Friday, June 08, 2007

Literacy and Flashcards

More on learning my new language. I have to learn a new writing system, so the other day I made up flashcards. I'm taking about five cards a day and trying to memorize, adding them to the pile of the previous day(s), until I can recognize and make the sounds (sort of). As I was writing the cards, and then as I was working on them yesterday, I realized that I've effectively separated the process of learning to read from learning to write.

I don't remember learning to read or write. Seeing kids who are learning, though, leads me to think that we now tend to teach both skills at more or less the same time. Kids trace letters, learn to write their names in crayon, and so forth.

In early modern England, however, the skills seem to have been taught at different times, with people learning to read well before they learned to write. This adds complexity to questions of literacy, because someone might be able to read, but not able to sign his/her name, much less write anything else, and 400 years later, how do we know?

I talked to my friend who's done this teaching abroad program recently, and she said that basically, I'd have to adjust to being illiterate for a semester. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that, really. When I joined the Peace Corps, I didn't speak the language at first, but I could always more or less sort things through using a dictionary. But when I look at my new dictionary, I can't begin to understand. (And, in my flashcard way, I hadn't thought at all about having to learn an order so that I can find things in the dictionary! ACK!)

The writing symbols are mostly complex to my eyes, and seem to need to be drawn/written in a specific order of strokes. Now, while I'm willing to guess that most folks draw/write in pretty much the same order of strokes for English letters, we do a fair bit of variation, especially for some letters. Miniscule "a," for example can be either a simple slanty circle with an attached line on the right, or a mini-sideways-oval with a longer curved line from the top left to the bottom (reproducing the printed look in this font). And yet, without thinking about it consciously, I recognize both forms of the letter as the same thing.

It also occurs to me that I'm teaching myself to associate sounds with symbols rather than names. In English, we name letters in ways that sometimes resemble their sounds (m = em, and so forth), but w = double-you doesn't at all.

At this point, what I can learn, I'll learn. And I'll count on the generosity of most people, most of the time, to help me find my way once there. (I'm planning to take a beginning class in fall, but want to learn what I can this summer as a start.)

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