The unmaking of paradise: Literacy as Trojan Horse-II

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The unmaking of paradise: Literacy as Trojan Horse-II

by: Prof Nomad

Our valley changes with seasons. Each as beautiful as the other. The dynamics of landscape, of life, of beliefs keeps shifting and changing – each image a perfection in itself.

Then, we see large wooden vessels floating through the oceans and arriving at the entrance to our paradise. Vessels full of humans, even if they look a bit different from the ones in paradise.

Full of welcoming curiosity as ever, the valley shared all that it had.

At first these humans appeared like any other. But, then, they brought out things that spread like a dark cloud.

The clouds get heavier and heavier.

From outside, they take shape of trains, of goods, of factories, of education, of industry, of commercial farming, of taxes, of guns, of cash, of slavery, of loans, of wars…

From inside, they are an ever darker and suffocating smoke.

And, from below, they weigh like a dark tar drowning paradise.

Slide 1: Scenes from the second part of the animation, بولی (‘boli’ is the word for ‘tongue’).

Our paradise was/is lost to colonial schemes through very simple, yet efficient, socio-semiotic warfare. This was/is done through a three-step process:

1) question and erase the target populations’ links to their socio-semiotic heritage (including, but not limited to language);

2) replace these by English/colonial beliefs, language, and practices; and,

3) convince the target population that the only way to succeed/develop is to learn this material.

The result of this three-step process is a socio-semiotic subjugation of the target populations. In South Asia, the colonials achieved their desired result in many ways. For example, as outlined in the first part of the essay, the replacement of a three-way differentiation between deen, iman, and muzhab, which celebrated variations in beliefs and harmonised the society, by a single term ‘religion’ led to (ongoing) conflicts in the region; and, these conflicts helped/helps the colonisers gain strength.

The British in India noticed the strengths of local beliefs and practices as well as systems of education and literacy. They realised that to rule India they needed to dismantle local ways of knowing, doing, and being and replace them with their own. To achieve this, they (as recorded in Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, 1935) promote(d) English as being superior in every way to local languages and support education in and through English at the cost of local boli and educational practices (see Why English for one analysis of Macaulay’s Minute).

Macaulay argued that people in India “cannot at present be educated by means of [their] mother-tongue” and must therefore be taught in a foreign language. He then went on to state, with no evidence, that English was “preeminent even among the languages of the West” and should therefore be the language that the Indians should be taught in and through. This promotion of English as the only language that “has ready access to all the vast intellectual wealth” is what led to the establishment of a new type of empire: an empire of language.

In setting up an empire of the English language, the British contributed in setting up an academia in English which established and promoted ways of thinking about language (and other socio-semiotic systems) that devalue(d) Indigenous boli and ways. This was/is done in different ways. For example, one way in which English is seen as the “preeminent” language is to argue that one cannot do science in boli. This is supported by arguing that boli are not written and therefore cannot be used for education. As a result, English (or a handful of other languages with writing systems) are promoted in education and used as “official” languages.

The success of the British approach of altering the socio-semiotics of a people is visible around the world in the belief that we are all expected to learn English, the language of science and development, if we are to prosper.

However, these beliefs are based on biased interpretations and study of “languages” (and other socio-semiotic systems).

Boli is science

Contrary to the claim that boli are “under-developed” and that English is the language of science; a study of any boli will illustrate that boli – whether it has script or not – is science.

To understand this, we need to understand how science operates. Science, based on various (arbitrary/different) sets of criteria, classifies and categorises things. This knowledge is then applied in various contexts.

As such, science is not limited to any ‘one’ (or more) language(s). All boli categorise and classify the world that they represent (and construe) using criteria that are relevant to the people who speak the boli and the context in which it evolved. For example, I am confident that you will find labels for different categories of fruit, vegetables, animals, etc. in your own boli. If you are proficient in your boli, you will also have learnt about how the various categories interact with each other and with humans. You will also know, e.g., how to use particular types of plants and herbs found in your region for various medicinal/other purposes. This is science – your boli helps you separate out and classify and categorise things around you and teach you how to use these for you and your community’s benefit. When we give up our boli for English (or another colonial language), we give up our own science: our ways of understanding the world around us. This contributes to a dis-harmonisation and dis-empowerment of our peoples and communities.

