Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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Date: Wed, 19 Mar 2003 22:59:26 -0800 (PST) From: Terrence Potter Subject: The Making of Literate Societies
Olson, David R., and Nancy Torrance, ed. (2001) The Making of Literate Societies, Blackwell Publishers.
Terrence M. Potter, US Military Academy
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK'S PURPOSE AND CONTENTS This edited volume brings together sixteen papers about the theme of literacy and how we should understand the phenomenon in its historical context and in its contemporary reality. The editors attempt to synthesize much of what we have learned about literacy, especially the provision of literacy, and then present selected literacy projects as they are conceived and currently practiced. It is asserted that the literacy projects of the 1950s and 1960s largely failed, because what was attributed to literacy in terms of ability to empower was essentially imaginary. Consequently a new view of literacy should emerge that emphasizes the situated practice of literacy in a society, what it can do and how it can work there (Olson 1994). This is in contrast with a view of literacy as an ideology according to which the individual acquisition of an indispensable and universally recognized life skill will somehow address any and all of society's problems. The first of two sections provides the setting for this discussion. Its papers establish literacy, especially writing, as a typical endeavor in the developed world, a dominant cultural and social practice. Chapters in the second section present reports on aspects or projects on literacy in the developing world, especially where extending literacy has been a goal. This volume serves to highlight a prevailing view of literacy development as social development.
In Chapter 1, "Conceptualizing Literacy as a Personal Skill and as a Social Practice", the editors Olson and Torrance review a set of issues that when properly understood contribute to a more accurate view of and produce more appropriate expectations of literacy in society. Such a view is pragmatic and reiterates a new direction that focuses more on what people can do with literacy, 'less as cause and more as instrument' (5). This practical focus characterizes the general thrust of the papers that follow in the volume. If this view is taken by current generations, it may help to determine how writing and reading skills can be used by communities for their own purposes in their own cultural contexts. At the same time other needs in society must be addressed rather than rely upon the cliché that suggests illiteracy alone is responsible for all of society's ills or that literacy (education) will cure all of society's ills. The authors suggest that if the need to meaningfully apply the skills of reading and writing for personal and professional advancement in specific societies is recognized, then perhaps some of the gap between imagined and real social development that is possible through literacy may be realized.
In Chapter 2, "The Roles of Literacy Practices in the Activities and Institutions of Developed and Developing Countries", Armin Triebel places literacy among an array of human communal activities, social functions and cultural processes. He seeks to demonstrate that literacy development has been hampered by the belief that literacy itself generates social change and the belief that script changes mind (21). His review of the literature identifies important parameters that must be understood and accounted for if the role of literacy should be changed. These include how the literacy-related policies have been orchestrated, how they have been rationalized philosophically, and what the legacy of writing practices has mandated for literate societies today. While he clearly believes in a future for literacy, he is less sanguine about the prospects for self-sustaining literacy. Through institutional (government, political system, empowerment, etc.) arrangements and support efforts the advantages and interests that members of society derive will likely be the bases for the development of wider literacy.
In Chapter 3, "Societal Literacy: Writing Culture and Development", George Elwert asserts that the development of a culture of writing is the necessary pre-condition that determines written tools will become the norm in a given society. Societal literacy differs from functional or basic literacy in important ways. In distinguishing between oral and written culture, Elwert outlines the strengths of oral culture, suggesting that an oral culture perspective must be taken seriously if a written one should come to supplant or replace it. The institutions in a literate society are necessarily concerned about writing and value it for its usefulness rather than simply promote its wider use. Necessary societal conditions for the development of literacy include standardization in language, trustworthiness as in contractual agreements, technological development, and respect for textual communities that are sheltered from power structures. Elwert ties self- reproducing literacy to social and economic development. Societal structures that are working demand literacy. These structures include the rule of law, a market economy, and an independent system for advancing knowledge. As literacy alone has never triggered development by itself, it is "the concomitant development of a new type of language, and a new set of institutions for using literacy in the fields of knowledge, economics, law, and politics" that accounts for real social development (65).
In Chapter 4, "Literacy in Ancient Greece: Functional Literacy, Oral Education, and the Development of a Literate Environment", Rosalind Thomas summarizes key aspects of the emergence of the so-called "document mentality" and an "archive mentality" in ancient Greece, and later the more generalized development of a literate environment. She cautions against equating the well-known uses for writing in specific circles, societies and cities with the notion of generalized literacy that we imagine today. The reasons for its rise are linked more to the network of needs connected to social development than to the linear development of a public literacy per se. She presents orality as a highly valued social form of communication, and describes early writing as subservient to the needs of persons who orate or dramatize in person. Based upon the archeological record she describes purposes for writing in ancient Greek society, and notes that the absence of any sacred or venerated text suggests religion had little or no major role in literacy development. The written texts, however, that formed a tradition in Greek education and represent products of literacy probably "did most to foster a "textual community" and a literate environment" (78). But Thomas quickly returns to her original theme that both oral and written cultures were vital in classical Greece. She echoes a general theme of this volume when she reiterates the need to examine the cultural and political values assigned to orality in any present day culture where the products of literacy may not be valued or even needed.
