March 17, 2007

Learning to Read in Dulkw'ahke

It is widely believed in English speaking countries that learning to read and write is necessarily a difficult and prolonged process. Parents are disturbed, but not surprised, when their children exhibit difficulty in reading. English speaking countries are almost alone in having spelling bees. In many countries the idea of having spelling competitions beyond the first year or two of primary school would be absurd. It is important for policy makers in English-speaking countries to realize that the agony of learning to read and write in English is not inherent but is the result of the combination of a complex and irregular writing system, poor teaching methods, and poorly trained teachers.

As an unusual example of how easy it can be to learn to read and write with a sane writing system and adequate teaching, I offer the case of Carrier, the Athabaskan language of much of the central interior of British Columbia where I live. Carrier was first written in 1885 in a writing system usually known by the misnomer "Carrier syllabics", developed by Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice. In Carrier it is known as ᑐᑊᘁᗕᑋᗸ dulkw'ahke /dʌlk'wahke/ "frog's feet'.

The writing system that Father Morice developed was inspired by the "Cree Syllabics" but is almost entirely different in detail. The characters are shown in the chart below.


The characters in the first six columns represent a consonant followed by a vowel. The first column, for example, begins /ba/, /ta/, /da/, /t'a/. These characters all consist of two parts: the shape, which represents the consonant, and the orientation and presence or absence of the dot or bar, which represent the vowel. The characters in the last column are used when the consonant is not immediately followed by a vowel within the same syllable. For example, /k'an/ "now" is written ᘀᐣ, that is, /k'a/ - /n/, and /ske/ "my feet", is written ᔆᗸ, that is, /s/ - /ke/.

This writing system is a nearly perfect fit to the sound system of Carrier. It reflects all of the segmental contrasts of Carrier with the exception of the moribund distinction between lamino-dental and apico-alveolar affricates and fricatives in onset position. There are no irregular or historical spellings and no cases in which the interpretation of one character depends on a non-adjacent character. If you know how to pronounce a word, you can write it, and if you see it written, you can pronounce it, save for the location of the pitch accent.

The writing system spread rapidly after its introduction in Fort Saint James. The earliest surviving text in Carrier was written on the wall of the Barkerville jail, 360 kilometres from Fort Saint James by the current road, within a few months of the introduction of the writing system. It appears that mass literacy developed in this writing system. A newspaper published every two months from 1891 to 1894 was widely subscribed. The Roman Catholic prayerbook was issued in this writing system and evidently widely used. People cut blazes on trees and wrote in them to leave messages for others in the bush, kept the accounts of stores, wrote letters and diaries, and inscribed gravestones in it. Use of this writing system eventually declined to the point that it is now known only to a few people, but it was extensively used for several decades.

This writing system was passed on almost entirely by informal instruction within the Carrier community. Father Morice gave only three or four brief lessons on it. Thereafter it spread from one person to another. There was a brief period during which it was taught at Lejac Residential School so that the students could read the Prayerbook (at the same time, students were whipped for speaking Carrier) but that is not how most people learned it. One of the last people to learn this writing system as a child was the late Mac Squinas. When I asked him how he learned it, he answered: "My auntie taught me, out on the trap line.". He learned to read and write in a week of half-hour to hour-long sessions from someone with no formal education.

If you have a straightforward phonological writing system and teach children to make use of that structure, most children will learn to read and write without great difficulty. The idea that learning to read and write is a lengthy and painful process is a pathology of our writing system and educational system, not a universal truth.

[For further information about the Carrier "syllabics" see this article.]

Posted by Bill Poser at March 17, 2007 12:02 AM