Nourished by blasphemies, oaths and lullabies, the mother tongue becomes a constant reminder of the region, the village or even the lane one is from. Unlike a country’s official language, the mother tongue is the language of one’s childhood peeves and squabbles – lively and dynamic, but also reliable, clear and fluent like no other language.
It is when homespun vocabulary finds itself in a classroom, where the language of instruction is English, that the process of learning becomes traumatic for new school-goers. Familiar with the alphabet, but untrained in forming sentences in English, the child learns by rote, fumbling through stories of seagulls and daisies, struggling to discover their magic.
A UNICEF report titled The State of the World’s Children 1999, delineates this argument:
“…in many countries, lessons are still conducted in the former colonial language – for example, in many of the English- French- and Portuguese-speaking African countries that have the lowest levels of primary enrolment in the world. If the medium of instruction in school is a language not spoken at home, particularly when parents are illiterate, then learning problems accumulate and chances of dropping out increase. On the other hand, there is ample research showing that students are quicker to learn to read and acquire other academic skills when first taught in their mother tongue.”
Based on these findings, the South African Institute for Distance Education (Saide) launched an interactive website in 2013 called African Storybook
(ASb). A repertory of open-access digital stories in multiple African languages as well as English, French and Portuguese, the website encourages new readers to overcome their inhibitions.
But before a story can be uploaded, downloaded, translated and shared, it has to be written. Among the ASb’s inexhaustible source of narratives is an Indian publisher of children’s literature, Pratham Books. Several original titles like Listen to my Body, The Moon and the Cap and The Elephant Bird have found their way to the ASb and captured the fascination of young readers across continents. Pratham Books’s own digital initiative, StoryWeaver
, is a treasure trove of multi-lingual books, which, through a liberal Creative Commons licence, allows users to share and adapt stories as well as images in any medium. There are close to 1,800 stories, available for reading and sharing in 41 Indian and international languages. “While our Hindi and English stories continue to be very popular, we have seen the user community respond with great enthusiasm to Malayalam, Sanskrit, Telugu and recently, Tibetan and Santhali as well,” says Suzanne Singh, chairperson of Pratham Books.
Stories are the élan vital of open-source platforms, which prompt children to rapid fluency in the mother tongue, before they can read simple sentences in English. And perched upon the diaphanous wings of broadband transmission, stories can reach eager listeners through any digital medium. Pratham Books’s recent initiative, ‘Missed Call do, Kahaani Suno
’ allows children to listen to audio stories in English, Hindi, Marathi or Kannada by leaving a missed call at a given number. An auto-generated call in response lets them pick the language of the story, followed by an SMS that links them to the story on StoryWeaver.