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Spreading the Word (continued)

    Literacy is not like pregnancy: You can be just a little bit literate, as millions of Americans can testify. A 1995 International Adult Literacy Survey of eight industrialized nations (including the U.S.) showed that while their illiteracy rates may be low, they had what Maamouri describes as "very important problems in low-literacy" -- significant enough that one of the nations (France) did not want to make the results public.
    "It reflects badly on their education policies," he explains. "It also reflected badly on the social policies of their government, because it showed that a lot of the migrant people were marginalized. They thought it might lead to unrest and all kinds of problems with some groups. Literacy leads to those types of strong political repercussions."
    Not unrelated to all that is the politically-charged issue of diglossia, which one dictionary defines as "a situation in which complementary social functions are distributed between two varieties of a language, a prestigious, formal variety and a common, colloquial variety." In the United States, the debate might center on something like Ebonics; in Arab countries, for example, the "standard" written Arabic is so different from the many spoken dialects that relatively few ordinary people know how to read or speak it.
    "Diglossia applies to every country," says Maamouri. "The only difference is whether it's a mild case or an acute case. The Arabic is really an acute case. One of the characteristics of the diglossic situation is that people don't see the differences in the two languages. They really think, firmly believe, that they only have one language, and that's the language of the nation or of the national group."
    There is also the problem that countries face when more than one "mother tongue" is spoken -- Spanish in the U.S., for instance, or any number of languages and dialects in places like India and many countries in Africa.
    "It's not just a linguistic issue," notes Maamouri. "It's policy and planning; it's also cost. What's the cost of literacy if you have to deploy people in x number of languages? At our literacy forum in Africa, there was a heated debate, because in the opening session with the Minister of National Languages and Literacy in Senegal, the whole speech was about the promotion of national languages. The old, axiomatic position that was taken is that the best way to teach children, and even adults, is to teach them in their 'mother tongue.' But what's the 'mother tongue?' Is it a language? A dialect? What does it do to your whole system of education? It's clear that, for the moment, there has been no successful answer to that issue."
    I ask Wagner if he's willing to give a definition of literacy, and he demurs. "Literacy is a moving target," he says. "Anytime you give a definition that constrains, you get into fights. We refer to literacy as the basic skills of reading, writing, and calculating."
    "I define 'literacy' as an empowerment kind of tool," says Chris Hopey. "You know, if you go to Third World countries, it's a human-rights issue. People would say that in this country we're technocrats in terms of how we define literacy -- as reading, writing, numeracy. But I think in Third World countries, or what they call the southern countries of the world, it's a human-rights issue. Because it's tied to the ability to vote, to democracy, women's rights -- all those things are really important."
    Anita Priyadarshini, director of the State Resource Centre in Jaipur, India, puts it this way: "Literacy gives people the power to question."
    After the ILI was created a few years ago, Maamouri recalls, he and Wagner realized that in many parts of the world, there was no place for people to be trained in the teaching of literacy. Higher literacy-education thus became one of the goals of the ILI. "You cannot just go to the field with volunteers and 'each one teach one,'" Maamouri notes, echoing Chris Hopey's observation. "It is a good idea but you might end up with people who are not trained or not good teachers. What literacy needs is the credibility of a really well-trained corps of teachers."
    That led to the creation of the Summer Literacy Training Program, co-sponsored by UNESCO and held in Philadelphia. (The ILI has also organized or co-organized regional literacy forums in places like Dakar, Senegal; New Delhi; and Manilla, and plans are being drawn up to hold another forum in Beijing next year.)
    This year, 19 women and nine men from two dozen countries descended on University City in their saris and suits and t-shirts. The four-week program featured intensive technology workshops -- the ILI firmly believes that even countries where the Internet is mostly still a dream should start preparing for the day when it becomes a reality -- and talks on topics ranging from "Integrating Health & Basic Skills Education" to "Literacy and Development: Challenges to Dominant Paradigms." And before the program had even finished, one could read summaries of each talk on the ILI's Web site.
    "The fact that you have a UNESCO- supported international literacy institution lobbying for adult literacy -- that has tremendous impact," notes C.J. Daswani. "People begin to say, 'OK, if China is doing this, then surely it must be important; if India is doing this, it must be important.' And if ILI wants to come in and be the lobbyist or the middleman, that helps a great deal. But it's not just being the lobbyist and the middleman without the technical resource. We have the technical resource. We have academic faculty. And by getting people in from various countries to come together in a different context like this, a lot of learning takes place outside the formal lecture room. Bonds are made. And a lot of these people are currently in positions of power. I'm quite certain that, as they begin to face the problems in their own countries, they will look at each other and learn from each other."
    Dr. Joseph Okedara, professor of adult education at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, put it a little more dramatically. "The people here," he said, gesturing at his colleagues seated around the conference room in International House, "they will be Apostles, to carry the message of technology and innovation to fight in the war against illiteracy."
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