Learning, language and literacy

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

An examination of the role of literacy in the study of language and the learning process, and in the development and democratisation of societies.


Characterizing Literacy by R. Narasimhan, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004; pages 197; Rs.280.

THIS rather brief study (123 pages of text with many illustrations, and the rest related Appendices) deals with an important, though contested, theme that deserves to be discussed and debated. The author is one of our most distinguished computer scientists who has made seminal contributions to the development of computers (he was the senior member of the team that designed and built India's first electronic digital computer) and computer science in the country. Among his many publications are at least two dealing directly with matters relating to language.

The theme of the book is an examination of the role of literacy not only in the study of language and the learning process, but also in the development and democratisation of societies. The motivation for the study was a point of view put forward by some distinguished linguists in the West in the 1980s and the early 1990s, which has come to be referred to as "the literary hypothesis". It claimed that alphabetic literacy was an essential enabling factor in the Greek democratic tradition in ordering society and politics; that Europe experienced a major transformation between the 11th and 13th centuries when literacy rapidly spread there and more so after the 15th century when the printing press made access to "literary" works easier; and that perception, cognition and behaviour in individuals (especially children) as well as social institutions become qualitatively different after widespread acquisition of literacy.

Prof. Narasimhan does not contest these claims but puts forward the hypothesis that the contribution of literacy per se to individual development and social transformation could be culture-specific and that the experiences of China and India with long centuries of pronounced "oral" traditions should be carefully studied before the Western experience is acclaimed to be universally valid. The major positive contributions of Narasimhan's work are that it questions the sharp distinctions usually drawn between orality and literacy (with the implied lower status to the former) and that it demonstrates that the two can be thought of as a continuum with a very fertile ground in between.

I consider this to be a major contribution. However, before taking it up for more detailed exposition, I think it will be useful to set it in historical context. In dealing with literacy and language, it is easy to overlook the distinction between the two and to confuse literacy skills and their contributions with the prior and larger linguistic skills. Similarly in dealing with linguistic skills, there is a tendency to mix them up with the more basic learning abilities. Though learning, language and literacy are intimately related and closely interact, it is important to keep the distinctions clear. For instance, while literacy is an important tool in learning, one does not have to be literate to learn (even mice and monkeys learn). An evolutionary approach will help to appreciate the distinction. For this I rely on the analytical framework provided by Stephen Mithen's excellent work, The Prehistory of the Mind (Phoenix Paperback, London, Second Impression, 2003).

Mithen reminds us, if a reminder is necessary, that humans were evolved from the more general animal species and that we have much in common with members (some members in particular!) of that larger classificatory group. What is more important, perhaps, is to recall that for a long time (some millions of years, that is) humans also learned and communicated, but without language. But in the trajectory of human evolution, linguistic skills go back only to some 2,00,000 years or so.

It is important to know what the learning process of humans was before they came to have linguistic skills and what they had in common with other animals during the pre-linguistic era of millions of years ago. Mithen divides those skills into three: social skills, natural history skills, and technology skills. Since all animals, including humans live in groups (notwithstanding the claims made by some individualists that they are sufficient unto themselves), social skills are primordial, the skill to communicate being the most basic. Communication can happen without language, without any talking and any sounds, though it is possible to make sounds and even talk without communicating.

The second skill that Mithen refers to is the ability to discern the environment, and to understand the behaviour of other animals, primarily for one's own survival and livelihood, as also of the intimate members of one's group. Since this can be interpreted as part of the survival instinct, the second skill may also be considered innate.

The third, technological skill - tool-making being the earliest and clearest expression - is different. It is acquired. Till recently it was considered that tool-making was a distinctly human skill, but now we know that some of our cousins, the chimpanzees and a few other animals, also make tools and show some progression in learning it too. Young ones of the species learnt each one of these skills from older ones.

One thing that Mithen shows is that for long in humans (and by and large among other animals even today) these three skills remained in separate compartments of the mind. There was no water-tight separation, but there was not much interaction either. These skills were rather like the blades of a Swiss army knife, separated, but held together in a common frame. For instance, Neanderthals, our predecessors of an early era, who lived in caves, made stone tools, killed other animals and even cooked, but did not learn to make tools from the bones of animals they killed. Much later, the "modern humans" (Homo sapiens sapiens, HSS) started using bones to make tools, but did not know that the same materials could be used to produce personal decorative ornaments. That technological skill came later on, and so on.

The emergence of language was, not surprisingly, in the social domain. It was the result of the growth and changes in the brain, and led to the interaction and interpenetration of the hitherto substantially separate skills or separate domains of the mind. This contribution of language Mithen designates as "cognitive fluidity". With the development of language "the human mind undergoes a transformation from being constituted by a series of relatively independent cognitive domains to one in which ideas, ways of thinking and knowledge flow freely between such domains", says Mithen (page 175). Also, "as soon as a language acted as a vehicle for delivering information into the mind (whether one's own or that of another person) ... a transformation in the nature of the mind began. ... Language switched from a social to a general-purpose function, consciousness from a means to predict other individuals' behaviour to managing a mental database of information relating to all domains of behaviour. A cognitive fluidity arose within the mind, reflecting new connections ... " (page 239). With it came the capacity to interrogate oneself, interpret the motives of other agents, to imagine, to plan, to make comparisons, to act with purpose. Mithen argues that art, religion and science, all arose from the fecundity that the human mind came to have as a result of the development of language and the associated cognitive fluidity. It also generated a cumulatively proliferating propensity that is still going on. "Once Early Humans started talking, they just couldn't stop," says Mithen, and rightly so. But the revolutionary significance of language is not that it enables conversation and communication, but that it enables one to think, and appropriate the thinking of others. And for the latter literacy acts as a vehicle.

