top of page

(Il)literacy and its Impact on our Lives

How does it feel to be illiterate in a foreign country surrounded by signs and documents written in a strange new alphabet?

Imagine for a moment you have fled war in your home country and seeking asylum in a distant land. On arrival, you are surrounded by people speaking a language you do not speak, and signs written in an alien alphabet you cannot read. Feeling hungry you browse the menu outside a nearby restaurant.

If you are not keen on eating jellyfish, you need to avoid the first item on the menu and, more importantly, if you are vegetarian, you shouldn’t eat the third menu offering – pork and shredded cabbage. Besides food, there are unintelligible documents on work permits, asylum applications, and other legal documents you need to download from the internet accessed by a computer that you don’t know how to use. With the keyboard being in another language, you are stuck and unable to access social media sites necessary to re-establish contact with family and friends who may have scattered to the far corners of the earth. You may even be too embarrassed to ask for help.

Our imaginary exile is in Mainland China, and the strange language is Mandarin Chinese. This analogy helps us empathise with the millions of illiterate refugees who flood across international borders in the turbulent modern world. Being illiterate in Mandarin Chinese, what would you most miss about the home country you have left? Every part of our modern lives is heavily influenced by our ability to read and write. In fact, in most cases, we take our literacy for granted without a second thought.

The translation of the subtitle of this article, for those who don’t read Mandarin Chinese, is “International Literacy Day, September 8th, 2019.” September 2019 is the fourteenth annual International Literacy Day (ILD) and has as its theme and primary focus literacy and multilingualism in today’s globalised and digitised world. The UN’s website affirms that “literacy is a human right and the foundation of all learning.”

Fighting illiteracy worldwide

As Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, notes in her International Literacy Day statement:

"Our world is rich and diverse with about 7,000 living languages. These languages are instruments for communication, engagement in lifelong learning, and participation in society and the world of work. They are also closely linked with distinctive identities, cultures, worldviews, and knowledge systems.  Embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy development is therefore a key part of developing inclusive societies that respect diversity and difference, upholding human dignity”.

The UN and UNESCO emphasise ‘inclusivity’ – a policy which ensures that no one, young or old, male or female, is ‘left behind’ in literacy training. Both organisations emphasise that “low levels of literacy and education in general, can impede the economic development of a country in the current rapidly changing, technology-driven world. “

Literacy is therefore a key component of both the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal and the organisation’s 2030 Agenda for providing “universal access to quality education and learning objectives throughout their lives.” Sustainable Goal 3’s target is to ensure that “all young people achieve literacy and numeracy, and that adults who lack these skills are given the chance to acquire them.”

The UN emphasises that multilingualism is becoming increasingly common due to the mobility of cultures, world views, and knowledge systems that coexist and cross fertilize. Therefore, it “is an opportunity to rethink literacy in a multicultural context by exploring current trends and issues of literacy and multilingualism from a holistic and inter-disciplinary perspective.”

“Multilingualism”, the agency observers, extends beyond geographical boundaries due to rapidly increasing human mobility and the ubiquity of multimodal and instaneous communication.” These changes have educational repercussions. Literacy programs now have socio-economic as well as cultural dimensions.

The stated aims of the International Literacy Day are to:

  • Educate the general public about the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human right.

  • Mobilise resources to address the problem of global illiteracy.

  • To celebrate and reinforce the awareness of the achievements of humanity.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics notes that both adult and youth literacy rates continue to rise, but despite encouraging progress, 774 million adults (those above 15 years of age) are still illiterate in their native language. Of these two-thirds (493 million) are women. Among the world’s youth, 123 million are still illiterate with 76 million (61.7%) are female, and 38.3% being male. Clearly, there still remains a gender gap in world literacy with women being ‘left behind’.

A 2016 report by the UNHCR also reports a crisis in refugee education. The UN Refugee Agency reported that more than half of the 6 million school-age children in its mandate have no school to go to and that refugees are five times more likely to be out of school than the global average. ‘Refugee education is sorely neglected, when it is one of the few opportunities we have to transform and build the next generation’.

Literacy Rates in Jordan and Syria

A Comparison of Worldwide Adult Literacy Rates with those of Syria and Jordan (Statisa 2019 Data)

In a 2015 census conducted in Syria 86.4% of the total population over the age of 15 could both read and write, 91.7% of this total were male, and 81% female (CIA Worldfactbook, 2015). Syria was also one of the outstanding examples of multilingualism: Although the official language of the country, Arabic is spoken by 90% of the population Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic and Circassian are widely understood, French and English less so. The country was therefore once the highly literate, multilingual cultural model envisaged by the United Nations.

In Jordan, the literacy figures are even more impressive: official figures published by Statista (2019) reveal an overall literacy rate of 98% (98.4% male and 97.5% female).

Both countries show markedly high literacy rates than for the general world population and do not display the same marked gender literacy gap lamented by the United Nations.

Conducting a Needs Assessment in Zaatari Village

One of the many refugee-relief organisations observing the International Literacy Day is Acting for Change International (AFCI). Founded in October, 2016, AFCI has developed vital literacy programmes in Zaatari village in north-east Jordan. AFCI aims to provide remedial education to Syrian refugee children and skills-based training for both Syrian and underprivileged Jordanian youth.

Moreover, a 2018 need’s analysis and literacy survey conducted by ‘Acting for Change International’ targeting 544 respondents pointed to the level of education found in the Zaatari Village. 78 (83.9%) of the 93 households sampled were Syrian, while the remaining 15 (16.1%) were Jordanian. 18% of the Syrians, and 17% of the Jordanians, sampled had been educated beyond primary school level. Approximately 50% of the refugees (45% Syrian and 57% Jordanian) could read and write Arabic. Just under half (48%) of the Syrian survey respondents were interested in attending literacy classes, while 16% of this cohort expressed an interest in digital literacy and internet training. 33% of the Jordanian refugees sampled had an interest in English classes. Over half of the refugee households surveyed (51%) volunteered that they need legal assistance while 27% of these households said they did not know how to access legal information such as obtaining work permits on the Internet.

The Types of Legal Aid Required by Zaatari Camp Refugees (AFCI Survey, 2018)

AFCI’s Needs Analysis Survey in 2018 concludes that a large majority of the children have not been able to attend schools for many years due to the disruption of civil war, and internment in refugee camps. Such children are AFCI’s primary target group.

AFCI encourages more student-centred, interactive, technology-aided learning in its literacy programmes and curriculums. For the last two years, for example, the centre has offered the Zaatari Village Radio Project in which children learn how to prepare and broadcast local radio programs that deliver health-education and general information to the residents of the Village and the Zaatari refugee camp a mile from the centre. Planning and writing down scripts of these broadcasts provides valuable literacy training that is more interesting and rewarding than simply listening to a teacher in a traditional classroom setting. Other programmes include a hands-on computer literacy program with primary focus on internet skills.

As the United Nations observers, literacy figures are indeed a complex and moving target. The need for literacy and general education programmes will certainly remain great in the future.

This year’s International Literacy Day’s emphasis on multilingual programmes and technology is highly relevant to the herculean task of dealing with the ever-burgeoning world refugee problem. The true success of the 2019 International Literacy Day, however, will not be judged by official communiqués and academic publications, but to the extent to which the theories and policies discussed in UN forums will find practical and successful application in worldwide refugee centres such as the AFCI centre in Zaatari Village.

63 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page