April 28, 2022

Literacy – A Superpower That is Still Not Available To Everyone

Last Saturday the ‘World Book Day’ was celebrated around the globe – which is deeply connected with a cause that I’m passionate about: Literacy. You can’t read a book without the ability to read, and it is an ability that some children in this world still don’t get the chance to obtain.  

What is ‘reading and writing’ around the world? 

Starting already in the Neolithic Era, prototypes of writing systems developed. Nowadays, several writing systems are well established across the world. One is the alphabetic one, which is based on phonetics and sounds. Phonetic writing systems enable readers to be able to read and pronounce every written word, but if the reader doesn’t know the meaning of word he just pronounced, there’s no chance to guess the message of the word. The same goes with the Abjad writing system, in which either no vowels are indicated, and with the Abugida system, in which each character symbolizes a consonant-vowel pairing. 

Semantic writing systems on the other hand often do not include any hint at the phonetic pronunciation of a word, which people that first learned reading and writing in phonetic systems might find strange at first. The benefit of semantic writing is that the meaning can be grasped without having an idea of how to pronounce it, which is of benefit across different dialects (for example in China), and even across languages (as Chinese ‘Hanzi’ and Japanese ‘Kanji’ share many similar characters with the same meaning). 

Literacy – still a privilege? 

For centuries, reading and writing was reserved for only a few: ‘Nobles’, the clergy of any religion, and a few other privileged individuals or groups of people. Privileged, because the ability to read and write opened doors and opportunities for you that otherwise would remain closed.  

Looking at the development of the global literacy rate, the good news is that it increased immensely during the last hundred years. Whereas in 1820, only 12 percent of the world’s population were able to read and write, only 16 percent worldwide were illiterate in 2016. The sad news is that 16 percent represent over 750 million people that cannot read or write; and the distribution is not equally spread across regions, countries or sexes.  

While more over 95 percent of the population in developed countries is literate, more than 30 percent in sub-saharan and other developing countries are illiterate. [Source]  

Interactive map with statistics by ourworldindata.org: Literacy rate worldwide

Looking at the global distribution of illiteracy between sexes, two thirds of the 750 million illiterates are women. [Source

Source: World Literacy Foundation

‘By advancing education, we advance humanity’ 

These gaps in literacy are disturbing, and something that we can contribute to change. Education is key for everyone to develop their full potential. For me, education starts with the ability to read and write properly. What Malala Yousafzai (a Pakistani activist for female education and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate) said during her speech at the UN resonated greatly with me: 

“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen could change the world.” 

Let’s work together on changing the world, advancing education and humanity. Books are a great gift for children around you! Donate books you won’t read anymore, support your local community or support an NGO – there are so many small things each and everyone of us can do. 

I’d love to hear your ideas and opinions! 

Further readings on literacy: 

List of countries by literacy rate – Wikipedia 

Literacy – Our World in Data 

World Literacy Foundation – Changing Lives Through Literacy – an NGO was initiated by someone that collected books to increase literacy in Melbourne, Australia 

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