An understanding of boli as science is marginalised/ignored in dominant English academia. Instead, the academia (and colonial governments) promote English (or another colonising language) as “the” language of science. This marketing of English as the language of science is, unfortunately, accepted by many (including Ministries of Education) with limited or no reflection and is manifested in the higher ranking of English medium educational institutions. The wide-spread belief/practice of promoting English at the cost of local boli reflects the success of Macaulay’s strategies – and the unmaking of our paradise.

Not only is it untrue that boli cannot be used to teach science or to educate people, one can argue that giving up one’s boli is giving up one’s indigenous sciences and ancestral ways of understanding the world around us.

The reason that colonials claim that English is the language of science is because the English travelled across the world and built their theories based on observations from different parts of the world; in contrast, boli are more localised in their evolution and applications.

In their colonial expeditions, the colonisers experienced diverse biological and social systems, including humans, and developed their theories about human, biological, and sociological evolution. For example, Darwin would not have written his work if he had not travelled on colonial voyages of “discovery” [Note: what colonials “discover” is often already represented in Indigenous boli.] Darwin, like most other western scientists at that time, created taxonomies of relationships between various species. These taxonomies focussed on classifying and categorising various species and sub-species (think language and dialect) based on a set of structural features.

Darwin, like most colonial taxonomists, did not consider the inter-relationships between and functions of different species, e.g. how does a Koala contribute to the ecosystem and other beings? This is one reason why we do not realise that before a species becomes biologically extinct, it becomes functionally extinct, i.e., it stops performing the ecological functions that it has within an ecosystem. As a consequence, the whole eco-system becomes destabilised.

Similarly, before various boli around the world become extinct, they become functionally extinct, i.e., they stop performing their socio-semiotic functions in the community. That is, boli is no longer used to understand and interact with the world around us. Instead, boli is replaced by an outside language (this, in the current world, may be English, or may be another colonising language, such as Urdu in the case of Pakistan). In replacing boli with another language, we are, in fact giving up the most valuable inheritance from our ancestors.

Boli, which we learn from our parents, and they from theirs, and so on, is the essence of our ancestors’ understanding of both the living and non-living worlds, and their relationship with these worlds. Boli is a distillation of the experiences, beliefs, and practices of our ancestors across millennia. Boli is our ancestors’ socio-semiotic inheritance to us. Boli is science: its vocabularies and its grammars are our ancestors’ ways of being, knowing, and doing. And a loss of boli is a loss of our ability to understand the world around us in ways that our ancestors did. That is why boli (not language, as language includes and is based on written symbols) is an aspect of our heritage and a fundamental human right.

Boli and writing systems are two separate things

If you can read this, you learnt to read at some point of time in your life. You may remember who and in what context you were first taught to read. Some of you might have learnt multiple scripts (e.g., Roman, Persio-Arabic, IPA); some of you, e.g. those educated in Japanese schools, might have learnt multiple types of scripts (phonemic, syllabic, logographic). While there will be differences in our histories of and experiences with scripts and reading, we all share one thing: we learn to speak/sign first before we learn to read and write. Why is this the case?

For children born with hearing and sight, verbal interaction takes over as a primary tool to interact with others around them. This verbal interaction develops into boli. And we use boli to learn about and engage with the world around us.

Children who can see but do not have hearing, look for visual cues (including, but not restricted to, signing) to engage and make meanings. And, children who can neither see nor hear, use touch, smell, and taste to learn about and engage with the world. [Children who do well later in life are provided the right input and support for them to develop their sensory systems. Without appropriate support, children do not develop these. For children with limited or no auditory and/or visual senses, it is imperative that they be provided appropriate environment to develop other sensory systems.]

