| Learning and Computing | Education | Computing | Psychology | Artificial Intelligence |

Computers and Literacy in Traditional Languages

Robert W. Lawler in collaboration with Mamadou Niang and Moussa Gning [1]

XEW, the "village" Wolof Language microworld.

Microcomputers are pouring into homes and schools in the industrialized countries and will soon be flooding the world. It is hardly too soon to wonder what effects computers are likely to have on our children. Will computers change the way children learn? Will computers change the sorts of people children become? I believe the answers may well be yes, and although it is too early for conclusive proof, I can offer here a story that supports my belief.

I have worked in the computer industry for sixteen years, and when my children were born I became interested in the potential impact of early computer experiences on children's learning. Several years ago, in collaboration with a computer language project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I began an intensive study of how daily access to a computer influenced the way my two older children--then aged six and eight--learned the basics of arithmetic. By the time their younger sister Peggy turned three, a microcomputer had become standard equipment in our household, and I began to develop several programs to give Peggy access to the machine. Playing with these programs in her own way and on her own initiative over the following months, Peggy began to do something that looks very much like the beginnings of reading and writing.

What is it really like to bring a microcomputer in your home and let your three-year-old play with it? The answer depends on who you are, your knowledge and values. The computer entered my home and my family life because it is a part of my work. It was my pleasure to write some simple programs for my daughter's entertainment and edification. My interests in children and computers led me to gather a great deal of information about what Peggy knew before her first encounter with the computer and afterwards. Between her ages of three years three months and three years ten months, Peggy began to read and write. The following sketch of how this happened is based on my own observation of only one child's learning; it is fair to say, however, that I have an enormous amount of detailed information about what this particular child knew and how that knowledge changed over a long period of time. I believe this sketch will be of general interest because Peggy's story provides some advance information about how computer experience may affect our children.

In the USA children typically learn to read around the age of six. Most learn to read at school. A few teach themselves to read earlier. Peggy, at the age of three, even living in a bookish family, did not know how to read in any substantial sense before her computer experience. Her knowledge of letters at three years, three months was quite specific and limited. She recognized only a few letters as distinct symbols with any meaning. For example, she knew that "P" was the first letter of her name. She also recognized "G" as the "mummy letter" because her mother's name is Gretchen.

What was Peggy's knowledge of spelling like? One incident gave me some inkling. My oldest daughter was learning a bit of French: one day Peggy claimed that she knew how to "spell French" and continued, "un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq. " At another time her spelling of "French" was "woof boogle jig." Peggy saw the process of spelling as decomposing a meaningful word into a string of essentially meaningless symbols and had not yet learned any of the standard spellings of words.

Peggy's ability and willingness to identify a string of symbols as a particular word came from a very specific beginning. After receiving a gift book from her older sister (who then wrote Peggy Lawler on the flyleaf), Peggy interpreted all small clusters of alphabetic symbols as "Peggy Lawler. " At a later point in time, as a consequence of being often read to, she became able to recognize a single, two letter word, "by", which appeared on the title page of every book we read to her. There is no reason to believe she had any idea of what "by" might mean in that context. Her knowledge of reading as a process for interpreting graphic material is best seen in her common observation that she read Pictures and I read Words. From her remark. we can infer she would expect to do the same with words. Not a bad assumption, but completely empty of any information about how written words signify as they do.

Contrast now her knowledge seven months later. Her knowledge of letters is essentially complete, in that she discriminates the 26 letters of the alphabet and can name them. Her knowledge of words, in the sense of interpreting them one at a time, is significantly greater. She reads more than 20 words, most with complete dependability. But unlike children who have learned to read and write by conventional means, she sees the spelling of words as stepwise directions for keying a name into the computer. Although her general idea of what book reading is may not have changed, she has a different and powerful idea of what reading single words means that derives directly from her experience with my computer programs. Peggy's introduction to computers did not relate directly to "reading" in terms of content, but her desire to control the machine led her into keying on the computer her first "written" word. Having helped load programs by pushing buttons on a cassette tape recorder, one day on her own Peggy typed "LO" on the terminal then came seeking direction as to what letter came next. A few days later, she typed the "load" command while the rest of the family was busy elsewhere.

