Literacy: A Definition

What would it be like to live in a society where no written language exists? No alphabet, no books, no libraries and no institutions of education subsist in this society. Of course, human beings would find ways to compensate for the lack of literacy, but being literate, we cannot imagine a society that is not. Our society regards literacy as a highly important issue, and it is often discussed. For all that the term is tossed around, the word literacy lacks a clear and universally accepted definition. Written language is just a small part of what it means to be literate. The question then becomes, what does it mean, specifically, to be literate, and why is it so important?

Literacy is the ability to read and write, and to acquire knowledge from these practices. It is also the ability to express oneself. Literate people are able to comprehend the knowledge they gain and can apply it to their lives. Literacy, by many people’s standards, is an essential element in a fulfilling life. Often, literacy is seen as a tool of assimilation; being considered literate in a particular language will lead to acceptance by the native speakers of the language. Literacy can also be a means of empowerment, especially for women who are often bound to the home by the traditional female roles or those kept in similarly subservient positions, such as slaves.

A study conducted by the Center for Educational Research and Development in one of the programs run by Save the Children USA in a village in Nepal yields interesting insight into the effect of literacy on the lives of women and what it means to them to be literate. In general, the women felt they were more empowered, more independent, and more knowledgeable after becoming literate in their language of Maithili. The six women who participated in the study felt that their lack of literacy in the Maithili language was a handicap, as they were confined to their own household and community and were unable to communicate with people from other areas (NepalNet n.p.). Expression of self was a source of empowerment for the women, as was their ability to earn money and contribute to the family income. According to the study, “Women regarded the literacy programme [sic] as a means of gaining knowledge, not only in terms of reading, writing, and being able to do simple arithmetic, but also gained knowledge in health, sanitation, nutrition and child care” (NepalNet n.p.). Knowledge is these areas leads to improved living conditions for the women and their families. The women truly achieved literacy; not only did they learn to read and write, but they were also able to gain something from these practices and apply it to their daily lives.

The situation of the Nepali women cane be compared to the situation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s main character in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The main character, a female, is believed to be ill by her doctor-husband, and, as a result, kept from engaging in seemingly every activity where she would be permitted to think critically or be stimulated by outside ideas and people. She is bound to the house in which they live, and is not able to communicate with anyone beyond her husband and her servants (Gilman 112). In paragraph 35 she says,” There comes John, and I must put this away-he hates to have me write a word” (114). She continues to write in secret, however, because “I must say what I feel and think in some way-it is such a relief!” (Gilman 118). Her husband hates for her to write because by forbidding her to read or write, he is keeping her in a servile position and taking away any feelings of empowerment she may have.

Literacy is also a method of assimilation. When immigrating to another country, especially as a means of escaping a less desirable situation on the mother country, many immigrants place extreme importance on becoming literate in the language of their new home. The words written on this situation emphasize this thought as a way of ensuring survival in the new land. Many immigrants impress this upon their children as well, hoping that they will have a better life in the new country. This is illustrated in Mary Ann Williams’ poem “Turning Topsy Turvey”: “They yet cry from their unmarked graves/ to all mothers and fathers of would-be literates: ‘Teach your children to read and write. You must live for the answer to ignorance. You must twist each darkened hollow stare into a glimmer of knowing. Each little face must feel the joy of unlocking the ageless secret of the written word'” (133). Similarly, in her essay “An Internal Divide,” Chi-Fan Jennifer Ku discusses her experience of being a Chinese-American. In her community she saw many parents demanding certain things of their children. ” ‘Learn to speak English without an accent,’ some parents tell their children. ‘Become educated about the American culture through music and fashion, accept the dominant religion, have only Americanized friends'” (149). The parents hope that the children will become literate in American society so that they will fit in.

Within out society and the English language, different dialects exist due to factors such as location and culture. While these dialects are often an important part of the many subcultures that exist in our society, those who speak these dialects should not be considered literate. As an example, Ebonics is a dialect common to many African-American communities. Ebonics serves its own purpose within the community as a means of communication, a common thread that ties people together. However, Ebonics is not understood outside of the African-American community. If an African-American chose to speak Ebonics in mixed company, he or she would not be understood or accepted by Caucasians, Asian Americans, or Hispanics. In his essay “The Human Contact Zone,” Marcus Gilmore discusses his childhood in an African-American area of Houston and the effect of literacy on his life. “Just as many bilingual Hispanic parents have opted to raise their children speaking only English in hopes that they will have less trouble in being accepted by our Anglo-American society, my parents opted to speak a more socially acceptable dialect of English” (127). If the general population does not understand a person, he or she is not literate. He or she must be able to communicate effectively with all members of society (regardless of ethnic background) to be considered literate. The decision of Gilmore’s parents enabled him to become literate in the true sense of the definition.

Literacy is a means to live a fulfilling life and to participate fully as a member of a given society. It is essential to be efficient and effective communication and is present in every aspect of our lives. The definition of literacy provided is one that is clear and encompasses every element of literacy. It can transcend cultures and languages. To be literate is to understand and comprehend the world around us.

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