Each of the sensory organs that humans draw on add complimentary sets of socio-semiotic potential (ways of being, knowing and doing). Sensory systems do not substitute for each other. They may, however, provide us with overlapping sets of information; e.g., some of us can both hear (auditory) someone give a talk and read (visual) their presentation slides at the same time. As humans, we have the same range of sensory systems. Each of us draws on and uses similar sets of resources, but, does so differently. There are numerous material-biological and socio-semiotic reasons for this [material-biological reasons include, e.g., sensory/physical ability, height of a person, placement of eyes on a person’s face; and, socio-semiotic reasons include, e.g. socio-economic status of the family, education/training, beliefs].

An understanding of how boli and reading are related to different sensory systems explains why reading/writing comes after boli (boli is primarily auditory; reading is primarily visual). Reading is the ability of a person to use their visual sense to interpret a set of symbols that carry a (static) representation of some aspects of boli. These symbols can be organised along different sets of principles (phonemic, syllabic or logographic). Written symbols have been used by humans for an unknown number of millennia and evidence for these emerge thousands of years ago. It is also well known that different communities developed different types of writing systems independently of each other and at different times; and, that some of these writing systems were shared across large regions. Thus, reading/writing is not a modern thing. And reading/writing, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. It is the use of “literacy” in a select number of “language” as a primary tool for education, economy, and evaluation of all humans (and non-humans) that contributes to the unmaking of the paradise.

Colonial theories and practices of language and literacy, based on limited/no understanding of Indigenous literacy practices, leads to continuing marginalisation of disempowered peoples. This is why literacy can be seen as Trojan Horse.

In Troy, it was the neglect of the “stuff” that the Greeks had left behind that was its unmaking. In our world, colonial literacy is Trojan Horse that our Masters left behind. It is not that we did not already have literacy before the colonisers arrived: we did; and, it is not that we do not want to retain literacy, we do; but, we should not neglect the weapons hidden in colonial models of language and literacy – the Trojan Horse – that they left behind (and continue to reinforce). If we neglect them, we will continue to be dominated, suppressed, and exploited.

Colonials use one aspect of the visual sensory system – reading – to measure, label, and discriminate against people. As a remedy to a lack of literacy, they promote particular models of education and literacy, which are often provided in a colonial (or a colonial-sanctioned) language (not boli). This is noticeable in the dominant educational practices and material across the globe: they are biased in favour of particular (colonial; not Indigenous) ways of being, knowing, and doing.

Instead of being seen as one aspect of a visual system used by some groups of people for specific purposes, literacy is seen as a skill that can and should be made available to all. This push for universal literacy is a goal of all major developmental organisations, including UNESCO. This is in spite of the fact that most of the worlds languages do not have writing systems.

One reason why colonial literacy is the unmaking of paradise is because, in an absence of their being part of the local, the colonisers interpreted everything they saw, observed, and/or heard about based on their own preconceptions and biases. They used their interpretations of selective observation/participation as “evidence” for their theories. The evidence they provided laid the foundations of much current colonial literacy and academia.

One consequence of neglecting the Trojan Horse of colonial literacies and academia is the division of people, based on structural distinctions (labels created and given by the colonials, such as ethnicity, language, race, religion). A division of people along these distinctions both reflects and contributes to a common perception that one group of people are different from another. These divisions can lead to conflict, for example, across South Asia. Conflict can lead to violence, which, in turn, can lead to destruction and poverty. The impact of a process of division can be observed in the constant increase in the number of ethno-linguistic groups around the world (as well as new ‘countries’), especially in the “developing world”. And, each new identity-group, in time, sub-divides and splits along another sets of characteristics. This continual breaking up of our peoples, non-human life forms, and lands are the dark clouds that suffocate us.

However, not all is lost. And there are ways in which we can move forward – not go backwards. We will consider some of these (e.g. subaltern linguistics, decolonising pedagogy) in Part 3 of this essay and outline things that we can do as individuals and groups to realign our language and literacy practices to enable ourselves and our communities.

Please read part I of this series here: 


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