Helping children to hone a facility with language
August 27, 2003
IN August 1999, the international magazine NEWSWEEK published an article titled “Japan at a loss for words”, which dealt with the reality of young Japanese children being unable to express themselves in their native tongue. The item made the incredible assertion that even government officials misused their own language. It cited several instances of public figures making statements, which in effect, misrepresented their true feelings or situations. “Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi called himself a ‘bokya-hin’ or a person lacking vocabulary. It seems he’s governing a nation of such people… Throughout Japan, linguistic skills have been in a downward spiral for at least a decade. Young people who read less and watch more TV than ever before regularly stumble over old proverbs, miss the subtleties of polite expressions and even mistake one character for another,” stated the NEWSWEEK article.
For most readers this must have been an amazing statement since much of the rest of the world has been impressed with the great industrial and technological strides Japan has made in the latter half of the 20th century. Anchored to a thousand-year-old culture, Japan society in this post-modern age is both respected and admired for its strong belief in education and the urgency it exerts on schoolchildren to excel at all academic pursuits between kindergarten and university. It must have been surprising to outsiders that not only do Japanese youths encounter problems in expressing their thoughts and ideas, but also that some of the adults in that society are troubled by the same problem.
In November of that very year, 1999, when Dr Harold Lutchman, the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Guyana, addressed the 33rd Convocation of that institution, he startled the gathering with one particular disclosure. He was disappointed at the educational backgrounds of some of the freshmen and the arduous tasks such students present to UG lecturers. He also spoke of his dismay over the standard of English of some students who had to write to him on occasion.
Earlier in 1999 also, Ms Patricia Persaud, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Guyana had pointed out on a GBC panel discussion that many new students have to be taught basic English. This was so different to what obtained at the institution two and a half decades before, Ms Persaud said, when lecturers had to show new students the finer points of language.
Time and again, this column has dealt with the inter-connectedness of literacy, education and reading. We have spoken also of the critical importance of more children and adults gaining mastery in the skills of reading and writing in order to function effectively in the home, in the community, at the workplace, and if necessary, at the national level. There are hundreds of school-leavers today, who have difficulty in reading a form and filling it properly. Very often, the middle-aged and elderly members of the extended family are more efficient than some present-day teenagers in de-coding the written word, or in expressing themselves both in speech and in writing. With the advent of cyberspace, there are children and young people who are ‘Whizz Kids’ with video and computer equipment. Alas, many of these gizmo-smart youths are woefully lacking in their ability to read and understand a few pages of literature, never mind an entire book.
Young children should be taught to love and respect the written word through the early introduction to storytelling and books. They should be encouraged to express their thoughts, feelings and ideas both verbally and in writing. Parents should closely monitor children’s viewing of television, which if unchecked, could stifle the imagination and limit the child’s ability to be mentally engaged. At this point, we must recall the words of the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, when she divined that without the development of the intellect persons would be compelled to plod through life at the lowest level of existence, unable ever to appreciate the beauty of form or to explore the wonderful world of ideas.