Living language and catching literacy… or not, as the case may be: the case of The Red Bus (and the language strudel)





Below is an excerpt from a doctoral thesis I lent my support to. In return, I not only gained greater sympathy for psychometric research in general but was incited to reconsider my notions of why/how plurilingual literacy is situated at the interstice between change, chance and challenge.


I always wanted to be a hairdresser (I was probably influenced by the gender-predominant roles promoted by our culture and because there was no ballet school in my village I had to take what was available). However, because I read a lot as a child, my father used to say that one day I would become a scientist; for me, the most boring profession imaginable.

During my schooling, I outperformed all my peers in all the school subjects all the time. I vividly remember the look on my parents’ faces when I kept coming home with straight A’s. They didn’t know ‘where I got it from’. My mother is a nurse, my father is a blue-collar worker, raising their family in a poor rural area. The same went for my sister; she didn’t ‘get it’. To calm them all down, I tried to convince them that it really wasn’t that difficult for me and that I actually liked learning new things.

I actually think that I got ‘it’ from them. That ‘it’ being their life wisdom;  something psychologists still struggle with as a concept related to general intelligence (difficult to measure, though).

And I think I got ‘it’ from my preschool years that I so vividly remember. I spent them in a red bus with flowers. In Serbia, at that time, one form of  preschool education in rural areas was a bus equipped with a bus driver and a preschool teacher (it would have been too much for the teacher to also drive the bus). The bus gathered children from different villages, since preschool institutions were only available in the cities. Not many children from my village showed interest in going to the preschool bus classes, after all, they weren’t compulsory. There were times I was the only child, which was fine with me, though I do suspect that both the bus driver and the teacher would have preferred to be at home on such occasions. The red bus and my parents’ wisdom did the job for where I am now. And where am I now?

I woke up this morning to the sound of French radio. Breakfast over with, I turned on my computer and started reading and writing in English. On the phone, I spoke to my husband in Serbian (with forms of Bosnian, Croatian and Montenegrin, to be politically correct). My mother slipped a few Czech words to me as Serbian is not her mother tongue. The bus driver politely said ‘Moien’ to me in Luxembourgish, before he continued in Portuguese with a lady next to him. To finish the day, I had my Yoga class in German and I hoped that my dreams would be without words…

“…А сада смо дошли до следећег питања. Поставићу ти питања везана за ову слику. Као и на претходној слици и овде имамо неке предмете и људе који нешто раде. Погледај пажљиво слику коју ти показујем и пробај да одговориш на следећа питања: 1. Покажи ми неког ко пише. 2. Покажи ми неког ко чита. 3. Покажи ми нешто написано/неки рукопис. 4. Покажи ми реч на овој страници. 5. Покажи ми слово азбуке/абецеде.”
How does it feel to read something you don’t understand? I’ve just asked you to answer a few questions from the section of Ideas about Reading that constitutes part of the Performance Indicators in Primary School (PIPS) test I  implemented in my study. Unless you are someone who reads Serbian Cyrillic you won’t be able to answer those questions, even though they are very simple ones:
“Show me someone who is writing and reading. Show me a word or a letter on the picture that I am using.”
Then I could continue with mathematics and ask you a simple question: “Овде има четири аутомобила. Ако узмем два, колико их остане?”
Still don’t know the answer? It doesn’t get any better, does it? You are still unable to answer the question on how many cars are left if there were four and I took two. Unfortunately, because you didn’t give me the correct answers I will have to give you 0 points and you will probably be identified as an underachiever. Better luck next time.
(Gabrijela Reljic, from: Is Mother Tongue Important for the Academic Achievement of Minority Children? The Case of Luxembourg, Serbia and Europe. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Luxembourg, November 2011. Dr Reljic’s thesis subsequently won an award for the best doctoral thesis submitted at the University of Luxembourg.)


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