Wanted: children’s books in the vernacular

There is an urgent need for books in African languages that would encourage children to learn to read in their mother tongues.

This need was expressed as a major concern at the 29th World Congress of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) held in Cape Town last month.

Osazee Fayose of Nigeria observed that many African children did not relate to American and European stories and pictures, while another speaker — author Jamila Gavin of the United Kingdom — said that a sense of ‘faltering identity” could result if ‘black and brown children” could not ‘see themselves reflected in books”.

Carole Bloch, co-ordinator of the Early Literacy Unit at the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa ( Praesa), together with other speakers, stressed that children require more than school ‘readers”. They need other books, which should include books in their home languages, to stimulate the imagination, to help them make sense of their world and to show them that reading is enjoyable as well as educational.

One of the problems is bringing publishers on board.

Poverty and low literacy levels in some of South Africa’s official languages can affect the demand for books in a particular language and a particular area. And this can result in smaller print runs, increased unit costs, higher prices, and possibly a reluctance on the part of some publishers and booksellers to venture into the field.

However, Irish author Martin Waddell emphasised that ‘children need stories in the cadence and idiom of their everyday speech”. In the African language context, Praesa is striving to develop ‘specialised children’s literature translation skills among professionals working in indigenous South African languages”, as well as to organise writers’ and illustrators’ workshops.

Praesa director Neville Alexander warned that the ‘dislocation of children from their mother tongues in school” can have ‘serious negative impacts on literacy development.” The perception of English as a global language tends to have a ‘debilitating” and ‘disempowering” effect on indigenous languages, as speakers begin to lose faith in the value of the mother tongue, said Alexander.

‘Holding back the development of written children’s literature in African languages [in the past] has contributed to crippling the development of effective literacy teachers”, he said, stressing that it helps if teachers and caregivers ‘have a vibrant relationship with reading and writing themselves”, especially in the relevant African language.

A Western Cape education department initiative aims to supply 100 books per classroom for primary school learners in the province, 70 of the books being in the relevant home language. And non-governmental organisations like Praesa, Biblionef South Africa and First Words in Print (an award-winning project of the Centre for the Book) are doing valuable work in the field. These are vital undertakings, given that many schools are under-resourced and either have inadequate libraries or no libraries at all.

Biblionef SA is an NGO that donates books for the benefit of disadvantaged children, especially in rural areas. Executive director Jean Williams says the organisation has about 45 000 books, mainly in African languages, in stock; and if she is unable to find suitable material to meet a particular need, her organisation sometimes commissions new books or translations. It also has children’s books in braille.

Distribution is through libraries, schools, and cultural centres or associations. Supplementary teacher training is provided, and feedback from recipient organisations is required.

IBBY congress organiser Jay Heale speaks highly of the quality of South African children’s books, and an IBBY congress exhibition of 100 representative books will tour the country soon. All the official languages are represented, but Heale says the South African output is ‘under 100 books a year”.

The conference showed that South Africa’s experiences in the field of indigenous-language children’s books often mirror those of other developing countries.

Bloch was one who noted an apparent absence of clear-cut leadership or of a unified vision in the field. But she pointed out that the various role-players are endeavouring to work together, and that they will be able to do so more effectively once the government ‘sets about implementing a coherent policy” in this fundamental area of education.

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