Born to talk

2011-09-30 00:00

MY six-year-old granddaughter has a mind of her own, with an advanced vocabulary and syntax to match.

Teasing her, I asked: “Alexandra, where did you learn to talk so much? Do they teach you talking at your school.”

“Grandpa,” she replied with suitable scorn but remarkable insight, “we are just born to talk.”

Noam Chomsky, who famously taught that grammar is an inborn human skill, would have been reassured that Alexandra supports his theory.

Old theologians taught that being able to speak is what separates humans from animals. Being able to speak, they said, is the indication that humans have an immortal soul. Were they right? Does this inborn language acquisition device set even pre-literate humans apart from the higher mammals? Or perhaps, in some mysterious way, can whales or gorillas communicate in an ordered, logical arrangement of sounds that we might call language and grammar?

What whales and gorillas cannot do, however, is read. It is surely the ability to capture language in writing that is the basis of human civilisation. And here is the rub. We may be born to talk. We’re not born to read. An astonishing number of adults even in developed societies cannot adequately read or write. Harriet Sergeant reflects on the recent street riots in Britain, and why so many people, mostly young, both white and black, behaved so destructively. She points out that at age 14, 63% of white working-class boys and 50% of all black boys in modern England have a reading age of seven years or below. Those are astonishing statistics. Half of those in British prisons have a reading age of below 11. I wonder what the equivalent statistics would be here.

Sergeant writes for The Spectator, so not surprisingly she blames it all on Labour and Tony Blair — a bad education system, unqualified and unmotivated teachers (in the past nine years, she says, only 12 teachers out of a British work force of 450 000 have ever been fired for incompetence — does that sound familiar?) and tacit support for single mothers (Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe). But whatever the reasons, the fact remains that very many working-class youth in Britain are functionally illiterate and therefore unemployable except for unskilled menial jobs which these days are filled by the surge of better-educated immigrants.

Working-class young people have no hope and no good reason for hope. They are no longer “working class”, they have perforce become the “layabout class”. The riots were just an explosion of pent-up energy and despair, but will not improve their lot. A very great deal of what Sergeant describes is duplicated in South Africa.

But reading and writing is important for more than employment and career hopes. All of human civilisation depends upon it. To some degree it’s not just being able to talk that makes us human but being able to read.

Alexandra has not yet learnt to read, although she can write her name. Letterland begins next year. And then, I hope, when she wakes up in the early dawn when adults still hope to sleep, we can tell her to turn to A. A. Milne or Beatrix Potter or even Dr Seuss, instead of switching on the TV to keep her occupied. I hate the Disney channels that currently fascinate her.

I may hate Disney, but I like country music. So I admire Dolly Parton. I admire not just her voice and her generous assets, but also her Dolly Parton Foundation. Dolly knows what it is to be poor. Beginning in her home state of Tennessee but now stretched to other parts of the world, she enrols children from poor backgrounds into her scheme. Almost from birth, every month, a book arrives in the post, personally addressed to the child, 12 times a year until they are six. The books are chosen to be age-appropriate and progressive, developing the child’s imagination and reading ability. They become part of that child’s world.

Do they change the children’s lives? I hope so. I am sure that at least they will not grow up to be unable to read. The scheme doesn’t stretch to South Africa, and I guess it is hard to find enough age-appropriate Zulu books to send one every month for six years. But there’s an idea for a rich philanthropist to think about. Patrice Motsepe, billed the richest man in South Africa? Cyril Ramaphosa? Tokyo Sexwale? Or perhaps even Julius Malema.



• Ronald Nicolson is a retired academic and Anglican priest.


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