For 8 September, International Literacy Day, let’s stop and consider what it means to be “literate”. Many define it as being able “to read and write…a short, simple sentence about one’s everyday life”. Whereas a more nuanced definition could encompass a set of skills “which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language… which society values and finds useful”. In most, if not all, high-income countries literacy is defined by this more inclusive set of skills, while in most developing countries the simpler criteria “to read and write” persist. This gap may well unfortunately result in poverty and other issues being passed from one generation to the next, not to mention limited prospects for millions of children globally.
In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, starting in two Aga Khan schools, and now with the intention of expanding nationally with the aid of the Tajik Ministry of Science and Education, we have been experimenting with the concept of plurilingual literacy. This new curriculum is intended to be one that encourages understanding and respect of the cultures involved, pluralism through linguistic diversity, and one that allows learners not just to read and write at university level by the end of high school, but to do so in a foreign language. Our students are not expected to simply be “able to read and write”, they are encouraged to want to read and write, to understand why we read and write, and to view their own literacy skills as paths that can lead in many different directions, not just academic ones. Our students are encouraged to bring their own languages into the classroom, appreciate and share their own languages and cultures, utilise English as a lingua franca, but not forget who they are, and to understand that each and every language is a manifestation of the culture of those who express themselves in that language. It is believed that by encouraging this change in our schools and at a higher, national level we will be able to provide more useful educational targets, and that spreading this approach may have a positive developmental impact on the wider community.
Through this broader, more nuanced definition of literacy we can aid our students in their own development, in ways that they personally define and build respect for who they are and where they come from. We can help manifest a new generation of understanding, appreciation and empowered citizens in a better world. This may sound idealistic but is International Literacy Day not about attempting to realise an ideal world?