I call the computer environments created by the programs I have written "microworlds", following the terminology used by Seymour Papert, the man chiefly responsible for the development of the "LOGO" computer language, in his book Mindstorms. The initial microworlds were one for moving coloured blocks around on the video display screen and another (made for her older sister but taken over by Peggy) which created designs by moving a coloured cursor. While her sister used this drawing program to make designs, Peggy's first drawing was a large box--which she immediately converted into a letter "P" by adding the stem. Letters intrigued Peggy. They were a source of power she didn't understand.

A few days later, Peggy keyed the letter "A" and explained to me that "A is for apple. " Her comment suggested away we could--on the computer--make a new kind of prereaders' ABC book. A child's book of ABC's typically offers a collection of engaging pictures displayed in alphabetic order with a large, printed letter associated with each picture. The child looks at the pictures and is informed "A is for apple. " The relationship of letters to pictures is exactly the opposite in the ABC microworld. The letter is the "key" for accessing the picture. That is, keying the letter "D" produces a picture of a dog. Instead of responding to a statement such as "See the doggie. D is for dog, " Peggy was able to try any letter on the keyboard, first, to see what it got her, and later, if the picture interested her, to inquire what was the letter's name. She was in control of her own learning. She could learn WHAT she wanted, WHEN she wanted to, and could ask for advice or information when SHE decided she WANTED it. The ABC microworld was tailor-made for Peggy. The shapes were selected and created on the computer by Peggy's older sister and brother, aged ten and twelve. As a consequence of playing with the ABC microworld--and with another to which we now turn--Peggy developed a stable and congenial familiarity with the letters of the alphabet.

A Demonstration scene of the BEACH microworld

More complex and interesting than the ABC microworld, the BEACH microworld provides a backdrop for action. Waves and a beach in the foreground, with grass above, rise to a road, more grass, and clouds at the top. Against that backdrop, Peggy could create a small picture of an object by specifying a procedure name, then manipulate the picture with commanding procedures. Peggy typically began constructing a scene with the word SUN. A yellow circle would appear in the waves. She would raise it to the sky by keying the word UP repeatedly, change its colour or set it in motion with another word, and go on to other objects. She could, for example, make a CAR image appear by keying that word, change its location with commands UP, DOWN, MOVE, and specify its heading and velocity with TURN, SLOW, FAST, FASTER, and HALT.

These microworlds were created using Logo, an easily comprehensible computer language which permits you to assign meaning to any string of letters by writing simple procedures. Logo's procedure definition was especially valuable in customizing the BEACH world. When Peggy first used BEACH, she was unhappy with the speed of the objects and asked, "How can I make them zoom, Daddy?" Nothing was easier than to create a new Logo word, ZOOM, which set the velocity of the object with a single primitive command. In a further instance, Peggy's older sister made a horse-and-rider design and wrote a PONY procedure to create an object with a horse-and-rider design and set it in motion. After watching her sister edit that shape design, Peggy imitated the specific commands to create her own new shape. (She could not well control the design and ended with a collection of perpendicular lines. Asked what it was, she first replied "A pony, "then later, "Something important. ") It is very likely that primary grade children could create their own designs and would copy and alter procedures to expand or personalize the vocabulary of BEACH-like microworlds.

As a direct consequence of playing with the BEACH world, Peggy learned to "read" approximately twenty words. Initially, she keyed names and commands, copying them letter by letter from a set of cards. Soon, her favourite words were keyed from memory. Less familiar words she could locate by searching through the pile of cards. When her mood was exploratory, she would try unfamiliar words if she encountered them by chance. Now, when shown those words--on the original cards or printed otherwheres--she recognizes the pattern of letters and associates it with the appropriate vocal expression. Further, the words are meaningful to her. She knows what they represent, either objects or actions.

In the past, words for reading have always been an alphabetic symbol for an idea to be evoked in the mind. For Peggy, words are that but something else as well--a set of directions for specifying how to key a computer command. What is strikingly different in this new word-concept, as contrasted with quasi-phonetic decoding, is that the child and computer together decode a letter string from a printed word to a procedure which the computer executes and whose significance the child can appreciate. Finally, because the computer can interpret specific words the child does not yet know, she can learn from the computer through her self directed explorations and experiments. What might the words of this world mean ?

XEW, the "village" Wolof Language microworld.

The basic lesson I draw from this story is NOT merely about "motivation"--although Peggy did enjoy playing with these microworlds and learned from doing so. There is a more revolutionary aspect, one paradoxical as well. This new technology can make possible a more "natural" absorption of knowledge. The character of words experienced as executable procedure names brought Peggy into a new relationship with language, one different from what has been characteristic of learning to read in the past.

