Championing literacy | Sunday Observer

Championing literacy

Childhood is the best age to pick up an additional language or two
Childhood is the best age to pick up an additional language or two

Reading is one of the first skills that we pick up in school. In today’s world, living without being able to read would be unimaginable, but millions of children and adults around the world cannot read or write their own language(s). With the exception of a few native or tribal languages that have no known script, all other languages have an alphabet which can be combined into words to form sentences. Thus disability to read – illiteracy – is akin to a disability. There are three types of skills we pick up in our formative years – alphabetic literacy, numeracy (having Arabic numeral skills) and the ability to tell the time.

Literacy is traditionally defined in dictionaries as the ability to read and write. In the modern world, this is one way of interpreting literacy. One more broad interpretation sees literacy as knowledge and competence in a specific area. The concept of literacy has evolved in meaning. The meaning has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images, computers, and other basic means to understand, communicate, gain useful knowledge, solve mathematical problems and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture.

Experts at a recent UNESCO meeting have proposed defining literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”. The experts noted: “Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society”.

Literacy data published by UNESCO shows that since 1950, the adult literacy rate at world level has increased by 5 percentage points every decade on an average, from 55.7 percent in 1950 to 86.2 percent in 2015. However, for four decades, the population growth was so rapid that the number of illiterate adults kept increasing, rising from 700 million in 1950 to 878 million in 1990. Since then, the number has fallen to 745 million in 2015.

Literacy is one of the key issues in education worldwide. International Literacy Day, celebrated annually on September 8 (today), is an opportunity for Governments, civil society and stakeholders to highlight improvements in world literacy rates, and reflect on the world’s remaining literacy challenges. The issue of literacy is a key component of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by world leaders in September 2015, promotes, as part of its agenda, universal access to quality education and learning opportunities throughout people’s lives. SDG Goal 4 has as one of its targets ensuring that all young people achieve literacy and numeracy and that adults who lack these skills are given the opportunity to acquire them.

The 2019 Theme for the International Literacy Day is ‘Literacy and Multilingualism’. It aligns perfectly with the celebrations of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages and the 25th anniversary of the World Conference on Special Needs Education. Despite the progress made, literacy challenges persist, distributed unevenly across countries and populations. According to the UN, embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy development is central to addressing these literacy challenges and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

On the occasion of International Literacy Day 2019, the main characteristics of multilingualism in today’s globalized and digitalized world will be discussed, together with their implications for literacy in policies and practice in order to achieve greater inclusion in multilingual contexts.

Sri Lanka is a good case study in both these contexts. The country has a literacy rate exceeding 90 percent for the native (vernacular) languages. English is the compulsory foreign language for schoolchildren and most children have a good ability to read and write English, even if they are not so fluent in terms of speaking. There are many studies which confirm that being multilingual is good for the developing brains of children. Moreover, childhood is the best age to pick up an additional language or two. Today, there is another kind of literacy – computer or Information Technology literacy. Indeed, one cannot survive in today’s world without a good grasp of information technology.

Literacy is the key to education, but more importantly, it is the key to life. Leave alone books and newspapers, just imagine not being able to read a destination board on a bus, the price list in a store or an invitation card. It is the one skill that you need to get through, according to the famous book “All I Really Wanted to Learn I learned in the Kindergarten”. In fact, in the days when education was not so accessible and illiteracy was widespread, symbols and signs were used to enlighten the people. When pioneering traffic planners were trying to organize traffic, they initially thought of using signs that read ‘Stop’ ‘Ready’ and ‘Go’, but they quickly realised that many people would not be able to read them. Hence the use of Red, Amber and Green to represent the same words. The use of symbols for political parties, which continues to this day, came about because elections officials feared that people would not be able to read party or candidate names. Today, even though most people can read and write, these symbols persist mainly because of their universality and convenience.

Literacy is of course tightly intertwined with languages. Languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost. This is why literacy matters, because we need to keep the languages alive.

Language is fundamental to communication of all kinds, and it is communication that makes change and development possible in human society. There is also a growing awareness that languages and literacy play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in strengthening co-operation and attaining quality education for all.

To foster sustainable development, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue and in other languages. It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired. Local languages, especially, minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, thus playing an important role in promoting a sustainable future. It is our duty to foster languages and ensure that everyone can access them to the fullest possible measure.