Do you remember The Three Little Bears and Little Red Riding Hood stories? I’m using them as teaching aides in my English classes with Congolese adult students. They’re the only books I can get my hands on that have simple French & English side by side. At first I thought they would resent having to read children’s books in class, but we’ve encountered quite different problems. For starters, bears and wolves and riding hoods are completely foreign to them. And many times the English sentence is phrased in an old-fashioned, unnatural way. But today, I realized an even greater cultural divide.
We were reading Little Red Riding Hood. The story explains that when the wolf approaches the little girl, he smiles because he doesn’t want to frighten her. One of my students who I shall call Sam, an inquisitive and sweet-natured guy, asks me if all wolves are so intelligent. I say yes, this wolf is intelligent, but it’s just a story for children, it’s not real. In the next sentence, the wolf says hello to the little girl. Sam sits upright and says, “Oh! This wolf can speak!” Again I explain it’s just a children’s story. He seems to understand, and we read on. The wolf is pretending to be nice and friendly, then races ahead of Red Riding Hood to beat her to Grandmother’s house. There he imitates the girl’s voice and tells Grandmother that he is her granddaughter through the closed door.
Next we turn the page and read, “Grandmother opens the door. The wolf jumps on her and eats her up in a minute.” Sam jumps backwards in his seat. He pauses a second, then with wide eyes asks, “Is she dead?” I had to answer him, well, yes, I think she is dead. The other students, grasping what happened in this sordid story just a bit behind Sam, all look at each other in bewilderment. I couldn’t help but laugh and say, “This is a terrible book for children, huh?” Shaking his head, Sam says, “Yes, this is a terrible book. Horrible book!”
I’m impressed with Sam’s ever-growing ability to speak English, but I must admit, he’s got me wondering what kind of odd culture would like to persuade their children that animals can speak, trick innocent Grandmothers, and then eat them!