Lost tradition

15 Sep 2020

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SINCE time immemorial, storytelling has existed not only as an art form but also as an integral part of childhood across all cultures and civilisations.

But the contemporary era of ephemeral fads, virtual lives and rapidly changing technologies appears to have diminished patience for the simple pleasures of childhood, such as storytelling. Only a generation ago in our part of the world, storytelling was one of the simplest and purest forms of entertainment and learning in children’s lives. But the ‘modern’ age has rendered this tradition ‘old-fashioned’ with many people not giving it much thought, or convincing themselves that storytelling is a waste of time and effort.

In the past, especially in the subcontinent, telling stories to children was not only a source of entertainment, it was also a way to engage their imaginations and inculcate the desired values. Children would spend hours with the elders of the family listening to fables and stories that carried forward centuries-old traditions underscoring lessons about love, kindness, courage, integrity and forgiveness. Various stories provided insight into human nature in an entertaining manner, explained how ordinary beings can perform extraordinary deeds by choosing to do the right thing and how any individual can contribute towards making this world a better place.

Such time spent with family elders also helped children develop intimate and impactful relationships with their grandparents or parents because it allowed for a greater sharing of thoughts, feelings and desires among generations. It also enhanced family ties, something that is slipping away in the present era. Listening to stories was also a way for children to understand human nature and develop their emotional intelligence.

Storytelling sessions will help children value their heritage.

However, perhaps the most important function of these stories was that they honed children’s language skills and helped them develop a deeper understanding of their native languages. These stories involved repeating specific words, idioms and phrases, thereby enriching children’s vocabulary while also improving their diction. This aspect of storytelling, besides helping children understand the subtleties of their mother tongue, also enabled the development of a holistic personality.

I began to tell stories to my daughter when she was just a few months old. Now at eight years, her teachers tell me that her vocabulary is that of an adult in both English and Urdu. She is also learning a third language — Chinese — and she appears to be doing so with far more ease than her peers. This can be attributed to listening of stories — primarily in Urdu (her mother tongue) from a very young age — as research suggests that communication in one’s mother tongue in the early years of life boosts the linguistic component of a child’s brain, ensuring sound linguistic skills for better communication and an understanding of others and one’s own life events. Such development also leads to better performance in academics and everyday life.

Unfortunately, native languages are facing multiple challenges to stay relevant in most parts of the world, including Pakistan. A legacy of our colonial past, our country’s education system still struggles to promote a foreign language while hindering the growth of native languages.

Another challenge is how new technology has become the go-to source of entertainment for many children. Most of the content that is available online is in English, and this readymade, effort-free form of entertainment for nuclear families has put storytelling on the back-burner.

The overall dec­line in the reading culture, in­­creasingly demanding acade­mic schedules of children and dearth of well written stories in Urdu and other native languages have also contributed to the dwindling interest in the endearing tradition of storytelling.

Storytelling can be revived at home by having weekly or fortnightly get-togethers with elders and children participating in this age-old tradition. Similarly, schools can promote storytelling by inviting a family member once or twice a month for storytelling sessions in local languages. These are inexpensive measures and can be introduced by elite as well as low-cost schools in the country. This activity could also strengthen the relationship between parents, teachers and school managements, which in turn, could boost the children’s academic performance.

Such a revival in schools and homes may encourage literary figures and other influential personalities to join in the effort to revive a lost tradition and inculcate a sense of pride in children for their rich heritage and, most importantly, allow them to enjoy their childhood in a world that is rapidly forgetting the importance of this time of life.

The writer is an educationist.

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2020