Wednesday 21 December 2011


My children grew up illiterate in one of their languages, Portuguese. In our family, this happens to be “my” language, in which I’ve been literate since my early school years, so depriving little ones of skills which are commonly seen as a must in all of one’s languages might well be taken as a regretful example of neglectful parenting.

It wasn’t neglect, in fact, it was pragmatism. My little ones had as much use for Portuguese orthography as for truck driving licenses. Their need to use printed Portuguese came first when they turned into big ones and left home: things like SMS and email are printed forms of language, and it was in printed Portuguese that my children chose to write to me. Mostly spelt-as-it-sounds to start off with, which soon became spelt-as-it’s-spelt because I wrote back in Portuguese too.

There are two reasons, I believe, for my children’s self-taught literacy in Portuguese. One is that they were literate in their two other languages. Once you realise that certain printed symbols are meant to represent speech sounds, you are ready to transfer that knowledge across your languages. It may have helped, when the children were small, that I asked them to write their shopping lists for me in Portuguese, and that we got ourselves a run-of-the-mill magnetic alphabet, through which we could leave silly messages to one another, like sou um gato (‘I’m a cat’) or mais bolo? (‘more cake?’), on the fridge. The other reason is that there were plenty of books in Portuguese around the house. If you read Portuguese yourself, you can check out Cláudia Storvik’s report of similar experiences, in a series of posts dealing with Alfabetização de crianças bilíngues em português at her blog, Filhos bilíngues.

We read those books in the classical way: child on lap, back towards parent, parent following text lines with finger. We read one page, or a couple of lines, or a whole story, or half a story, Scheherazade-way, depending on the day’s mood and attention span of all involved. Reading sessions nevertheless invariably resulted in all kinds of questions about Portuguese things and Portuguese ways of talking about things, that the children had no first-hand knowledge of, because we didn’t live in Portugal. Books do this for you, they tell you about what may not be there for you right now, right here, but is there anyway.

These Portuguese books were also beautifully illustrated. The children attempted to copy those drawings themselves, and we spent many hours deciding whether and how to improve colours and lines of the originals – all of this in Portuguese. Gaining awareness that three-dimensional objects, and living things, and abstract concepts can all be represented in two dimensions on paper teaches you about those things and teaches you about language: “doggie”, for example, is what you rightfully call both that drawing on that page in a book that you can hold in your hand, and the neighbour’s pet that is bigger than you.

This is why books are, to me, the epitome of user-friendly didactic multimedia. You can open and close them, you can touch them, smell them, see them and hear them, in your head or through someone else’s voice, and you can leave them and return to them any time, satisfied that whatever they store remains safely stored. Just for you, just you and them, when and where you want them. No crashes, no short-circuits, no breakdowns. Unless, of course, you relate to the situation portrayed in the Medieval help desk sketch, from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) show Øystein og meg.

Practice with books does not just teach you language-related skills that you don’t know you are acquiring – not knowing that you’re learning, by the way, is the best way to learn. Books also tell you about what matters to someone else, whom you’ll probably never come to meet face to face, but who took the trouble to write things down for you, and through whom you can learn more, precisely because you live in different places and different times – and are likely to use different languages to think about things and talk about them. Not least, books tell you about yourself. Viv Edwards captured the delight of engaging with books in a previous post, when she wrote that “children like to see – and hear – themselves in the books they read”. If you still need to be persuaded about the joy of reading, and of creating reading, check out this BBC report about ciShanjo, in Zambia.

Meanwhile, I’ll walk my talk: I’ll be worming into books until next year, when I come back to this blog.

Image: Clipart from

© MCF 2011

Next post: My homeland is my language? Saturday 7th January 2012.

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