Archive for March 31, 2008

Kazakh Proverbs: Orality and Literacy (Part II)

Yesterday I needed more information from an American friend of mine about Kazakh proverbs.  He is an expert on this subject after having lived in Kazakhstan for 12 years and knowing the Kazakh language.  Apparently there is a popular TV show in Kazakhstan where there are 3-4 contestants in their later teens who compete on national TV concerning their knowledge of Kazakh proverbs.  With a crowd of about 60-70 in the audience, they also participate when the contestants are stumped over a question.  Someone in the audience may know the answer and then they award the points to their favorite contestant.  I asked if it was something like “American Idol” or “So You Think You can Dance?” with America’s “cult following.”  No, it is much more complex than that since Kazakh grade school children are expected to memorize Kazakh proverbs and which they are tested on.

Supposedly there are known Proverbs Masters and they specialize in knowing Kazakh proverbs that have been handed down orally for generations.  A book titled “1001 Proverbs” is meant for young Kazakh teens to grasp and know.  The Kazakhs claim that you can only truly understand their proverbs if you know the Kazakh language in depth.  Of course, that is true for any culture which has their own set of proverbs, some proverbs just do not adequately translate into English without knowing the cultural context.

The other night on the stage of the Kazakh language competition were about 15 teenagers honored for their knowledge of Kazakh proverbs and cultural traditions.  They were given the title “Aminat” which means “entrusted with something that is precious.”  They have the high responsibility of carrying on the rich traditions of Kazakh proverbs and traditions which is a “national treasure” and central to the Kazakh culture.

My friend also told me about a book by Walter Ong that is a classic dealing with oral traditions and the written text, titled Orality and Literacy. I had run across this book before when I had gathered my ESL students’ proverbs from many other countries while teaching in the Washington D.C. area.  I had particularly noticed something interesting about my ESL students who came from all over the world when they complied with my little assignment of writing out three proverbs from their culture with an English explanation.  Those who were the closest to their culture (i.e. had the worst English skills in terms of speaking or writing) had some of the BEST proverbs.  However, those who were more fluent in English had moved away from their cultural mores and were embracing the idioms and sayings known to English speakers.  They had become more “literate” in English while moving away from their own oral traditions.

Tomorrow I will write not only about oral traditions and literacy but also about “post-literacy.”  As ESL/EFL teachers nowadays, we are dealing with post-literacy while trying to stay the course with keeping up with computer literacy. Computer literacy is a whole ‘nother subject to write on later!!!

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