Chapter 5, "Literacy in Germany" by Utz Maas, traces the success that Germany has had in achieving universal literacy. Germany's rate of illiteracy by OECD standards is pegged at 14.5 percent, better than Canada, the USA and Switzerland. A rating of 1 to 10 per cent is more commonly offered. The author reports and analyzes the social and historical facts that show that literacy became a cultural reproduction, according to which people often engaged in writing for its own sake. As the needs of German literacy adapted Latin for its own purposes, so ironically, did those who would make German language universal continue to exhort Latin the language of prestige. Even today the quest for reform in orthography does not enjoy universal support, e.g. the persistence of the grapheme <ß>, named ess tsett. The author introduces the preliminary results of an ongoing study that promises to reveal how written language is successfully acquired in Germany, and how spoken and written language are distinct, despite the typical pedagogical presentation that asserts spoken language primacy. A chart summarizes the historical development and the important distinctions (keys) noticed between spoken and written language that are said to have contributed to the high rate of literacy in Germany.
Chapter 6, "Literacy in Japan: Kanji, Kana, Romaji, and Bits" by Florian Coulmas. The author provides in rapid succession a description of each of the written forms that have been introduced and retained for use in Japanese. In this way he is also able to offer an outline of literacy development. Thirteen figures illustrate the different graphemes that have become fully integrated into literate culture over time. Historically other writing system features (e.g. alphabetic or Romaji) are added whenever needed, rather than discarding or changing the existing system. The author concludes that writing systems evolve due to a combination of conventional needs, social control and conceptual organization of graphemes. The high rate of literacy that prevails in Japan depends upon knowing the intricate combination of systems, which is in turn possible because Japan is an intensively schooled society.
Chapter 7, "Language, Literacy, the Production and Reproduction of Knowledge, and the Challenge of African Development" by Kwesi K. Prah, begins Part II of the volume, "On Becoming a Literate Society: Literacy in Developing Societies." In this chapter Prah pursues his basic belief that "literacy for development in Africa must be based on African languages" (126; also Prah, 1995; 1993). He sees the use of colonial languages as a hallmark of an elite making a desperate attempt to integrate into western culture (127). Prah stresses the role of people, culture and language in constructing his nativist argument for the need to have an African based development of ideas. These ideas - presumably those that will address issues of literacy - will be able to show the influence of the society where they originate. Prah echoes his longstanding view that continued use of neocolonialist, European languages to relate and create knowledge disserves Africans. Thus the use of African indigenous languages in the intellectual enterprise and for purposes of development is essential if real contributions will be made to "a truly universal fund of culture" (140).
Chapter 8, "Literacy and Literature in Indigenous Languages in Benin and Burkina-Faso" by Joseph Akoha. The author asserts the role of language policy is crucial to sustained literacy development. The sustained policy of making indigenous languages the languages of literacy will aid "in nation-building, democracy development and the struggle against poverty" (147). Charging a kind of neo-colonialist conspiracy holds back the indigenous from making true sense of literacy and making it part of their communities and individual lives, the author proposes that political will is needed to support adult education in indigenous languages. This in turn will promote the needed autonomy and empowerment that is crucial to true development.
Chapter 9, "Constructive Interdependence: The Response of a Senegalese Community to the Question of Why Become Literate" by Sonja Fagerberg- Diallo. The language Pulaar (a Fulah language), an indigenous language used by about 3 million, has successfully become a language of literacy. Fagerberg-Diallo traces a continuum that goes from simple writing to publishing making use of Pulaar. This indigenous language successfully competes with French and with Wolof, the other principal indigenous language, as a language of education and cultural identity. Books in Pulaar have been available since 1971 and are popular, especially "novels, histories and those about indigenous knowledge systems" (163). The real and varied uses of Pulaar integrate autonomous and idealogical models for literacy support. This integration has meant a successful transformation of literacy into a powerful tool to discover and transmit the cultural core of the using communities.
