13 April 2009

International Literacy Programs

Piggy backing off of Kate's post, Room to Read is a great organization and I think it is an organization worth looking at further. I first came across this non-profit when John Wood's story was featured on Oprah and PBS's Frontline. This topic brings up some interesting questions about literacy and what media literacy will look like as youth around grow up in a world where English dominates the Internet. Even though often these kinds of non-profit, global literacy organizations are providing books, they are also providing a way for youth in foreign countries learn English and thus interact globally. However, is this all we can offer? Is promoting English helpful or harmful, or is it both?

The International Book Project , another literacy non-profit, states that most of the materials they provide are in English (they also provide some Spanish and French language materials). From their website they make it sound like the book requests are not for native language materials. The form however does not address the fact that books in the native languages, especially books for children and young adults, is often unheard of in less developed countries. While to be sure English language skills are an important thing for young people to have (especially if they have access to the Internet) and it is noble to promote literacy of any kind, we need to ask as information professionals 'what is being lost with globalization and how we can do more to promote an internationalist perspective on learning?' Of course if you have books that are used, but still relevant, you should donate them and The International Book Project has a great mission in that. My question is not if Americans and Europeans should send books to other countries, but rather is it acceptable to settle there? In addition to promoting English language literacy, is enough being done to promote local language literacy? Important parts of cultural identity like language and folktales, are threatened by a limited view of literacy. This is unacceptable.

If children's books are not being produced and distributed in native languages, what will happen to generations of children in non-English speaking countries? And if these children do get access to media creation tools will they be able to express themselves in their own languages? Will they be able to express their unique identities in their culture in the context of their experiences with other cultures? In other words, while English language skills are very important internationally, we can't undersell the importance of youth being able to communicate their full experiences and histories. On that very episode of Oprah, John Wood spoke about adult villagers that couldn't read at all and how this can lead to problems with health and safety. If the government sends out advertising and literature to warn villagers of health risks, but the villagers are illiterate it does no good and people can get sick and die. While learning English is obviously a great skill, literacy in native languages needs to be a goal for literacy internationalists.

This is something that I liked when I have heard John Wood speak. Wood and his team understand that it is not enough to just promote English language materials. That is why in 2003 they began publishing children's books by local authors and illustrators . Room to Read is a non-profit that understands that bilingual materials are necessary and that children deserve to have books written for them.

English language proficiency obviously is a huge factor in media literacy, but it is not acceptable for us as literacy activists to be okay with just promoting the English language. Hopefully, with the help of organizations like Room to Read, more children will have scholarships, libraries, and access to the world beyond their villages, and they will become producers of media as well as consumers. English skills are essential, but if languages and stories are not learned by the incoming generations they will disappear. When promoting youth literacy there also needs to be a focus on preservation of culture.

There are organizations that focus solely on media literacy like One Child Per Laptop (see previous post). I first heard of this program when it was featured on 60 Minutes . Furthermore, The Global Literacy Project (also mentioned by Oprah) is another organization that works on this topic, but like Room to Read, they see their promotion of literacy as being broader than giving English language books. Instead, they also focus on Community Centers and Multimedia Centers. This is exactly the kind of action that needs to happen. Literacy should is multifaceted and should be treated as such. Also, libraries and literacy go hand in hand, no matter what the flavor of literacy.

While to be sure any literacy program is going to have pros and cons, no matter where we go from here, it is important to understand that we need to promote more than one kind of literacy. If we only promote English language materials and media, the world will become homogenized or some people will just be completely left out of the conversation. Likewise, if we also refuse to extend English literacy to children in other countries we are doing them a massive disservice. The fact is that English is pervasive (especially online) and so it is vital that literacy be extended in English as well, but with mindfulness that it is not the only literacy that children in other countries need or should have. When push comes to shove, we need to have an internationalist perspective, not one of globalization.

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