"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Literacy, from a Child and an Adult

When I was a child, in order for me to sleep early, my parents would place pages of newspapers on top of the mosquito net so that they could still keep the lights on and continue what they were doing. The newspaper was right there on top and with my eyes still open, I had no choice but to look at those pages. My parents, of course, were pleasantly surprised when I started reading what was printed on those pages. There were no children books at home to read at night but the newspapers surely sufficed. Sometimes, the newspapers were in English, sometime, they were in Tagalog.

My parents used to tend a stall inside the old public market of Pasig. It was quite a commute from Manila and it took a combination of public transportation rides on jeepneys and buses. One day, it was decreed that public transportation would no longer have their destination posted on vehicles. Instead, special codes that included both letters and numbers were to be used. Everyone seemed confused at first, but I took the new system as a challenging yet solvable problem. I was proud when I could point to my mother which jeepney we should take. Those newspapers at night adequately prepared me to read those codes.

The first time I left the country, I spent an evening in Japan. It was the very first time when I really felt that I was no longer at home. I was so glad it was only for one night. Being in a place for the first time was surely exciting yet the pressing need to see something familiar was equally present. Being able to read street signs and take the correct rides made the difference between knowing the way and getting lost. I spent greeting the new millenium in Thailand. That was likewise quite an experience. It was not even the year 2000 in Thailand:
A photo that I took of my wife on a cruise ship in Thailand
Thailand was really challenging. I was unable to go around by myself. Unlike the banner shown in the above photo, Arabic numerals were usually not present on street signs and public transportation. Of course, there were no Roman letters. The experience in Paris was different:
My wife and I at the Arc de Triomphe, Paris
Although I did not know French, I could manage. The street signs had letters I could recognize and public transportation used Arabic numerals.

Being able to read is indeed a powerful enabler. Illiteracy is truly a profound disability in society. When the doctors at Bellevue Hospital in New York City lament at the fact that some of the poor children they see get to read a book only on the times of their visit, which happens about ten times through the entire preschool ages, I thought, at least, those poor kids got to read ten books. 

Getting children to read is one of the big challenges of a mother tongue based - multilingual education.  Would there be ten books available in the mother tongue for young children to read? Would there be newspapers? Being able to read and knowing the language are distinct from each other when I compare Thailand and France. I knew neither language but in one country, I could actually move around.


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