Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The world we show to children

This is something else that bugs me about shows for very young children. It is especially relevant to shows over this side of the Atlantic but I've seen it in many US shows too - the lack of written language or any word play whatsoever.

We show a child worlds with no literacy. No letters. And, criminally (as young children love rhyming words and funny words that sound like other words), no wordplay. No puns. Nothing that won't work on a direct word for word translation.

When it comes to language, we present children with a world that is positively backwards.

There is only one reason for this - the hope for international sales and the cost of reversioning. And it's blindingly obvious on many shows. I last caught in on the US show, Timothy Goes To School (about a school of all things, a place where written language should be incredibly important) but it's all over. A show I worked on a few years ago had one pun in one episode, out of about five hours of television. One pun. The distributor told the writer to get rid of it because, otherwise, they couldn't sell the show. One pun out of five hours of children's television.

The writer told them he would write an alternate pun-free version and they'd record both. He never did. And I haven't actually heard one complaint about that pun since.

But they weren't ever allowed use writing. Not one bit. The characters lived in a totally illiterate world.

Now, you could argue that children should get their literacy in the real world. And that would be a good argument. But children are watching television. Surely we shouldn't be hindering their exposure to basic skills to save on some reversioning costs?

On another topic, Humphrey Erm asked in a comment what I thought of Animaniacs, given my stance on children's programming. Well, I should point out that my particular area of frustration is for younger children, the Backyardigans crowd. It's not like I don't think there are problems in shows for older children. There are. But I just feel that few people seem to even notice the younger demographic. Animaniacs got more interest because older children and adults could enjoy it.

But, for my feelings on Animaniacs, I thought it was damn funny. I especially loved the Wheel of Morality, which was perfectly timed coming after a generation of cartoons with 'morals' plastered at the end for no apparent reason as if they justified any shite content in the body of the episodes. A funny show. Educational content? Yeah, it had a bit and certainly did in the songs but mostly that served the humour, which was clearly the focus. A very entertaining show though.


Andy Latham said...

We have this on the Lego games, that are also aimed at very young kids. We can't have one single word written anywhere because the translation would be a pain. I suppose it doesn't matter that much in our case though since the characters don't talk.

Oh and I loevd the Animaniacs when I was young. Great fun and an endless talking point at school.

Red Pill Junkie said...

I don't know. Maybe the use of symbols instead of written words works well because Semiology and non-verbal communication should probably come first than the whole A, B, C gig?

There's a reason our ancestors began doodling their caves with pictures of animals instead of the use of abstract symbols that were supposed to mean either phonetic elements or even more basic language elements. Why is it so wrong to use that progression with young children?

Unknown said...

Red Pill Junkie: He says it's not motivated for the sake of the kids, but for financial reasons. And a pre-literate audience wouldn't explain the lack of word play, either.

Bitter Animator: This is another area where I can really see how Sesame Street got it right.

Unknown said...

And just to say, I would love if you did a whole series where you reviewed different kids shows.

Red Pill Junkie said...

Ryan: Maybe it's a little bit of both reasons (financial & educational). I still think that from an educational point of view, it makes sense to train kids in the correlations of concepts first through the use of symbols, that happen to be universally used—at least in the western world.

That reminds me of something I read the other day, of how it has been proven through MRI scans that people in China use a very different portion of the brain to understand written language than Westerners do. It's because their symbols are so abstract and still vaguely dependent of the symbolic representations of things—i.e. the glyph for 'vase' slowly evolved o a more stylized abstract representation of a vase throughout the ages.

That would explain also why Mangas are so universally embraced by all demographic segments in the Eastern nations, because for them interpreting symbols and pictures is already second nature.

Unknown said...

Are we talking pre-literate kids or pre-verbal? If they can talk, they're already learning to make arbitrary associations between sounds and meanings. Is it really that much of a stretch to show them there's arbitrary associations between letters and spoken words?

And since it might be something to comment on, a study on TV and children was mentioned in the news:
(Frustratingly, it's ambivalent enough that everyone will just take their own interpretation from it, leaving us not really any further forward.)

Red Pill Junkie said...

Well Ryan, I think we're talking here of children at least 2 years-old or older.

BTW, was this the link you wanted to give?

Anyway, I still think the use of semiotics is a very good approach in the education of small children. It's just tapering a very fundamental way of how our brain fucntions and interprets the world.

