Letters for Life | Sunday Observer

Letters for Life

International Literacy Day fell yesterday:

Do you remember the first time you wrote the English letter “A” or the equivalent letter in Sinhala or Tamil ? In Sinhala and Tamil this takes on extra significance because “Amma” (Mother) is probably the first word that you spoke as a baby and “A” happens to be the first letter of that word.

Toddlers pick up their native language pretty fast and by four-five years, they can express themselves fairly well. But speaking a language is not enough in today’s world – you must learn to read and write it too. This is called “literacy”. In primary grades, we learn to read and write at least our first language, also called mother tongue. In most schools, students are taught to read and write Sinhala, Tamil and English so that they will be able to express themselves fluently in any of these languages – this is called being “trilingual”. If you like, you can also learn a foreign language such as French, German, Chinese or Hindi – again, you have to learn the alphabet (letters) of these languages.

Yesterday, the world marked International Literacy Day. September 8 was declared International Literacy Day by the United Nations on November 17, 1965. Its aim is to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies. In Sri Lanka, this month is known as the “Literacy Month”. More than 90 percent of the people in Sri Lanka can read and write at least one language and many others can manage two.

This is an extremely good “literacy rate” (the number of people who can read and write) when compared with many other Asian and African countries. Thanks to free education and compulsory schooling up to 14 years, almost everyone in Sri Lanka can read either Sinhala or Tamil.

Can you imagine what life would be like if you cannot read ? You will not be able to read books and newspapers. You will not be able to read the destination on a bus. You will not be able to write a letter to a friend.

But above all, you will not be able to learn anything. But around 100 years ago, most people worldwide could not read, so symbols and colours were used to tell certain things.

When people first thought of ways to direct traffic, the first idea was to have signboards that lit up with the words “Stop, Get Ready and Go”.

They realised that most people could not read, so they selected Red, a colour associated with danger, to say “Stop” and Green to “Go”, with amber/orange standing for “Get Ready to Stop or Go”.

Today, it is not enough to be literate only with words or languages. We must all be "computer literate” as well – in other words, we should know how to operate a computer.

There is also “Digital Literacy” as well – a lot of books and newspapers can now be read on the Internet and we must have knowledge of navigating our way around the Internet.

Many countries are also having programmes to improve “adult literacy” – younger children in even the poorest countries can now read, but sometimes their parents and grandparents cannot. So these programmes teach them to read and write.

If you can read and write a language, you can do a great deal. It opens a whole new window to the outside world, one which will remain closed if you cannot read or write.

If you have trouble with writing or reading certain letters, tell your teachers about it and try to overcome the problem. Becoming fully literate is not difficult at all.