Easy to Read books — a method for developing literacy in endangered languages

This is a guest post by Dr Sabira Ståhlberg, a writer, independent researcher, lecturer, international traveller, and creative writing teacher who has been developing a new approach to writing and reading in minority and endangered languages.

Linguists and native speakers engaged in developing reading skills in a community language can benefit from a new approach I call Easy to Read books (adapting what was originally an EU concept, focused on books for people with intellectual disabilities). Since 2015, with the international Bokpil team I have been developing a specific Pedagogical Easy to Read method to aid learning. Texts written in Easy Language can reach a wide audience, such as multilinguals, less skilled or unfamiliar readers, and people with dyslexia or reading difficulties. Pedagogical Easy to Read books contain several levels: on the surface, they are adventures, but at deeper levels they provide knowledge, skills, and new vocabulary. They explain difficult topics in a way that is clear, but not simplified.

All Bokpil books are originally written in Finland-Swedish Easy Language, contain easily decodable pictures, and cover a wide range of current topics, including social issues, complex situations such as bullying and migration, natural sciences, climate change, and artificial intelligence. So far I have written 22 titles, and we have published 26 all together, including books in the endangered Tatar language. Book drafts are read before publication by test readers from all age groups. Supporting materials and tasks are offered free of charge. The books are funded by state subsidies and Finland-Swedish and Finnish foundations, e.g. Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) which supports translations. Swedish, English, Finnish, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Tatar printed books and e-books are being distributed by Bokpil and partners, distributors, and e-book online stores in Europe.

A pioneer translation project began in 2019 for Mishar Tatar, a Turkic language which is a variety of Tatar that has fewer than 1,000 speakers in Finland. Mishars also live in other Baltic countries, throughout the Volga region, and in a scattered diaspora on almost all continents. Mishar Tatar is mostly spoken within the family and community, and most Tatars are multilingual. Majority language pressure is growing, especially on the younger generation, who find it increasingly difficult to communicate and develop reading skills in Tatar. Relevant literature is lacking, and existing Mishar Tatar books are usually older and too difficult. Books imported from Tatarstan are not completely understandable as they are written in Kazan Tatar with a Russian-influenced vocabulary.

The Mishar Tatar project aims at supporting literacy and developing stable reading skills and habits, encouraging readers to use their language in new contexts, and enriching their vocabulary. Translator Fazile Nasretdin and a team consisting of both Mishar and Kazan Tatar speakers, plus a large test reader group, have been developing Mishar Tatar further as a modern language, parallel to school and majority languages, in order to help speakers communicate on crucial and current topics without needing to switch to another language.

To date, three books in Mishar have appeared and three more are forthcoming by the end of 2020. They can be downloaded free of charge from the Bokpil website. These books are supported by a Finland-Swedish foundation and the Tatar communities in Tampere and Helsinki. Feedback shows that the Easy to Read books raise interest in the language, increase its prestige and image as a contemporary, varied language, and also motivate further reading in Tatar, acting as bridges. In the next step, the project will provide free supporting materials and tasks, and multimedia to improve listening comprehension.

If you wish to learn more about this method and how it could be adapted to languages you are familiar with, feel free to contact me at sabira.stahlberg-AT-spray.se (replace AT with @ in this email address). I give translation rights to existing books for free for endangered languages, if you are inspired by this post and wish to embark on an Easy to Read translation project of your own.