Learning to read from print is necessarily a passive process for the child. Words on the page stand for other people's meanings. Until children start to write, they can't use written words for their own purposes. Microcomputers put reading and writing together from the start. A word that Peggy can read is also one she can use to produce on the computer effects that interest her. For Peggy, learning the alphabetic language has become more like every infant's learning of the vocal language. Speaking is powerful for the infant, even for one who commands but a few words, when a responsive person listens. Likewise, the production of alphabetic symbols--even one letter and one word at a time--can become powerful for the young child when computer microworlds provide a patient, responsive intelligence to interpret them.

Since speech is natural to man in all the various cultures of our world, it is reasonable to ask whether the most general and powerful elements in Peggy's experience with writing can be adapted for use in cultures other than the one to which she is native. If computer technology could make learning to read and write more like learning to speak and understand, it would be capable of changing profoundly the intellectual character of the world in which we all live.

The essential power available through the Logo computer language is that a word, any string of symbols, can be given a function. For example, the word "SUN" can cause the execution of a computer procedure which produces a graphic image representing the sun. Because both the spelling of a word and the meaning given to it are assigned through writing a procedure, the words of computer microworlds are independent of the "natural" language of the programmer. For example, the same procedure which creates the "SUN" could be given the name "SOLEIL" (French) or "JANT"(Wolof). Although computer words may be language independent, anything made for use by people is culturally bound. Only people who share the same cultural experience scan know which objects and actions within a culture will be congenial to the children and will relate to the kind of homely experience which is close to their hearts and will continue to engage them in learning and loving learning.

The people who should determine what computer experiences are offered to children should be the children themselves, their parents or their teachers--or others who are close to the children and share their experiences--hopefully, sensitive, caring instructors with a progressive commitment to what is best for the children they love. Computers and their languages should be accessible to such people, easy for them to use as a casual, creative medium. If they are not so, the children of the world will not be properly served.

One lucky day, Peggy and I showed her BEACH microworld to two such men, Mamadou Niang and Moussa Gning. These gentlemen, Senegalese teachers who had come the New York Logo Center for an introduction to computers and the Logo programming language, were engaged by these microworlds I had made for my daughter. They told me that the Senegalese people are much concerned with the issue of literacy and hoped that computers could make learning the written word more congenial to the children of their nation. Their colleague and technical adviser, Mme Sylla Fatimata, later explained the importance computers could have to their children in this way.

Mme Sylla and M. Niang showing XEW to Seymour Papert

The children of Senegal typically live in a personal, warm family setting until they are of school age. At home, they live and grow in the culture of their traditional languages, such as Wolof. At school age, they go off to a cold and impersonal place where all the language and all the lessons are French. Some children survive and thrive there, but many are terrified and refuse to learn. For them, learning in school means alienation from the people they love, and they reject that alienation even though they are encouraged to adopt it.

French is the dominant language through which the Senegalese deal with the exterior world. It is the language of opportunity within the government and commerce. Further, it is the language which has dominated the schools and continues to do so. The Senegalese intend to protect and advance their traditional languages by turning the tide of modern technology to their own use, specifically by developing literacy in Wolof among their children. Although Wolof has been written--in an extended Roman alphabet--for more than a hundred years, only during the last decade has the transcription of the language become standardized throughout the country. Consequently, and ironically, many learned people of their land, literate in French and even Arabic, are illiterate in their traditional language, the language they use in their homes and in conversation with their African colleagues at work.

Wanting to change this situation, the Senegalese believe they might better create programs for computer use in Wolof than in French or in the language of whoever makes the machines, and they have good reasons. Because there exists now no rigid "curriculum" for computer education in French, and because they have not invested years in teacher training in French language computer instruction, they imagine correctly that this new technology has a revolutionary potential which can be used to support their traditional language and culture if they but seize the opportunity.