Chapter 10, "Literacy for Gonja and Birifor Children in Northern Ghana" by Esther Goody and JoAnne Bennett. The authors are concerned with the relationship between L1 and L2 literacies in Northern Ghana and how resources can be used to address them in that country. Despite numerous subcultures connected to literacy, L2 literacy is the only way to gain access to them and to key resources. Goody and Bennett paint a bleak picture of English teaching and learning, and describe teachers as discouraged and unable to see their efforts as helpful towards improvement. However, the positive effects of teaching L1 literacy on later acquisition of reading comprehension in L2 English are reiterated and several factors are described to explain why official policy has not followed and changed to promote L1 literacy. Officially programs emphasize that L1 literacy will be of assistance to all Ghanaians, having the potential to bring all of them into the modern world. Despite achievements by altruistic local literate teachers, the sustainability of L1 literacy is problematic. The authors propose that a level of "metaliteracy", that which is shared by those who teach L1 literacy and those who teach L2 English literacy, could serve as a bridge between local communities of literacy and the national subculture of L2 (English) literacy (198).
Chapter 11, "Literacy and Intercultural Bilingual Education in the Andes" by Luis Enrique López. The author raises the related issues of the role of indigenous languages and of bilingualism in oral societies with a hegemonic language, in this case Spanish. As background he provides information about principal indigenous languages, numbers of speakers, and official "shifts" on the part of Latin American governments in the interest of indigenous languages and cultures. Recent developments include the "officialization" of indigenous languages and cultures and increasing local control in government and education. Lopez reviews the historical record of literacy. Pre- Columbian writing included the bundled textiles, inscribed ceramics, the kipu record-keeping system, as well as widespread use of glyphs. When compared with the worldview of Europeans and their conception of the written word especially the idea of book, the indigenous populations did not understand it as concept. Distinctions in worldviews were embedded in the different concepts of writing. The author explains in some detail the necessary ideological contradiction that results when there is a change from Spanish to indigenous language as the first language of literacy. It is clear today that education cannot be seen as emancipatory when the literacy process is carried out entirely in the unknown, hegemonic language. With the increased rates of bilingualism due to in part formal bilingual education, the amount of writing and availability of printed books have increased. Books in Quecha, Aymara and Guarani reach primary schools in rural areas. In particular, the Guaranization process transfers indigenous knowledge and competencies through the reading and writing of the ancestral language. In this case bilingualism has preserved and promotes the continuation of an oral culture. The resulting literate environment in Latin America is becoming one based upon not one but two languages. The advantages connected with the ability to create in two languages and to recover indigenous knowledge make biliteracy the right choice for indigenous peoples who must live and survive in two communities any way.
Chapter 12, "The Uses of Orality and Literacy in Rural Mexico: Tales from Xaltipan" by Elsie Rockwell. The village of Xaltipan successfully "appropriated" writing principally because it is embedded in social activity or cultural practice. This ethnographic study of Cleofas' storytelling demonstrates the use of written documents by a local official for his purposes. Through his oral discourse mediation, persuasion, negotiation, litigation and ordinary conversation he has regularly resorted to the authority he is able to derive from written documents. Since Cleofas carries out these processes in oral discourse, we should see written documents then as "embedded within this oral performance" (243). The author also draws attention to the parallel uses of written texts in the oral performance of contemporary scholars. She calls for a context specific analysis of cultural practices that integrates the analysis of oral performance with the use of various written texts.
Chapter 13, "Developing a Literate Tradition in Six Marginal Communities in the Philippines: Interrelations of Literacy, Education, and Social Development" by Maria Luisa Canieso Doronila. Following a description of the context for literacy in the Philippines, and a quick review of the results of her 1996 study that covers the effects of literacy on thinking, Doronila seeks to portray each of several communities in its own stage of building a literate tradition. Drawing upon her original ethnographic study she briefly describes each community in terms of literacy and social development. Areas include traditional and literate knowledge and how they are encoded, official functional literacy rate (without regard to non-literate or other literate subcultures), and contradictions or issues presented by ethnolinguistic and religious composition, and an assessment of socioeconomic and social development. Two of the communities Doronila has studied engage in activities that show the integration of literacy into their daily communal lives. As communities that are seeking change they have begun to incorporate literate practice in important ways to achieve their own communal objectives. The author's 1996 study offers lessons for other communities that wish to transform themselves in ways that will address local issues. For Doronila literacy can best become literate practice in communities capable of sustaining a social development process and when the limits of change as prescribed by policy-makers and powerful groups are suitably circumscribed.
Chapter 14, "Issues of Literacy Development in the Indian Context" by Chander Daswani. Daswani describes in some detail the complex linguistic situation of Indian society in which literacy programs are employed to promote literacy development. He estimates that an Indian who completes 10 years of schooling will have learned to read and write in three languages. Those three languages will come from a mix of over 1652 mother tongues, 17 scheduled languages, Hindi the national language, and English an international language. According to Daswani multilingual India has not had broad success with mass literacy programs due to complex linguistic and social factors. The promised economic development has not necessarily resulted from literacy programs, a national priority. However, long term positive individual, family and society effects have been noted as a result of these programs. These include providing enhancement for creativity, making the rule of law feasible, and promoting notions of egalitarian democracy. Daswani provides a brief but compelling assessment of the effectiveness and status of literacy in India, especially in light of its highly complex linguistic situation.
