Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hidden meanings
The teaching of rhymes at the foundation level of education has been an accepted practice in almost all parts of the world. The musical quality of rhymes is able to hold sustained attention of children. In fact, repetition and rhythm hold the key to learning a new language for children and rhymes fit the bill perfectly. Child development experts have pointed out that rhyme and rhythm enhance children’s ability to learn language and help increase their cognitive awareness to prepare them for future reading and writing. They are thus useful for the instructor to involve children in classroom.

With the British colonization that reached its apogee in the 19th century, English rhymes traveled wide. As a policy of introducing their language and culture in the colonized countries, the British incorporated their books and other cultural artifacts into the curricula of the schools in the colonies. Although it was never colonized by the British, Nepal embraced English education system with a desire to become modern and nursery rhymes became a part of children’s education here as well. In this context, it would be relevant to analyze select rhymes for children and examine their relevance in Nepali cultural context.

The rhyme Chubby cheeks seems to set a standard of beauty for children and describes certain bodily features for being teacher’s favorite in classroom. It shows a bias for white complexion and is sure to instill inferiority complex in children of the colonized territories. The full lyrics goes: “Chubby cheeks, dimple chin/Rosy lips, teeth within/Curly hair, very fair/Eyes are blue—lovely too. /Teachers pet, is that you? / Yes, Yes, Yes!” It is clear that a fair-skinned girl student is being described here. The cherub-like feature of chubby cheeks complete with the cleft-chin might be recognizable but distinctly Caucasian “very fair” and “blue eyes” are somehow puzzling for the Africans and Asians. In learning this rhyme, children with black and brown complexion may feel rejected by more attractive peers and even the teachers.

In fact, it has been found that teachers are prejudiced towards attractive children. TJ Kehle in his 1973 doctoral dissertation found that “attractiveness was a factor in teacher ratings of fifth grade students.” The beauty myth in favor of fair complexion can sway the attitude of the teacher towards attractive students despite their poor academic performance. These cute children then become “teacher’s pets” as emphasized by the repetitive “yes, yes”. Nepali classrooms are made up of children from various ethnicities and backgrounds. This psychological study of the preference of the teacher towards children with certain features may not have been carried out in Nepal, but it can be surmised that there is a similar trend here as well.

One of the most recognizable rhymes, Jack and Jill might have some resonance in Nepali society. There are many interpretations of this rhyme including Norse mythological story of the journey of a brother and a sister from the earth to the moon and political interpretation of the decapitation of King Louis XIV and Mary Antoinette during the French Revolution. These metaphorical understandings maybe correct in their own regard, but in my interpretation the rhyme depicts the condition of poor children who had to toil hard because of their poverty. Jack and Jill may have had to fetch water climbing a steep hill and it may have posed risk to their physical wellbeing. This rhyme rings a familiar note in the poverty-stricken Nepali society where poor children have to perform vary laborious tasks. These children also attend English-medium schools these days and they may thus identify with this rhyme.

But not all rhymes translate well in Nepali context. Loaded with alien cultural meanings, the learning of English rhymes does not seem of significance to Nepali students and they are likely to simply cram them up. Despite all the positive aspects of rhymes stated above, the question still rises: do they hold any meaning for our children? How would the teacher justify the relevance of those rhymes in a cross-cultural context like ours? One may dismiss this question by saying that small children don’t pose such loaded queries, but such dismissal undoubtedly undermines the perspicacity of a child. There are plenty of English rhymes that Nepali children are taught and the individual analysis of each rhyme may give us a better answer.

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