning process to be satisfactory, we must first of all ensure that literacy has been acquired. How to acieve this? UNESCO has always been categorical on this issue. The mother tongue must be used.
Research has also shown how mother tongue literacy skills help the development of the brain. It boosts the organization of the visual cortex; it allows the area of the brain responsible for spoken language to be activated by written sentences; it refines how the brain processes spoken language.
School is not just about learning new information; it is also about improving brain function. Recent research by the neuroscientist Dr Stanislaus Dehaene, Professor and Chair of Experimental Cognitive Psychology, Collège de France, Paris, and Director, INSERM-CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit, Orsay, France, indicates that learning to read actually improves the way the brain functions in several critical ways.
If the ideal medium to teach and master literacy is the learner’s mother tongue there may be circumstances which prevent this for some time. Mauritius is one such example. When the mother tongue has little or no prestige, it is rejected and considered non-profitable as medium. Then alternative strategies are needed. The Morisien-English bilingual literacy programme has been designed to reduce hostility to change while at the same time raising educational standards. As this involves major changes and the national political will being absent, I’ve had to look for avenues which may still improve the situation while reducing tension: introducing Bilingual Literacy as a compulsory, non-examinable subject. It is a minor change which will yield great results but it’s not the ideal solution; it’s only a makeshift.
Readers may wonder why and how this solution works. Mauritian Creole (MC) and English are creole languages and as such they share special syntactic features. A good approach can explore and exploit existing affinities and raise competence in English while at the same time continue the building of the national language which will positively impact on general nation-building efforts. Let us now look at some features that the two languages share while at the same time highlighting their differences.
At the level of phonology there are areas of difficulty. English is stress-timed while MC is syllable-timed; some English phonemes are absent in MC and can be acquired by much effort and practice. But at the level of orthography there are many facilitation features: MC and English do not use diacritics; both languages use capital letters for the first letter of names of days and months, the apostrophe (’) is used by both (don’t; pa’le) etc. The largest area of facilitation is found at the morphological and syntactic levels(see TWO DISTANT COUSINS published in Weekly last year).
Most importantly, skills and knowledge acquired through the acquisition of mother tongue (L1) literacy can be easily transferred to the learning process of a second language (L2) (English, French, Hindi etc.) This is what a UNESCO book says: It may not seem logical that spending more time in developing the L1 will result in stronger L2 in the long run, but that is because it results in stronger L1, building a foundation on which L2 learning is based. This has been established through over 30 years of research and practice in bilingual education. … initial literacy learning is much more efficient if it is done in the language the learner knows best, because so much of the automaticity and psycholinguistic guessing that are part of fluent reading rely on deep understanding of the language being read. Transfer between languages can be facilitated through explicit instruction of features that are not common to the two, such as phonemes, graphemes, and grammatical structures. Transfer happens even when the two languages have different writing systems. Learners are still able to transfer from the L1 to the L2 skills and knowledge such as reading readiness skills, reading and writing strategies, habits and attitudes, knowledge of text structure and rhetorical devices, sensorimotor skills, visual-perceptual coordination, and cognitive functions and thought patterns (Improving the Quality of Mother Tongue-based Literacy and Learning page 5, UNESCO).
Why are we unable to change?
MIND THAT CHILD’S MIND
Most people think that when a child is born their brain is just a blank sheet or clean slate. There is nothing further from the truth than this. Besides genetic endownments, the fetus-child is exposed to loads of information coming from both inside and outside the womb. Richard Berengarten writes in Imagems 2: “The developing human foetus is bombarded constantly by multiple sounds from its environment, the all-encompassing body of the mother. First, there are the noises that come from the interior of the mother’s body. These include the intermittent peristaltic whisperings, gurglings and swooshings of the mother’s digestive process. Even more regularly, the foetus registers the secure background rhythms of the mother’s breathing, and the pitter-patter of her heart as it pumps and pulses blood. Here is the beginning of every human being’s sense of music. We might call it a proto-music. In a study as detailed and delicate as it is profound and far-reaching, Giselle E. Whitwell collates and synthesises recent research by fetologists as follows:
Uterine sounds form a “sound carpet” over which the mother’s voice in particular appears very distinct and which the prenate gives special attention because it is so different from its own amniotic environment. These sounds are of major importance because they establish the first patterns of communication and bonding. Some researchers have discovered that newborns become calmer and more self-regulated when exposed to intrauterine sound (Murooka et. al 1976; DeCasper 1983; Rossner 1979). The soothing sounds of the ocean and water are probably reminiscent of the fluid environment in which we began life. Tomatis suggests that the maternal heart beat, respiration and intestinal gurgling, all form the source for our collective attraction to the sound of surf and may have to do with our inborn sense of rhythm. Prenatal sounds form an important developmental component in prenatal life because they provide a foundation for later learning and behavior (Whitwell, “The Sound Environment of the Womb”)”.
