I was forced to sit through the cartoon Viva Pinata a few years ago. (Hey, the requester was cute. What was I supposed to do?) Despite assurances that the last 32 episodes would be less brain cell-killing than the first five, I found myself trying to decide just how badly I wanted to stay on this guy’s good side…right up until I noticed something interesting: I was starting to count how many times I saw a pinata with either a newspaper or a book in his hand. The pinatas’ written language was this bizarre boxy set of shapes, but it made total sense to them and my inner teacher could see how it might encourage kids who didn’t read to give reading a shot.
It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about language as a bunch of nonsensical shapes. When it first really started sinking in as a teenager that there were people older than me who couldn’t read, I started wondering what my books must look like to them. I failed at trying to put myself in their shoes because I could read and couldn’t convince my brain otherwise. It understood that those letters had meanings, and that arrangements of letters had meanings, and it wasn’t keen on forgetting that knowledge for even a few minutes.
I have been fascinated by alphabets for as long as I can remember. I was constantly trying to learn to recognize them when I was a kid. I didn’t get very far, and I was never able to make the connection that what I was doing was like what someone goes through when learning to read English until I started making friends who write quite a bit in their own language. What makes perfect sense to them is to me a collection of symbols that has no meaning to me whatsoever. It’s like staring at a pinata newspaper.
Written language is a collection of symbols that has meaning to us only when we learn what meanings have been associated with each glyph. Until then, we’re just as lost to translate as someone who is illiterate in their own native language. It really makes you think…