With others of the Senegal Microcomputer Project, Mamadou Niang and Moussa Gning came to extend their introduction to Logo in Paris--at the World Center for Computation and Human Development. Because there is no better way to learn how to use a computer language than to use it for some significant purpose, I offered Mamadou this challenge, "You imagine some such microworld for the children of Senegal, and I will help you make it; let's work together to make something your young students will love. "Mamadou noted that, of course, there are beaches in Senegal and the great city of Dakar, but that since an objective of their work was to appeal to all the children of Senegal, it would be more appropriate to think of images of the countryside. He proposed a village backdrop, with some small buildings and a well. To enliven such a scene, one would need people and the animals of the country life, perhaps a cat, horses, cows and so on. We agreed to make only a few objects, and thereby leave for the children the pleasure of creation; we would let them decide what they wanted in their world--and provide the tools for them to make it.

Since we come from cultures so much apart, it is appropriate to comment on our way of working together. We labored to share ideas. Our working tongue, our lingua franca, was French; after all, in Paris tout le monde parle français. . Mamadou and Moussa spoke French much better than I did. I was grateful that they would tolerate my poor French so that we could work together. The computer we used was an English language Logo computer. When they succeeded in helping me understand their objectives, I would propose and demonstrate programming capabilities and techniques to embody what Mamadou wanted in the microworld. In a kind of "pidgin" language, French, English, computerese, they began to program with my guidance a little scene, some designs of objects to fit in that scene, and some computer procedures to control their appearance and actions.

When we had created a scene with a number of French language procedure names--when we had the conceptual objects of this world more or less under control--we began to discuss using Wolof. This is where Moussa played a most significant role. As the leading primary-grade pedagogue for Wolof instruction in Senegal, he was able with confidence to assign definitive spellings to the procedure names we used to create and manipulate the objects of our village microworld. (Sometimes this involved consultation with the others of the Senegalese delegation, including the linguist, Pathe Diagne. )

Because the Logo language permits any string of "keyable" symbols to be the name of a procedure, we were able to convert French-named procedures such as"SOLEIL" and "MARCHE" to their Wolof equivalents, "JANT" and "DOXAL" (the "X" is pronounced as in Spanish). Thus we arrived at the assembly of procedures and designs capable of producing the village microworld, "XEW". (The sound of the name "XEW", meaning "scene", begins with the Spanish "X" and rhymes with the English "HOW". )

If the village microworld seems bare and crude, there is good reason. It was not made to impress programmers or civil servants. It is less a product than a project with a few examples of what is possible. This world is one to be created by the children of Senegal. Why should I tell them what they want? Why should even their teachers tell them what creatures and people to put in the worlds of their imaginations?

It was Mamadou who best expressed the right way of viewing the village microworld. When I said that the design of "FAS" was incredible, looked ever so little like a horse, he replied "I'm sure the children will make a better one. "

FAS, Mamadou's Wolof "horse" in the graphics editor

After their introduction to Logo -- through the adaptation of ideas for their country--my colleagues have returned to Senegal to begin a pilot project with children in the experimental classes of the Ecole Normale Superieure. [3] The first of the ideas that have been important in progress to this point was the adoption of Logo as their preferred computer language. Choosing Logo was important because Logo permits the definition of new computer procedures and because the language is both powerful and accessible. The second is the commitment to congeniality, to adapting ideas to maximize their applicability in terms of their own culture. This is the dimension where accessibility of the programming language to amateurs is important. Parents, teachers, and older children may know best what children will accept and understanding and extending studies now underway at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Dakar. It also depends on the availability of suitable computer equipment. Their brave experiment could be one of the most important in the world; it deserves watching and support.

Publication notes:

Text notes:

  1. Robert LAWLER, of the USA. is a cognitive psychologist and engineer at the "Centre Mondial lnformatique et Ressources Humaines" (World Centre for Computation and Human Development), Paris. Mamadou NIANG and Moussa GNING, of Senegal, are teachers at the experimental school of the Ecole Normale Superieure, Dakar. This article was published in 26 languages, world-wide.
  2. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, by Seymour Papert. Basic Books, New York.
  3. The Senegal Microcomputer Project is supported by the World Centre for Computation and Human Development, Paris. The participation of Senegal was at the inspiration of Leopold Senghor and progresses with the continuing support of Jacques Diouf, Minister of Science and Technology, and Professors Bouna Gaye and Mohamadou Diallo of the Ecole Normale Superieure. The Logo programming language was developed by Seymour Papert and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and around the world.

| Learning and Computing | Education | Computing | Psychology | Artificial Intelligence |

After Thoughts

The Eiffel Tower, Paris, 1983

Le Centre Mondial L'Informatique

On closing of Le Centre Mondial ten years after its founding, the building shown here passed to other commercial uses.