Let us Write in our Mother Tongues
It is said that there are some eighteen indigenous languages spoken in Sierra Leone. Orthographies have been approved for four of these: Mende, Themne, Limba and Krio. Some junior secondary schools offer one or more of these languages as elective subjects, so there is a chance that a fortunate child might learn to read and write his/her mother tongue while in junior secondary school.
But what if that mother tongue is one of the many "unwritten" languages in Sierra Leone? What do children burning to write in their mother tongues do when educators tell them that writing programs cannot be established for languages that lack approved orthographies? Apart from our belief that this common reply conflicts with people's innate need to write and everyone's right to write, it is also contradicted by the choices that have been made by people throughout history.
Mark Sebba has studied the orthographic choices British Creole authors make; that is, authors writing in the English-lexicon Creole used in Britain by people of Caribbean heritage.
"Orthography is often treated as a question of language planning, but in this paper, I will view orthography as a set of practices engaged in by writers as they try to represent a language for which no conventional written representation exists. . . .I shall argue that while the spelling of Creole is highly variable, writers are - perhaps unconsciously - choosing conventions which emphasise the differences between Creole and Standard English."
Sebba goes on to describe a wide variety of choices British Creole authors make use of, but nowhere in his paper is it mentioned that one of these choices is not writing.
Potential authors of "unwritten" languages in Sierra Leone are in a much more comfortable position than are these writers of British Creole. Here are some reasons why this is so:
For these reasons, people who want to write in the "unwritten" languages in Sierra Leone—who have some story they want to tell now--have a reasonably good model to follow. Literacy should not be exclusive, but inclusive; it is a movement that should spread. A qualified teacher of Mende, Themne, Limba or Krio can teach authors to write in their own languages well enough to say what they want to say; they can then apply their language sense to adapt it to their needs. They can write with the confidence that they will have a reading audience, because anyone literate in those four languages who also speaks their less widely-known language, will be able to read their work.
This is not to say that the orthography these authors use will last forever. It will and should become refined over time. But is that a reason not to write? It was not until the 18th century that people started publishing dictionaries in Britain, enabling anyone who wanted to write to have a place to look things up. Yet Shakespeare, not to mention so many other English-speaking authors, did not stop to think whether he had a right to write.
Not writing was also not considered an option for the Basque people in Spain.
"For centuries there was no standard orthography, and Basque was written with Romance spelling conventions supplemented by various additional devices to represent sounds not present in Romance languages. During the early years of the 20th century, a bizarre and impractical orthography employing a blizzard of pointless diacritics was widely used; this largely disappeared after the Spanish Civil War. In 1964 the Royal Basque Language Academy (Euskaltzaindia) promulgated a new standard orthography; this met some resistance at first but is now almost universally used."
We are aware of individuals who have developed personal literacies for "unwritten" languages in Sierra Leone, so they can carry out their work with one other person, communicate with distant relatives. This would not surprise Mark Sebba, who simply assumes that speakers of "unwritten" languages are going to write. He ends his paper suggesting that more language communities document and analyze the orthographic choices these writers make.
"Such studies, rather than locating themselves within the spheres of phonology and/or language planning as is traditional, could be seen as part of the growing body of research into literacy practices. The development of orthographic practices in a community would thus become a necessary part of the study both of the history of its writing systems and the study of its contemporary culture of literacy."
SELI seeks funding to encourage writing in all languages in Sierra Leone, to develop the authors' creativity, writing skills, cultural awareness, and critical thinking skills. At the same time this is being done, and local, language-specific, and community-focused books are being produced in near-phonetic spelling, let us document and analyze the choices made by our authors to see where literacy in our mother tongues takes us.
© 2012 Jacqueline Leigh
 Sebba, M. ( ) "Phonology meets ideology: the meaning of orthographic practices in British Creole," in Language Problems and Language Planning 22:1, 19-47
 Scribner, Sylvia and Cole, Michael 1981. The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
|Last Updated on Thursday, 11 October 2012 10:35|
- We all have the right to write. Anything we can say, we can write.
- We all can write well if we are emotionally involved in our topic and our purpose. We find our voices there. Writing is learning and discovering. It develops best in real-life situations, with the instructor intervening in the writing process.
- We learn to read by having written. We learn from our experiences, including experiences with oral and written texts. We should expose ourselves to many texts, and often do free-choice reading.
- We learn best in collaborative, diverse, and supportive communities. We all learn in our own ways, and our home cultures affect how we interpret our experiences.
- Moving through the writing process can produce powerful writing. We gain more ownership over our writing if we master the writing process.
- Writing is a strong tool for developing critical thinking. Challenging our thinking as we write in collaborative settings, develops academic language proficiency.
- We teach equitably: not less, but more to the poor. We recognize our children's home communities and ancestral cultures as our educational partners.