[F]ailing to read in one's native language sends a negative message:  that the language and culture of native-language speakers are second-class, unworthy of widespread use. ... Learning to read and then to write in one's mother tongue sends the opposite message.  It reinforces the teaching that all people—and all languages—reflect the image of God. ... When people grow up learning to read first in a language they don't yet speak, they often miss the concept that reading is supposed to be a meaningful activity....  They can learn to decode, but they have no idea what they are learning.

These quotations are from a recent Christianity Today article on the advisability of teaching children to read in their native, "mother-tongue" language before introducing the complexities of a language that is foreign, even if it may be the country's official language.  In the Philippines,

Children in Lubuagan ... speak Lubuagan at home but learn a national language and an international language, in this case Filipino and English, at school.  (In case, like me, you were wondering what happened to Tagalog, which I always thought was the official language of the Philippines, according to the CIA World Factbook, the language is based on Tagalog but called Filipino.) ... In school, they learn to read in a language they don't really understand....  That makes it difficult for them to understand what they are learning.

The Philippines is one of many countries where emphasis is now being placed on first becoming literate in one's own language.  On the one hand, it's a much-needed change from a system in which children were punished for using their own language (much as Native Americans once were in school).

On the other hand, this approach misses the fact (as does the article) that learning in a foreign language is probably not the most important factor in low literacy rates.  Because the Swiss do it all the time, and Switzerland has a 99% literacy rate.

If you're a Swiss baby grown up in what is called German-speaking Switzerland, your native language is not High German—what we call simply "German"—but Swiss German (in one of many dialects).  But when you go to school, you learn in High German.  You learn to read in High German, because that's the official written language.

True, the Swiss have advantages that the Filipinos don't.  Swiss German and High German may have significant differences, but they're probably closer than many native and national languages.  Swiss children grow up surrounded by people who are literate and who read to them from books written in High German.  How they reconcile the differences between the language of speaking and the language of reading I don't know, but children are wonderfully adaptable.  Our grandson is equally fluent (at a two-year-old level) in English with Mommy and in Swiss German with Bappe.  For the moment he has found his own solution to the written vs. spoken problem:  When he "reads," following along with his finger, he moves his hand left-to-right when speaking English, and right-to-left when speaking Swiss German.

Nobody worries about the Swiss.

Even Wycliffe Bible Translators, dedicated for 70 years to the belief that "every man, woman and child should be able to read God’s Word in their own language" does not seem to care.  The Swiss missionaries I met had spent their lives translating the Bible into an African language—yet they laughed when I asked why Swiss German was left out of the vision.

Children are wonderful learners.  Whatever the problems are that lead to illiteracy amongst those whose native language differs from the national language, it's not from an innate difficulty in language-learning.  There are African and Indian communities in which it's common for people to speak at least three languages, often many more than that.  If, as the article states, children are "not learning to read until late in elementary school," decreasing their foreign language exposure can only be a stop-gap measure.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Edit
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I recently finished John Wood's new book "Creating Room to Read". I put quotes and notes to myself on my blog, if you want to look. Here is one of my notes about book publishing:

The issue was not that Room to Read wasn't purchasing Nepali-language children's books. The issue was that there were just not that many available. The ones that were available were for older grades. So, Room to Read entered the book publishing business and hires local authors and illustrators to create books that are culturally relevant and in the native language. They have published over 700 titles in 27 languages in 8 countries.

In a country where most of the citizens are illiterate, there is no incentive for publishers to publish children's books. Who is going to buy them? Certainly not a farmer who makes the equivalent of two dollars a day. Only the wealthy would be able to purchase books and they probably already send their children to private English-speaking schools.


Posted by dstb on Tuesday, April 02, 2013 at 5:28 pm

I read your review and appreciated the quotes, thanks!

This is where literacy builds on itself. There are now a few children's books in Swiss German, but it's hard when the language has no standard written form! Stephan will correct me where I'm wrong, but I believe most Swiss German-speaking children are being read to from books written in what is to them a foreign language. As I said, I don't know how they do it, except that kids are brilliant. But it obviously requires literate parents.

Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, April 02, 2013 at 6:20 pm

As I understand it, many parents "translate" as they read, speaking Swiss German when the book is in High German. Stephan and I just read what's written, and Joseph seems to enjoy it just as much, and likes imitating the sounds as well.

Posted by Janet on Wednesday, April 03, 2013 at 2:18 am

An anecdote- A Swiss German woman who I am good friends with reads only in English, and has for as long as she has been reading for pleasure. She feels that as long as she has to read in a foreign language, it may as well be English, because there is more choice in books! Her spoken English is only so-so, and she speaks Swiss German to her kids and French to her husband, who does not speak any German at all. Yes, Swiss people are pretty incredible!

Posted by Monica on Wednesday, April 03, 2013 at 3:03 am

Here in the Gambia, children have always been taught to read strictly in English, which almost none of them speak at home. (And yes, they are punished if they speak a local language at school.) If they are from a upper-class urban family, their parents speak at least some English and are somewhat literate, and they probably attended a private English-language preschool. A rural child probably has parents who speak two or more local languages but no English. The child has probably never seen a book before starting school. The whole idea of reading is a mystery to them. Many of them never become very literate. The government is now trying to introduce reading in the vernacular in the first few grades.

Posted by Kathy Lewis on Monday, April 08, 2013 at 4:14 pm