This de tour into Mithen makes it possible to situate Narasimhan's characterisation of literacy in perspective. Narasimhan also deals with linguistic skills. He notes that communication capability is something that human beings share with all other animals, but that "the availability of the language modality of behaviour enables human beings to engage in reflective behaviour that is outside the reach of other animals" (page 49). Also, "through language behaviour human beings are able to deal not only with the world that is immediately available for interaction, but with worlds distanced from them in space and time. Moreover, they are able to deal not only with the actual world that is out there that is given, but with (imagined) possible worlds and counterfactual situations" (page 50). Further aspects of language skills lie scattered in the rest of the work. A more systematic and evolutionary treatment of language skills would have enabled Narasihman to point out more forcefully that much of the claims that proponents of the literary hypothesis make for literacy per se originate from language skills. (Narasimhan has made significant contributions to the discussions on the evolution of language also, as can be seen from his writings in some recent issues of Current Science, as for instance in issues dated March 10, 2005, and November 10, 2005. Needless to say that it is a much debated and highly contested area of research.)

Narasimhan makes a well-documented case that literacy should not be restricted, as is often done, exclusively to script literacy, but should be understood in a "more ramified manner". For one, there are other forms of literacy, familiar ones like visual literacy and computer literacy. More important still, traditional oral societies such as China and India have different shades, or gradations of literacy. With reference to India, he points out three different forms of literacy that underpin its age-old oral tradition.

Consider the Vedas - Rgveda, for instance, transmitted in different parts of the subcontinent for centuries and recited by thousands, but for long without any written text. Even after a written text was produced, the oral tradition not only continued, but remained the predominant one. But because of the manner in which strict discipline was imposed on recitation - on how the hymns could be segmented, and on how every word should be pronounced, etc. - something of an oral "text" was available, with grammatical rules of its own.

Similarly, tabla playing was also learned (as also many other art forms) without any written texts, but by well-formulated and strictly adhered to memorised rules that governed the manner of finger contacts, speed and intensity. Even at the popular level, pioneering research in the past three decades has shown that beneath the intricate kolam designs that women and young girls effortlessly produce every morning, as part of an ongoing tradition, there are discernible mathematical properties and grammatical rules from which computer programmes can be generated.

On the strength of these carefully documented evidences, Narasimhan calls for a serious examination of "literateness" and states that it "constitutes a continuum from primary orality at one end to literate behaviour underpinned by the most sophisticated technologies conceivable at the other end" (page 68).

The intention is not to downgrade the tremendous significance of alphabetic literacy. What alphabetic literacy achieves is to externalise and thus objectify the notions of time, space, nature and agent. To be sure, each of these notions is dealt with in oral communication also. But oral communication is context-bound, face-to-face. It, therefore, does not provide a pressing motivation for articulation. Writing, on the other hand, enforces the articulation of the situational aspects one is concerned with as a pre-requisite to achieving successful communication.

In a perceptive Foreword to the book, sociologist-historian Satish Saberwal says: "Seeing words on a surface externalises them, makes them available from outside, as it were, as against what is available within our memories" (page 23). Externalisation and articulation, in turn, make possible representation.

Representation reinforces the capacity to reflect, which language skill has already provided. Think of the manner in which a map makes possible the representation of space and how it enables one to reflect about space, or how recorded history enables one to ponder over time, not only time that has gone by, but also time that is yet to come.

Literacy is a powerful tool that human beings (and only human beings among all animals) have to understand themselves and the world around them. But there is subtle danger in it too. If the background is forgotten, literacy, which, basically, is a tool for learning, can be exaggerated as learning itself. This is a trap that those who are responsible for teaching, especially teaching children, easily fall into. Witness the eagerness to get children, even those in pre-school stages, proficient in `a', `b', `c', long before they are able to appreciate shapes or able to hold a pencil in their hands. Narasihman and his team of researchers conducted a few simple experiments in some prestigious schools in Mumbai and found that the pupils while proficient in what they had learnt from their books, were poor in solving some simple problems presented to them. That is, literacy can enable one to read, write, and reproduce, but need not make one skilled in reflective thinking.

There is even a more serious issue. The more literate one becomes, the easier it is to forget that literacy is a representational medium and so what it portrays is an interpretation, or a model of reality and not reality itself. A model can be used to help understand reality, but it can also be used to mask and distort reality. Therein lies the danger that this reviewer had attempted to warn about during many decades of encounter with higher education, especially in subjects like economics.

In a deceptively slim volume, Prof. Narasimhan has (to borrow some expressions from the Foreword) grappled with a challenging body of evidence, and generated a productive set of propositions.

It is the responsibility of the scholarly community in the country to take the discussion forward.

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