I don’t know about you but I find literacy a slippery concept to grasp. Google ‘What is literacy?’ and you get this definition; “the ability to read and write” and “competence or knowledge in a specified area”. Dig a little further and you find blogs and videos on other kinds of literacies such as emotional, social, physical, cultural and media literacies. So what is literacy in the 21st century, really?
To me, being literate is being able to understand and be understood using language. It’s about communicating and comprehending through reading and writing. But the concept of literacy is complex and dynamic. While most of us understand that it is the ability to read and write, any deeper understanding depends on where we’re from, our level of education, our cultural values and context, and our personal experiences.
Around the World
Let’s take a look at literacy in different countries briefly to appreciate the different approaches that we have to language around the world.
In India, a literate person is defined as someone who has the ability to read and write in any language. Mali, on the other hand, classifies a person as illiterate if they have never attended school… even if they can read and write! The Sudanese official language used in most written materials and taught in schools is Modern Standard Arabic. However, spoken Arabic in Sudan is quite different; most Sudanese use local languages or dialects instead. Most living languages in Africa and Asia are spoken but don’t exist in written form. Latin, on the other hand, exists in written form but is no longer spoken (except maybe by an old uni lecturer I had once who insisted on conducting a 2-hour tutorial in Latin while we all sat there like stunned mullets).
Globalisation and the fast-changing developments of the internet complicate the matter further. Digital literacies such as coding are surely essential skills to have for the 21st century. Globalisation has meant that countries such as India use the English language to play a vital communication bridging tool amongst Indians (did you know that India has 415 living languages?) as well as being a link to the outside world and creating more job prospects.
These vastly different contexts make it hard to have a simple definition for literacy and even harder to measure and compare literacy rates around the world.
So which language?
It seems to me that we should move away from the simple definition of literacy as ‘the ability to read and write in any language’ and focus more on ‘the ability to read and write in as many languages as possible‘. While India has hundreds of spoken languages, Australia struggles to get kids to learn just one other language in school. There are many different types of languages, spoken languages being the obvious ones. But there’s also the language of music, coding, shorthand text messaging and non-verbal language (such as body language and sign language). Reading and writing in your first language is the first step to social and human development and personal empowerment. It’s at the heart of basic education. According to research, learning to read and write in your first language facilitates access to literacy in other languages (see this UNESCO document for an interesting read). Starting on the path to literacy in multiple languages… surely that is the key to adapting to a fast-changing world.
So, getting back to the question ‘What is literacy really?’ I would have to say that yes, it is about reading and writing in any language, but the emphasis should be on the word any or changed to many languages. We need to adapt to the constantly evolving nature of languages and self-educate. Be lifelong learners of language! Learn your first language well, then learn other languages. Learn to read music. Do a Spanish night course. Learn to code.
And yes, the first step is learning to read and write. So what book are you reading at the moment?