Oral Culture

Let me preface this post by just saying that I love going to school.  I am studying language–something that I’ve always found fascinating.  I didn’t love school the first time–it was just work.  Now it is much more relaxing and fun.  I want to share an epiphany that I had while reading a chapter for my Literacy in the Digital Age class.

In my class we are studying the difference between purely oral cultures and literate cultures.  As literate people, we have a hard time identifying with people that grow up in a culture with no printed words.  A lot of times we think of them as ignorant–we don’t understand their ways; their cultures are very different from ours.  I was reading about oral cultures and it dawned on me that children are very similar to the people from these cultures.  We can learn a lot about how to relate with children that do not yet read from adults in oral cultures.

First of all, adults that are raised in oral cultures have no real concept of abstract ideas.  Abstract ideas are a result of education–we learn these ideas.  When an illiterate person raised in an oral culture sees a circle on a piece of paper, they do not think of a circle.  When asked what a circle is they say ball, bucket–anything from their everyday life that is round.  They deal in the concrete, not the abstract.  Children are the same when they are first taught the shapes.  They will usually say that a circle is a ball.  When we deal with small children, we need to realize that they are not processing their environment the way that we do.  They deal in what they can see and touch.

Another interesting fact about oral cultures is that they have no way to record the past or to write and record a set of instructions–other than memory.  That is why oral cultures are so rich in poetry and lyrical speech.  These are a way to make memorization easier.  In the book Orality and Literacy, the author Walter Ong makes the point that words are gone the moment that they pass through the lips.  In an oral culture, if there is no effort to repeat an idea and memorize it, it is gone forever.  We tend to associate instructions with words in our heads–if we really want to reemmber something, we just write it down. If we forget a fact in an article we read, we just look it up. Children that cannot yet read have no visual help to remember instructions.  We tend to get frustrated with them, but we just do not realize that they do not have the same tools that we have to commit things to memory.  In dealing with small children, a way to get them to remember what they’re told is to make instructions into a song or rhyme.  That is how completely oral cultures commit things this memory.  Some times we expect them to have the ability to remember every thing that we tell them.  That is not the case.  Sometimes when your words pass through your lips, they have forgotten them forever.

Children love songs and poems.  Oral communication is their main source of human contacts.  We can derive pleasure and interest from other sources, such as books, newsletters, even Sudoku.  Children mainly communicate through sounds and personal interaction.  I think that by understanding their world, we can communicate with children better. 

There is so much that I am learning.  I hope to occasionally share some of my insight with you.  Don’t worry, I am not turning completely academic.  I still have plenty of fun stories to share, too.


One thought on “Oral Culture

  1. Great insight Liz. Not only do you remind me to think about how children remember and learn but everyone I deal with on a daily basis.

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