I think another thing missing in children program is interactivity. With the arrival of digital TV and the heralding the Brave New World, maybe program creators will find ways to make educational programs even more involving. Maybe the use of new technology could also help with the addition of words in different languages according to the country that buys the program. I mean, I seem my nephews playing with that Disney Trivia DVD, and I don't imagine changing the texts from English to Spanish costs a lot of money nowadays.

Bitter Animator said...

RPJ, I can't speak for every single show but I can tell you with certainty that most shows avoiding words are doing so only due to potential reversioning costs. There is no educational plan involved and semiotics is not considered. Any signs or symbols are created arbitrarily by a storyboard artist, layout or background artist or animator - basically anyone who just feels like sticking one in.

And, even then, as you say we're talking about children of two or older. At that stage, children can recognise letters and words. My own daughter knows when she's looking at letters and can recognise her own name (though thinks every letter is the letter 'd'). Children of that age have a remarkable ability to recognise forms and even make sense of almost abstract images - the fact that they can understand many stylised animations is testament to just how far along they are when it comes to interpreting symbols.

So I would feel they are easily at a stage where they should be immersed in the literate world. How many times a day do we need to read something? That reality of life has to be avoided in these shows for nothing more than the risk of reversioning costs.

And, yes, you're spot-on that with modern technology, reversioning is now much, much easier than it has ever been. It's actually not a massive deal any more, if it's planned for in advance. That's when it comes to signs anyway.

Distributors and producers are stil frightened by rhyming words, puns or words that are tied to specific letters of the alphabet because they need to be rewritten rather than simply translated.

But then I think - if translators could do such a great job on something as pun-driven as Asterix, then avoiding clever translations is just being flat-out lazy.

Humphrey Erm said...

Wow, thanks for answering my question!

Yes, its true that the show was mainly aimed at entertainment, and the educational aspect was secondary or even tertiary. I forgot that you were speaking about pre school shows, not kids shows in general.

But when I was a kid I remember they never changed the english text on screen when they dubbed stuff. All they had was this narrator who quickly said what the sign or text said. I remember wondering what language they were in but then not caring since I understood what they meant anyways. Then again, your point is that they should learn literacy, and thats not possible if the text is in a language they don't understand.

Puns of course are tricky. Something that is hilarious in english just wont translate to Swedish or Spanish (2 languages I grew up with). I remember a Rugrats episode where I believe Chuckie got Chicken Pox, and the whole episode was making fun of the idea that you would turn into a chicken. In Swedish and Spanish, they simply had them think that for no particular reason.

One of the best little translations I had recently heard was Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were Rabbit in Swedish. In the scene where hes on the phone, he says in engish "I'll be there in an AHHHHHH"
"An hour? I cant wait that long"
But in Swedish they used the scream to be more of a "Oooooh" which sounded then like the swedish word for year, thus Lady Tottington said "A year? I cant wait that long".

I think puns are the responsibility of the translators, rather than the writers or producers.

Anonymous said...

Curious question, Bitter Animator: what do you think of "Watership Down" as a movie?

This may seem totally unrelated, and it is. But in its time, "Watership" was considered a children's movie. But if you've seen it, you'll see some pretty gruesome stuff. Wanted to know what you thought.

Izeas GT said...

Have you ever read The Tipping Point? One of the chapters goes on for a bit about Sesame Street and Blue's Clues.

Bitter Animator said...

J.R. I haven't seen Watership Down since I was a kid and all I remember is rabbits and a lot of blood. I think my mother was pretty horrified, thinking that it would be suitable for me. It wasn't.

Whether it's a good film or not, I honestly can't remember.

Young children are very sensitive beings. Some are more sensitive than others but I think what some don't quite get and perhaps a small few don't care about is that their fear doesn't always appear immediately obvious. A child can laugh their way through something and then days later recycle some pretty hideous imagery that it's clear has been on their mind. Sometimes it's not even as obvious as that.

Their minds and views are forming and they are at a delicate stage. So I would be overly cautious when it comes to what to show a young child.

That said, there is the other side, where bland shows of nothing are the result of being cautious without any actual thought involved. Children are capable of more understanding than I think many give them credit for and they certainly don't need to be shielded from their own experiences that they would have in their own lives. But their own experiences hopefully don't involve bunnies getting splatted all over a road.

Izeas GT, I haven't read The Tipping Point. Would you recommend it?