Chapter 15, "Women and Empowerment through Literacy" by Malini Ghose. The author successfully demonstrates the interplay of power and the dynamics at play in a literacy program in India called Mahila Samakhya. The need for literacy in India demands intervention and this program as such has sought to introduce women to a different culture of power. The author demonstrates the relevance and instrumentality of literacy to women in their lives as she carefully recounts experiences recorded at literacy camp. Ghose shows the contradictions inherent in introducing a different power dynamic while needing to rely upon the existing norms of power inherent in pedagogy and education as the participants understand them. Student views and beliefs about power in language, about traditional cultural beliefs, and about the nature of knowledge and the ways to deliver it led the Nirantar Center members to confront and evaluate their own views as they sought to empower women attending these six-month literacy camps. Brief and compelling this account succeeds in showing the challenges inherent in efforts to alter a traditional culture of power, how literacy is instrumental in developing individual understanding, and why such efforts will be strongly influenced by the interplay of students' and organizers' worldviews and beliefs.
Chapter 16, "Literacy and Social Development: Policy and Implementation" by Ingrid Jung and Adama Ouane. The authors present a summary of the major points raised, discussed or inferred by the preceding papers in the volume. The revisit key topics of orality, knowledge and language. A surprising fact for some readers will be that different societies in different times have become literate for essentially the same reasons. Those factors that contribute to our ever increasingly complex society are linked to the needs of developing institutions and the associated subcultures that rely upon literate practice. Societal and personal literacy no longer hold the same promise for development because of the complex network of needs that may not be addressed through variously administered education programs that only promote acquisition of simple reading and writing skills. In fact, societies have historically promoted literacy for their own purposes and according to the prevailing social fabric of each society. Literates in indigenous languages as well as administrators who focus on the functional needs of community members should be afforded the opportunity to address literacy through education in relationship to other specific social, political, economic and religious factors. The authors eschew a hands-off approach to problem of literacy and echo the sentiments of the other chapter writers as they "plead for investment in civil society, the creation of participation processes, and relevant education systems" (335).
CRITICAL EVALUATION At a time in world affairs when there may be renewed interest in discovering ways to address the unevenness among human societies, this edited volume of 16 chapters offers the reader an assortment of perspectives on literacy and a glimpse at the record of its development in 12 different contexts. The reader should consider reading Chapters 1 and 16 to get a good idea about the volume's contents, and then begin digesting each of the other chapters. This volume can serve as an up to date primer for those who wish to join the discussion about worldwide literacy. Each piece is generally short, informative of a key facet of literacy and pertinent facts of its historical development. The salient issues relating to literacy or illiteracy become apparent, as do the broad perspectives and differences that divide those who promote development and literacy. Indeed a number of the chapters in part two raise the question of the absolute need for literacy, that is, of the command of written language as commonly understood in western cultures. Still other authors maintain that universal monolingual literacy is the only way to address development issues and to stave off greater social disintegration. No solutions are proposed to address social and economic development without literacy; indeed despite claims that its importance to a particular society may not be as compelling as in another, there does not seem to be any real alternative to one to several generalized forms of literacy. Even for those who support the use of indigenous languages, there does not seem to be any argument advanced that general literacy in non-indigenous languages is not needed.
This text adds to our insights about the role and importance of language policy. It gives any reader insights into our own use of written language, the relationships between spoken and written language and what mistaken assumptions are basic to our longstanding belief in the power of literacy. Olson and Torrance have provided a rich and multidisciplinary account that shows that human societies have made language, especially written language, its acquisition and use a central pillar of human civilization.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Doronila, M. L. (1996) Landscapes of Literacy: An ethnographic study of functional literacy in Marginal Philippine Communities. Hamburg: UNESCO Institute for Education.
Olson, D. R. (1994) The World on Paper: The conceptual and cognitive implications of writing and reading. Cambridge: CUP. ASIN: 0521443113.
Prah, K. K. (1993) Mother Tongue for Scientific and Technological Development in Africa. Bonn: DSE (German Foundation for International Development).
Prah, K. K. (1995) African Languages for the Mass Education of Africans. Bonn: DSE/ZED (German Foundation for International Development/Education and Documentation Center).
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Terry Potter is an associate professor in the Department of Foreign Languages at the US Military Academy. He has taught general linguistics, Arabic, French and German. His research interests include applied sociolinguistics, the teaching and learning of less commonly taught languages, and onomastics.