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Define Literacy

 
 
littlek
 
Reply Tue 15 Aug, 2006 07:06 pm
We had an interesting conversation in a literacy class I'm taking. The class is about teaching young children to read and write, but we went off on a tanget about the meaning of literacy. The class was divided on the question of: if you are literate in one language and travel to a country who's citizens speak a language you can not understand, are you still literate? Are you illiterate?

I think many of us decided that while you were literate in your native tongue, you were illiterate in the foreign one. The teacher had none of that compromise - so, in black-and-white terms, which is it? Literate or illiterate?
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Type: Discussion • Score: 1 • Views: 736 • Replies: 8
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littlek
 
  1  
Reply Tue 15 Aug, 2006 07:09 pm
Some points for the "literate-across-the-board" camp: if you are literate in your own tongue, you can read a translation book and hopefully, then, get your point across (badly, perhaps) by reading aloud what's in it. In other words, if you are literate in one language, you have developed some of the tools you'd need to get by in a culture who's language was all greek to you.
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fbaezer
 
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Reply Tue 15 Aug, 2006 07:29 pm
From my personal experience, I think a literate person is literate in a country whose language s/he does not understand, at least if the alphabet is close to their native language alphabet.

I never felt illiterate while traveling in Greece, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic or the former Yugoslavia. You can certainly get by without much trouble, you read the name of a plaza or a street, the route of a tram, and you can somehow pronounce it. The key words are learned more easily than not.

The only country without an indoeuropean alphabet I've been too is Morocco, the only "word" I could read -and perhaps reproduce- was Coca-Cola, but there were enough signs in the latin alphabet to get by. Perhaps if there weren't, I'd feel illiterate.
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littlek
 
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Reply Tue 15 Aug, 2006 09:48 pm
Ah, but if you had a book of translations, they spell out the pronunciation in your native alphabet..... I wonder if they also type words in the local alphabet. Hmm....... Good point, fbaezer!
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sozobe
 
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Reply Wed 16 Aug, 2006 08:43 am
I think I'd say across the board, because cognition and brain "settings" are so different for literate vs. illiterate people. That is, someone who is fluent in a language and able to read it and write it -- any language -- will think in a way that tends to be different from someone who can't read and write at least one language.
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Brandon9000
 
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Reply Wed 16 Aug, 2006 08:54 am
If you're highly literate in your own tongue, and go to live in a country where you cannot read competently, you become functionally illiterate for the duration of your stay there.
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sozobe
 
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Reply Wed 16 Aug, 2006 08:55 am
But if you're highly literate in your own tongue, the chances of you being able to pick up the language while you're there are higher than if you're not.
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Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Wed 16 Aug, 2006 09:11 am
Re: Define Literacy
littlek wrote:
I think many of us decided that while you were literate in your native tongue, you were illiterate in the foreign one. The teacher had none of that compromise - so, in black-and-white terms, which is it? Literate or illiterate?

I like the logic of what "many of us decided". There is a lot to be said for making the usage of "literate" consistent with the usage of "fluent". So if the subject was up for an election, my vote would be that the person unable to write the foreign language is illiterate in that foreign language.

The problem, I guess, is that "literate" differs from "fluent" because the two carry different historical connotations. Unlike "fluent", "literate" has long described a distinction in social status, not just communication. Until quite recently on the timescale of language change, literate people were upper-class, illiterate people lower class. The sentiment survives in the area of foreign aid: "75% of the people in Ethiopia are illiterate. We have to donate for their education." Since your social status changes much less on a foreign trip than your ability to communicate, I think most English speakers would find it more natural to consider the traveller literate. Compare Webster's definition #1: "1 a : EDUCATED, CULTURED b : able to read and write".
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fishin
 
  1  
Reply Wed 16 Aug, 2006 09:24 am
Re: Define Literacy
littlek wrote:
I think many of us decided that while you were literate in your native tongue, you were illiterate in the foreign one. The teacher had none of that compromise - so, in black-and-white terms, which is it? Literate or illiterate?


If a person can't be considered literate unless they know every single language in existance then the word no longer serve any purpose. Everyone would be considered illiterate. What practical purpose could that sort of interpretation serve?

The basic dictionary definition of literate is "Able to read and write". IMO, if a person can do that in any one language they meet the standard for being literate.
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