In Mauritius the general trend is to ignore all this and parents, teachers and society think that they have the right to write anything they want on the blank sheet or clean slate and are not aware of the damage done to the child’s brain. A good example is our attitude to language. Mauritius is the only place in the world where children are forced to learn the basics of literacy in THREE FOREIGN LANGUAGES at one and the same time while at the same time ignoring TOTALLY the womb language to which the child was exposed. Need we be surprised that 70% of the population are either semiliterate or plainly nonliterate. It is indeed tragic that in a country where schooling at all levels is free, we have thousands of children who after 6-7 years of schooling remain nonliterate, unable to read and write. The tragedy is both national and familial. In many middle class Creolophone families, children are forbidden to speak the language they heard in the womb and now hear outside the womb. I know of a case where an old monolingual Creolophone granny was ordered by Creolophone adoptive parents to use only French when talking to a newly adopted child of working class background. Try to imagine the stress and trauma inflicted on helpless creatures by powerful so-called middle class educated adoptive parents.
“The human ear is the first sensory organ to develop and from four-and-a-half months before birth the ears of a child are fully functional. In view of this, it is now generally accepted that a child hears in the womb and it already recognizes and indeed listens for its mother’s voice before and after birth. Tomatis has always emphasized the vital role that the mother plays in listening, and in therapy involving children with listening problems a recording of the mother’s voice is desirable. It is self-evident from this that, of all our senses, hearing is the primary one. In the beginning was the Word….” (Ella Williams in http://www.positivehealth.com/author/ella-williams). When we ignore this, we are sowing the seeds of disaster and we do it everyday with gusto. The result is already known. Only 30% of our population master functional literacy. Moreover the impact of our idiotic language policy has not been fully examined. There are renowned psychiatrists and neurolinguists who privately say that they suspect an abnormal rate of mental conditions ranging from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. Do we know the link between this and criminality? But hush! Pa koz sa!
ON READING AND WRITING
Speech is a unique human characteristic not to be confused with sound production by animals. We may talk of our organs of speech but there are no organs specifically designed to produce speech. In the evolution process the human race has adapted existing vital organs of breathing and eating to produce speech sounds. To produce articulate speech we use our lungs, noses, lips, teeth, palates and tongues. This distinguishing mark of our humanity emerged some 300,000 years ago and as a consequence of evolution it is now part of our genetic endowment. Human beings are normally equipped to use speech which is part of our natural makeup.
Does this also apply to reading and writing? NO! Experts believe that writing is a very recent phenomenon. Hieroglyphic writings appeared some 5,000 years ago and alphabetic writing came 2,000 years later. If there is an area in the brain which supports speech, a highly creative activity, there is no such area for reading and writing. This has been clearly, expertly and vividly demonstrated by Dr Stanislas Deheane.
[I would like here to suggest to parents, teachers and educational planners to listen to his online lecture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSy685vNqYk). ]
To be able to read and write, human beings have to develop new skills by combining resources found in different areas of the brain. By so doing, the structure and possibilities of the brain are transformed. This is achieved through hard work and much effort and practice which do not come naturally. Reading and writing are cultural artefacts which are expressions of the ascent of humans, the rise from primary primatehood to very sophisticated homo sapiens.
Consequently the acquisition of these modern civilisation skills must be well-planned and not done in a haphasard way.
First and foremost is the language issue. Since the learner has to operate with existing brain resources, can we expect success to follow the use of unknown resources? The combination of visual and existing language resources in the brain means that the acquisition of reading and writing skills will certainly grow smoothly if the language known by the learner is used. Hence mother tongue literacy should be the first step. It has been proved that when mother tongue literacy has been properly mastered in terms of phonology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics, second language and third language literacy follow suit as a transfer of skills from one language to another takes place. However foreign language learning must be staggered if we want learning to proceed smoothly and generate profit and pleasure.
When the first and second languages share a lot of features, acquisition progress can be fast, even spectacular. In that sense Mauritius and Rodrigues are blessed to have two Creole languages which are complementary (Morisien and English; Rodrige and English). We just need the political will to use these resources intelligently.
There is also the need to use the most appropriate method of teaching. The phoneme-grapheme relationship is more natural and productive than the so-called whole word approach for this is the way the brain works according to Dr Stanislas Deheane, referred to above.
We have everything to make our children happy. Why do we choose to make them miserable?