New hands at old scripts

9th June 1995 at 01:00
THE ACQUISITION OF A SECOND WRITING SYSTEM. By Rosemary Sassoon. Intellect Pounds 14.95 - 871516 43 9.

Charlie Naylor on culturally sensitive ways to teach students new writing systems. This fascinating book should be compulsory reading for all teachers and people who need to have insight into how it feels to be faced with the traditional arrogance and insensitivity of Western culture. Handwriting in its complexity and in its mirroring of human emotion is an ideal vehicle, not only for studying the subtleties of other writing systems, but for learning about "the human condition" in a wide range of contexts. Sassoon has researched and consulted widely and she has unfolded her own wisdom and expertise in a style that combines fact, knowledge, humour and anecdote.

Thus, the book has many dimensions, is easy to read and difficult to put down. First, it should be read by all teachers of handwriting because it combines instruction with insight, discipline with humility, precision with empathy, and communicates to the reader that "handwriting is yourself on paper, the way you put yourself to the world". Second, it is a commentary on the multicultural aspects of the development of written communication and the way in which commerce between nations has to reconcile typography and computer technology with cultural tradition, aesthetic values, and the power of the written word (see Sassoon's Computers and Typography, 1993).

The book is widely illustrated with examples of writing systems that may invite scholars and artists to "have a go" in identifying and exploring the similarities and differences between, say, directionality, writing tools, calligraphic styles etc. In so doing they will be responding to Rosemary Sassoon's urgent plea for research, observation and cross-cultural study relevant to handwriting. On a broader basis there is an international need for joint projects and studies between countries - however expensive this may be.

"Why should handwriting exercises for children from different cultures consist of copying out totally inappropriate nursery rhymes?" If to some European language teachers this does not appear to inhibit children's learning, then perhaps they have not realised that some children from other cultures may only survive because of traditionally developed observational skills, high levels of concentration, good memories and highly developed powers of imitation. Whether this is so or not, children (and adults) may first have to overcome the trauma of being uprooted from their homes and then having to learn new skills in alien surroundings. Emotionally disturbed children (and adults), whatever their culture, need reassurance and positive encouragement if they are to demonstrate their true intelligence.

In a chapter on "Handwriting and Personality", Sassoon quotes a Chinese graphologist Yang Xiong (53bc-18ad): "The words that we utter are the voice of our spirit, the characters we write are our paintings. This voice and this painting reveal the inferiority of human nature." "Handwriting, Society and Politics" quotes the example of the Chinese calligrapher being traditionally respected for his art, while in Victorian England, so-called gentlemen, "steered clear of a perfect hand lest they be confused with a mere clerk whose livelihood depended on just that perfect script". Present day problems of legibility may be caused by the preoccupation with speed and in this respect the use of technology may mean that eventually legible handwriting and "an aesthetically pleasing hand" may become specialisms rather the usual modes of communication in education.

This book will surely influence the thinking and practice of those teachers who are prepared to study the similarities and differences between languages in order to provide more culturally sensitive teaching for their students. This will never be an easy task because ideally it would require the teacher "to have experienced at first hand the baffling confusion of learning another language and writing system, and to have been unable to communicate orally or on paper at their own intellectual level".

Charlie Naylor is tutor in education at the University of Leeds

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