I have some new students. They’re a couple; they’d both be in their late 30’s or early 40’s. They’re originally from Pakistan, but have been in Canada for about 8 years. They’re business people, and are trying to purchase a restaurant franchise. In order to purchase said franchise, they need to take an English test. What’s that, you say? You mean, they have to learn enough English to arrange for a bank loan? No, I meant what I said: they have to take an English test.
The irony is that both these people are considered fluent in English (perhaps a little too fluent, she thought, recalling the 10-minute-long anti-banker/anti-real-estate-developer tirade the man delivered last night); both have fairly subtle accents, reasonable use of English things like verb tenses and prepositions, and a good vocabulary. But they need to answer 50 multiple-choice questions in 20 minutes. From what I can see, the questions have absolutely nothing to do with owning or running a restaurant franchise. Who needs to know about semi-colons to own a restaurant franchise?
What really got me was this: they were explaining their education and work history, and the man made a comment about having made it to a position where he didn’t have to read or write. In Pakistan, his education and upbringing had earned him a job where his employees did all the reading and writing; all he had to do was sign his name. In the evenings, he might read the newspaper for pleasure, but that was the only quantity of reading he did.
I was a little floored, not so much by the fact that he didn’t read or write as by the fact that he viewed it as an achievement. I managed to keep my mouth shut – literally and figuratively – but the bus ride home from work was spent mulling it all over. There were some other passengers who seemed to shy away from my frown….
Cultures which have strong oral traditions are great; they’re great because eventually I will find someone who will write down the stories and things, and then I have the pleasure of reading them. Strong oral traditions make for really good stories. However, I don’t think I’d survive very long in a society where reading and writing were a) not something one did for most of one’s day, and b) where there was pride in not reading and writing. I could be the world’s best fire-side storyteller, and I’d be miserable. I could be the wisest person on top of the tallest mountain, but I would be the most suicidal person on top of that mountain if I didn’t have a book to read, or pen and paper to write with.
To the story tellers of North America’s First Nations: my hat’s off to you.
To the wise spiritual leaders of Eastern traditions: my deepest, most sincere respect.
To all those who lived before Linear A: my sympathies (how did you survive?)