Thursday, October 06, 2005

Cree Literacy

Book of Common Prayer, 1860
Here's a little anecdote for the day - something that wouldn't make it into a research paper. However, it is worth recounting since it suggests one reason why there is a lack of research on the relationship between orientations in a writing system and difficulty of reading.

When I was first researching the Cree writing system, I visited John W. Berry a cognitive psychology professor at Queen's in Kingston, Ontario. He has written the book on Cree Syllabic Literacy.

Here is an abbreviated outline of the conversation as remembered many years later.

Me: (painfully embarassed) So, I have to confess that I am finding it quite difficult to remember the directions of the syllabics and I can't really read it.

John: Well, that is probably because you are a woman ..

Me: (inwardly bristling) Oh.

John: (jolly, as usual) Women perform less well on tests of spatial awareness than men.

Me: Uh...

John: But Cree women don't have this problem, of course.

Me: They don't?

John: No, this effect only applies to women in industrialized societies. Most brain research which indicates a gender difference does not apply across cultures. It is not universal.

Me: The differences between men and women are not universal?

John: Only biological and hormonal differences. The differences in spatial and verbal abilities has not been confirmed across cultures. Hunter gatherer societies do not reflect the same patterns....

Me: So the Cree, neither men nor women found the script difficult to read.

John: Not at all. They could all read it within a few years of its being introduced. They were for the most part not aware that it came from missionaries and literacy was transmitted within a very short time over thousands of miles. They could all read.

Me: And today?

John: We have tested the literacy skills of adults in several villages and have not found anyone in the older generation who had difficulty reading Cree. However, for the younger generation, the telephone, radio, TV and English are replacing reading in Cree.

Me: But it is not difficult to read?

John: I have never heard of that.

And he wrote the book.

Berry, J.W. and Bennett, J.A. (1991) Cree Syllabic Literacy: Cultural Context and Psychological Consequences. Tilburg University Monographs in Cross-Cultural Psychology. Tilburg: Tilburg University Press.

PS. I have since discovered that I can't read any script at all if I don't speak the language. Now, when I want to learn a new script I find 10 to 20 words in that language and learn to say those words, then I learn to read them. No problem. Then I know all the letters in those words.


Blogger Wayne Leman said...

That's quite a post, Suzanne. Lots of stuff there. The various subplots open several kettles of worms, much of it sad. Thanks for sharing the post.

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose I have been a little too honest but that is how I remember it. Actually the only part that really interests me now is that people not dismiss a script because it uses transformations as Mandombe does.

Other than that I thought it was kind of funny. I like John. I hope that is obvious.


9:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"PS. I have since discovered that I can't read any script at all if I don't speak the language."

Fascinating. I'm currently starting to discover where letter boundaries are in Arabic. Yes, very basic.


NB from Qalam
(I should set up an account. :) )

12:32 AM  

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