When I was a teenager meaning about 14 years of age and in high school, I was blessed to know a fellow who lived in the neighborhood. He was an avowed bachelor, dark, gangly, thin and with pock marks on his face. We called him Kaloda , Kalo being his nickname and da is brother .
He was the nicest person one could ever meet anywhere. I still do not know what he saw in me but one day he gave me a book to read. It was She by Rider Haggard. When I showed some apprehension because English was not my language and I was not into reading books in English, he said to me not to worry.
He said I should read and form a habit of reading. At first it may be a bit difficult and I may understand 1/3rd of it because of my limited vocabulary but later the comprehension will gradually increase and I will begin to really enjoy reading. It will open up the vast world of classic literature or anything else to me and I will develop a tremendous desire to read anything that I can get hold of and increase my knowledge like no other teacher can.
So I started reading She and soon found it very fascinating. The story telling ability of Rider Haggard is superb to say the least. I could close my eyes and imagine I was in the Zululand where the Zulus with the decorations of beads and paint and holding assegais waited silently for the Zulu king Chaka to give the orders while the voortrekkers waited.
I could imagine the sheherzade in rich silk and in the company of Sindbad going about making mischief or Aladin rubbing his lamp and asking the genie to do the impossible. There was no limit to my imagination. The books I read brought me instantly to any part of the world where I could follow every step described by the writer.
Kaloda said to me that the trick of reading and comprehension lies in the context at first. You may not know the word but you will get the meaning if read in the context it was used. Later this helps increase the vocabulary. He gave me many more books to read all in English and said that he had a good collection. Dostoevsky, Gogol and many others thus became a part of my reading list.
Kaloda is dead now but I still remember him very fondly. I went to his house when someone told me that he died recently, to pay my last respect but no one opened the door so I felt disappointed because he was such a good guy and such a good friend.
A child imitates what he hears and slowly picks up the vocabulary to form a sentence .This is how a child learns his mother tongue. It is called the mother tongue for a reason. He hears words from his mother first and not his father.
At first he can’t pronounce words easily or correctly but he is just a child so his abilities are limited. He learns by repetition and memory development .Later he gets better and by the age of three or four, he or she can be a chatterbox.
The television also helps. Imagine how many millions of children who grow up watching Sesame Street develop their learning skills and learn to count and the alphabets in a fun way. No wonder it was such a successful TV program and has been emulated in many countries and dubbed in their languages.
But kids who do not have TV to watch or books to read still manage to develop their ability to speak and understand a spoken language first and written language later when they start schooling formally.
The habit forming I am writing about does not come easily to any child unless he grows up in an environment where good habit forming like reading is encouraged by those around him. Illiterate parents and relatives can’t help in this matter.
The religious schools that emphasize religion first and other subjects as secondary also can’t help a child develop reading skills especially if they proscribe certain books and ban them from their libraries. This is true in the Philippines and many such countries where the children get their primary education in parochial or such religious schools.
Not all kids are blessed to have a Kaloda as a friend so I guess I was lucky.
Children learn from examples. They learn good values if the parents teach them and practice those values themselves. They learn bad things if they grow up in a home where the parents drink, quarrel and live in fear of constant domestic violence. He reads nothing if the parents do not read or do not provide him with reading materials or he grows up reading only comic books or such cheap things if the parents or other siblings only read comics.
His vocabulary even in his own language remains poor or unpolished if he only hears vulgar and uncouth salty language at home. A child is like a sponge at first and absorbs anything and everything because he does not have the ability to filter out the bad from the good. Besides, there is no one to teach him better.
The habit forming has a certain period in life when it is formed after which the kid is well set in his ways and can’t be easily swayed one way or the other. The mollahs know this and beat the kids into submission in Koranic schools and help make kids grow as the future talibans. It is called brainwashing. You repeat everyday a certain message until it sinks in and is permanently recorded in the brain. It guides the kid in all his actions later in life to the extent that he learns to disrespect his mother or sisters and can strap an explosive belt to blow up innocent people someday just because that is what he grew up learning and believing.
But he can be taught good things as well if only someone tries at a certain age to teach him good values, respect for others and other faiths, respect for his mother and sisters, tolerance towards people who are different etc . Most of all his mind can be opened up by the habit of reading.
There are libraries that offer books to read for free .There are private collections that Kalodas of this world keep and share with anyone because they are good people and sharing is a part their nature. Now the internet offers unlimited free books on any subject to anyone who cares to download and read. There are blogs that one can write or read for free anywhere and anytime.
We grew up without such facilities because there was no such thing as internet then and the libraries kept mostly some books in Bengali and Hindi. Our school did not have a library and our parents could not buy us books to read other than the school books. There was no such thing as book report demanded by the teachers except the school books and there was no elocution contest where the kids could participate. The extemporaneous speaking ability in kids as early as ten can be developed if he or she is encouraged to do so and is rewarded if he does. It also develops their self confidence. I know it developed mine.
In any society, the local language is always given preference in home and schools so the kids grow up speaking only one language or at the most two. A foreign language like English is only limited to the study of English as a subject in school where you take the exam in high school, pass it and move on in your life when the use of English is not required . So the ability to speak a foreign language like English or any other language for that matter fluently is limited to those who attend English medium schools and even then most can’t do it. The ability to speak a language like English fluently comes from practice.
To learn to speak a foreign language and make it your own then depends on parents and their unlimited encouragement to the kids to do so. They encourage their children to write in English, speak English with proper grammar and syntax, participate in extemporaneous speaking contests and reward their children for doing so. They buy them encyclopedias and computer and any number of books but not all parents can do that.
Imagine if you live in a third world country, earn a poor living and have many children to take care of so you can’t possibly afford to give the child the same opportunities a middle class parent can in other more developed countries and you will understand the difficulties.
However, there are many opportunities for underprivileged children to learn and develop good habits that do not cost money.
A great man and a social reformer called Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar born in Bengal of very poor parents learned his numbers at three or four by walking with his father and counting the milestones. His tender feet were blistered but he did not mind such was his ardor of learning. Later he studied under the street lamps because they were so poor yet he became one of the great thinkers and philosophers of his time. Now a great bridge in Kolkata is dedicated in his name.
The reading habit more than anything else helps expand the mind and you learn about other countries, other people, other philosophies, other culture, their foods, their music, their art, their history, their way of life and anything else that no school teacher can teach you. It makes you rich in knowledge and confidence more so if you someday get a chance to travel and see for yourself all the things you read about.
You will never know the beauty of English as a language or any other language unless you develop the reading habit at an early age and devour the books as you find them. It took me many years to realize that Thackeray, Gogol and Tolstoy were such fantastic writers but it is never too late to start. Just remember that even if you read one book a day which is nearly impossible, there are more books to read than one can in his lifetime or several lifetimes.
If you have kids of your own, teach them how to read and help them develop their interest in reading so they too can form the habit of reading. The literature, philosophy, art, science, story of Sindbad and 1000 Arabian nights, such are the gems the mankind has produced and in such a prodigious manner is all for the eager mind to read and learn from. Such a person will grow up a truly remarkable person and people will respect him or her for the knowledge.