Daniel Hieber dwhieb at GMAIL.COM
Tue Sep 13 06:13:16 UTC 2011

>From the perspective of linguistic anthropology, I think it's also worth
pointing out that communities define what it means to be literate in
different ways. Peter Austin pointed out at the LSA recently that certain
communities have wanted writing systems developed for their language
primarily for the purpose of being able to send text messages. I would argue
that this constitutes a legitimate form of literacy. And Ahearn
written about love letters in Nepal as the primary use for literacy
among women. From a slightly different angle, Heath
(2009)<>notes that children are
socialized in their literacy practices in very
different ways, but that generally only one of these ways tends to be
represented in formal schooling. Ultimately, I think aggregate statistics
like UNESCO's are largely unhelpful, and have a tendency to deceive us into
thinking that the situation is less nuanced than it really is.

And (turning now to the economic perspective), the UNESCO statistics are an
interesting example of Friedrich von Hayek's famous problem of the use of
knowledge in society <>,
where the central planning authority needs their data to be as simple and
aggregated as possible in order to make decisions regarding problems of
immense complexity. Such simplistic perspectives lend themselves towards
policy recommendations which are themselves simplistic and homogenizing. A
policy or program which simply promotes 'literacy' with no further
elucidation of the concept is likely to erode local literacy practices and
replace them with ones that date back to the Prussian education model. It's
a serious problem for policies concerning both literacy and language alike.

On Tue, Sep 13, 2011 at 1:26 AM, Ian Maddieson <ianm at> wrote:

> This is a very interesting topic, and it raised some questions that seem
> very worth while thinking about for linguists.
> I can find nothing (at least easily) on the UNESCO web site defining what
> they
> consider "literacy" to be:
> - it means ability to both read and write but at what level?
> - does it mean ability to read/write your native language(s) or just some
> language?
> Hence it is difficult to know what their counts might mean (let alone
> whether they reliably relate in any way to the property intended to be
> measured).
> Obviously, literacy is a very gradient skill which can range from being
> able to
> decode a few written symbols, to full ability to rapidly read and write
> multiple
> languages.  Similarly with the concept of "written language" - at this date
> the
> majority of the world's spoken languages have one or more established
> orthographies,
> but the usage varies from languages the majority of whose speakers have
> some literacy, to those where the written form is only known to a few with
> special knowledge. And some not insignificant number have no
> established writing system at all, although in some of these certain
> individuals may have developed a way to write based on familiarity
> with written traditions they come in to contact with. This would be like
> the situation that Frank Seidel mentions in Muslim areas of West Africa,
> where some familiarity with Arabic written tradition can be adapted
> to write local languages in the absence of a standard writing system.
> I am sure that the figure Frans cites as the number of illiterate
> adults according to UNESCO makes no distinction between "written"
> and "unwritten" languages. Also it makes no distinction between
> literacy in the individual's native language(s) versus in a national or
> local vehicular language.  It surely does not attempt to account
> for signed languages - as far as I am aware no everyday system
> is in use anywhere for writing any signed language, although
> academic notation systems exist. However, many Deaf persons
> in countries with high literacy levels are literate in a written
> version of a local spoken language (for them, a second language,
> but not so different in principle from speakers of minor spoken
> languages whose literacy is in a locally dominant language).
> I wouldn't deny that being literate is useful in many circumstances,
> but I think we should not make the mistake of confusing being
> literate with being knowledgeable. It seems very likely that modern
> technologies will rapidly diminish the importance of written
> communication in the next generation or two, with sound and
> graphical representations taking over many of the functions
> now played by writing. And many cultures have never fully
> abandoned oral transfer of learning.
> Ian
> --
> Ian Maddieson
> Department of Linguistics
> MSC 03-2130
> Humanities Bldg. 526
> University of New Mexico
> Albuquerque, NM  87131-1196

Daniel Hieber
Associate Researcher
Rosetta Stone

Omnis habet sua dona dies.
     ~ Martial
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