Some Thoughts on Environmental Print in Minority Langage Contexts

In the Literacy Mega Course at SIL-UND one of the issues students are asked to consider is Environmental Print.

Sharon MacDonald presents Environmental Print as a way to move people from illiteracy (but with a understanding of contextual clues based on experience and iconicity), to literacy using or reinforcing reading lessons with print materials found around them (particularly in advertising and on manufactured goods). In this writing I will apply Sharon’s general idea to three kinds of cases.

  • While some may scoff at the idea that Environmental Print has an impact on young or new readers, I am a believer that it can and does have an impact. I have a highly analytical and intelligent, younger brother who taught himself to read before he went to kindergarten. One particular time we were driving, and passed a Burger King. From the car seat he asked me if the first letter of the Burger King sign was B and said the ‘b’ sound. He was I said “yes”. He replied, “I thought so”. This was my first encounter with Environmental Print and its impact on pre-readers.

Sharon’s ideas about Environmental Print have several interesting ideas behind them:

  1. there is the idea that people start with an ability to recognize iconic products and distinguish brands before they can read,
  2. that these icons/brands packages can be used in some constructive way to teach people how to read other print without branding.
  • The second idea I wish to relate Environmental Print to is orthography development in developing language situations. There is very little in the academic journals about socio-linguistic motivations for orthography choices. This is generally done for face saving reasons. However, it is well stated that communities do make orthography choices based on their perception of print around them. Generally this comes from neighboring languages. What is not well recorded or documented is the effect and impact of Environmental Print on the general perception towards characters and writing in general. It would be helpful in evaluating the impact of Environmental Print on writing systems to know more specifics about the impact and the economic situations of how goods bearing Environmental Print are acquired.

Orthography development is only one facet of Environmental Print and literacy. However, when considering the minority language context, one assumption that does not hold to be true is that speakers of an unwritten language are illiterate. In Sharon’s context she is generally looking at Environmental Print objects which are in the same language as the majority language spoken by many people, for example: English spoken in the USA.

  • The third idea and specific case I would like to relate Environmental Print to is the case of literacy in the minority language context. In this situation there is not necessarily a host of Environmental Print which is pre-existing in the language. This does not mean that there is not Environmental Print. In the case of ut-Ma’in [gel] in Northwest Nigeria the Environmental Print situation is currently unknown. However, undoubtedly there is a presence of Environmental Print either in Hausa, Arabic or English. In thinking about the potential impact of Environmental Print on a community I would like to take an initial look at Environmental Print and the kinds of Environmental Print which already exist in the community. Just because there is Environmental Print on an object, it does not mean that the Environmental Print is representative of the word used to describe the object in the community. It would be analogous to my brother saying, “I saw a restaurant” after seeing the sign for Burger King. The sign/Environmental Print relates to a semantic idea but not to a clear orthographic/lexical relationship to the text “Burger King”. This means that when considering language development and literacy within that context that the pre-existing role of Environmental Print needs to be considered. It is not that EP can not be generated in the community, but it does mean that if it does exist within a community without a written language that it can already have associated with it certain emotional values which will affect the acceptance of using those materials in literacy efforts.

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