Many children, many languages, many stories

Once upon a time…who has not felt the delicious anticipation of diving headlong into a story with a favourite elder reading to us or telling us a story? Manisha Chaudhry, Director, Manan Books, shares more about the beautiful world of children stories and the art of reading.

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India, with all its diversity has a billion stories and we are still counting. With its rich tradition of myths, the lilt of many spoken tongues and the vibrancy of its performing arts, there should be no shortage of stories for children. With 780 languages and 66 scripts recorded by Professor Ganesh Devy’s path-breaking People’s Linguistic Survey of India, we should take rightful pride in our multilingual heritage. And there isn’t a shortage of stories or children eager to listen to them… except that the road to reality has several unexpected bumps. While we have stories aplenty, we are woefully short of books for children. The gap between speech communities and the written and printed word is ever-widening since the introduction and universalization of formal education.

Today, almost the entire country’s population has been pulled into the fold of education and parents across income groups are sending their children to school. The RTE has made education a justiciable right of all Indian children. However, there are several challenges inherent in the universalization of primary education given the huge variations in geographical, linguistic and socio-economic realities. Ever since the issue of quality in education has occupied centre-stage, there has been a nation-wide awareness of low reading skills among children. The preoccupation with low reading skills has been so complete that it has not even allowed the discourse to move further towards children attaining higher order learning outcomes

We have 372 million children in the age band of 3-14 years and as many as 97 per cent of them are enrolled in the 2.4 million schools in our country now. A very large number of them are first generation school-goers which means that they are facing the rigours and demands of formal education and print for the first time. They are expected to learn to read and write, do basic maths and based on the assumption that they can read, they have to learn other subjects as well.

Many of these children coming from diverse linguistic backgrounds find themselves in a situation of having to begin their school journey with a language that is different from their mother tongue. While all of us have the ability to be multilingual, reading is something that has to be learnt at the right time. This magically elusive ‘right time’ should ideally coincide with the early years of a child’s school journey. With adequate exposure to print, a stress-free and fun learning environment, children learn to decode the written word, attain fluency by reading a certain number of words per minute and quite magically one day become readers! That is, they begin to read with meaning. Since they already speak the mother tongue by the time they come to school, they are eager to share their feelings, ideas and experiences. If they get books that they enjoy and which reflect their own world back to them, the act of reading is a pleasure and not a chore. Once they can read independently, they gain that autonomy that is so important for learning and education to be a meaningful experience that adds value to life.

Unfortunately, this is not a reality for a vast majority of children coming to school for the first time. The textbook is the only book that they know and it may well be in a language that is not their mother tongue. The school environment can be daunting rather than nurturing and the teacher may be over-stretched and not be able to give them the time and attention they need to learn to read. She or he may also not have received the training that is required to teaching reading and numeracy. Home support is often absent if the parents have not had formal schooling. The bright lights in the child’s eye begin to cloud and she can quite literally become ‘tongue-tied’ in such a scenario. Instead of opening doors to a wider world, such an introduction to ‘education’ can only take away her simple sense of selfhood and well being. The joy of losing yourself in a book is a very distant mirage.

While there can be debates on the larger objectives of a formal education and on the kind of personal growth and civic values we want in the citizens of the future, there is no debate on the need for every child to learn to read in primary school. It is absolutely crucial to understand the importance of mother tongue fluency for this to be achieved. All other fluencies and educational achievement is contingent on this basic building block of the edifice of education. Once a child is reading fluently in her own first language, it is not difficult to pick up other languages. There is a ladder of learning where the first step is oracy. An environment where children can talk and express themselves is necessary for oracy to develop. Reading and writing follow naturally in graduated steps. Oracy for young children can only happen in the mother tongue. Stories are a natural way to encourage oral expression. However, in our classrooms, the words heard most often are ‘Silence!’, ‘Chup’. Added to this is the overwhelming anxiety to acquire English earlier and earlier- and parents and the schools bear equal responsibility for this state of affairs — mother tongue fluency is largely ignored. In fact, with the wide prevalence of a reductionist view of education, children are taught only to perform in exams which means that they memorize and reproduce with hardly a chance to think critically and express themselves.

It is not very difficult to acquire the skill to read. What makes it a habit? Practice. Practice requires good books that offer a chance to read for pleasure. The act of reading has a cognitive dimension as much as a strong affective one. Positive associations with stories, being read to and having the freedom to choose what to listen to and read are extremely important in a child’s overall personality development. In fact, the freedom to choose a favourite book is one of the first acts of autonomy that a child can perform in a system which is otherwise highly prescriptive. Her opinion matters. Her expression matters. These first freedoms are important for her to develop critical thinking. Isn’t it important in any democracy to have an environment where the exercise of choice is respected and allowed to bloom?

A logical extension of this would have been the availability of good children’s books and magazines in all Indian languages. The actual situation is rather dismal as the publishing industry has hardly skimmed the surface of this huge potential market. Children’s books make up close to 30 per cent of the publishing industry. However, there is a huge book hunger that is not being met as there is an estimated 1 book among 20 children. Out of the 22 scheduled languages, in most of them, the publishing is confined to textbooks. There are very few books published in Indian languages for the reading pleasure of children. There is also the absence of a reading culture and buying books for the pleasure of reading is not a priority spend in a family’s budget. The few books that do get published are poorly produced and are often not age appropriate for beginners.

This is a silent crisis that is only now getting the attention it deserves because poor reading skills in the mother tongue, official language of instruction and a third language are affecting all aspects of educational achievement. In the long run, this is going to affect an entire generation’s ability to express itself. If you are neither fluent in your mother tongue or a more dominant international language such as Hindi/ English, your vocabulary, self-expression and employability will all reflect this lack.

The important link between language and culture will also weaken if there are no books for children which narrate the stories of their country, as the written word gains primacy over oral transmission. As the value ascribed to literacy goes up, the absence of books in any language will certainly impact its status in a world driven by written communication and commerce.

Just like the RTE has made education a right, the right to read good books has to be embedded in our larger understanding of education. If democracy gives everybody the right to equality of opportunity, then the democratization of the joy of reading is a basic first step in that direction. This is only possible if children’s books are published in all Indian languages. They must be pictorial and engaging. Beginner readers should feel comfortable with their first books and very soon they will be ready and hungry for greater variety. Illustrations have to be culturally rooted, appealing and help the child to be drawn into the book.

Since many languages have a thin legacy of books for children, authors and illustrators have to be encouraged to work for children. Oral stories can transition into print with adequate editorial and art support and will go a long way in connecting a child to her culture.

Whether it is tribal child or a child from a marginalized background, their childhood should be reflected in the books they read. Early readers should be rooted in the culture and surroundings of the child to strengthen their sense of self. Once they become fluent readers, books should open windows into new worlds of knowledge and culture. It is only books in many Indian languages that will go a long way in dissolving the invisible boundaries that exist between the mainstream and the margins. Only then will education mean more than schooling and provide a level playing field to all children to realize their fullest potential. Quite simply, we owe it to our children to give them the best opportunities to succeed and this is true of ALL children. If books are a gift you can open again and again, the gift should be available to all children.

They will be the readers, the leaders and the market for tomorrow.

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