Today, September 8, is the International Literacy Day. This year the day is being celebrated worldwide to promote literacy as part of the right to education, as well as a foundation for individuals' empowerment and inclusive and sustainable development. With the specific theme of 'Literacy and Multilingualism,' it is an occasion to reflect on policies, systems and practices required to promote literacy in contemporary multilingual contexts. In Bangladesh, the inaugural ceremony of International Literacy Day will be held at the Shilpakala Acadmy auditorium, Dhaka at 10:00 am today.
Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), has said on the occasion of International Literacy Day 2019: "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, world views, 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. Today, multilingualism - the use of more than one language in daily life - has become much more common with greater human mobility and the growing ubiquity of multimodal and instantaneous communication. Its shape has also evolved with globalisation and digitalisation. While the use of certain languages has expanded for cross-country and community dialogue, numerous minority and indigenous languages have been endangered. These trends have implications for literacy development."
GLOBAL LITERACY INCREASING: Over the past several decades, global literacy rates have significantly increased. The main reasons for such an upward trend stems from the evolution of the educational system of many developing countries, and an increased acknowledgement of the importance of education to these societies in their respective entireties. Still, many nations are struggling with the provision of educational resources to better their populaces, building the necessary infrastructure required and ensuring regular enrollment of students in schools. Nonetheless, even those countries lagging well behind global norms realise how necessary it is to supply high quality education to the masses in order to compete and succeed in the global market.
SPECIFIC CONTEXT OF LITERACY: This year is the International Year of Indigenous Languages for which UNESCO is mandated as the lead agency. The year marks the 25th anniversary of the World Conference on Special Needs Education, at which the Salamanca Statement on Inclusive Education was adopted, and UNESCO will organise the International Forum on Inclusion and Equity in Education (Cali, Bogota 11-13 September 2019). The 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report (GEM Report) will also focus on 'inclusion and education' in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which claim to leave no one behind. UNESCO's new strategy for youth and adult literacy is being developed for possible adoption at the 40th session of the UNESCO General Conference in November 2019. As UNESCO's instrument for sustaining collective and coordinated efforts, the Global Alliance for Literacy within the Framework of Lifelong Learning (GAL) has been revamped to target 20 countries and 9 countries.
NEW LITERACY STRATEGY: Experts from around the world gathered at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) in Hamburg on May 28 and 29, 2019 to discuss UNESCO's new strategy for literacy and to determine the steps needed to promote literacy within the framework of lifelong learning for all. The two-day expert meeting was the culmination of several consultations led by the UNESCO Secretariat. Twenty-two experts, representing academia, national and regional civil society organisations, international development agencies and youth took part in the meeting. Members of the UNESCO International Literacy Prize jury and of the UIL Governing Board also participated. In the draft strategy, UNESCO argues that although literacy provision at a global level has advanced over the past five decades, there are more adults without basic literacy skills now than there were 50 years ago. Moreover, different demands for different literacy skills are emerging with the development of technology in society and economy. To address this urgent situation, UNESCO proposes a new strategic vision and four priority areas to promote youth and adult literacy through advocacy, research, policy support and programmatic actions:
- Formulating national policies and strategies that integrate literacy within a holistic, cross-sectoral, lifelong and life-wide learning perspective;
- Addressing the needs of disadvantaged groups, particularly, out-of-school youth, women and girls, and people on the move;
- Leveraging digital technologies to expand access and improve relevance of learning outcomes;
- Monitoring programmes and assessing literacy skills for decision-making and accountability.
The new strategy will cover the period from 2020 to 2025 and will guide UNESCO's future actions to support Member States in achieving the SDG 4 target on youth and adult literacy (SDG 4.6). A revised strategy, integrating contributions from the expert meeting (May 2019), as well as from an online consultation with UNESCO Member States and partners (April 2019), will be presented at the 207th session of the UNESCO Executive Board in October 2019.
TYPES OF ILLITERACY: What is often forgotten is that there is more than one type of illiteracy, and that not all are addressed during formal education. These, according to researcher Kate Mulcahy, are: 1) Visual Illiteracy, 2) Trans-Illiteracy, 3) Technological Illiteracy, 4) Statistical Illiteracy, 5) Scientific Illiteracy, 6) Reading and Writing Illiteracy, 7) Racial Illiteracy, 8) Numerical Illiteracy, 9) Mental Health Illiteracy, 10) Media Illiteracy, 11) Information Illiteracy, 12) Health Illiteracy, 13) Functional Illiteracy, 14) Financial Illiteracy, 15) Emotional Illiteracy, 16) Ecological Illiteracy, 17) Cultural Illiteracy, 18) Critical Illiteracy, 19) Computer Illiteracy, 20) Agricultural Illiteracy.
ON FAMILY LITERACY: On the attainment of effective literacy, researchers are found to attach importance to family literacy. Family literacy and family learning are approaches to learning that focus on intergenerational interactions within families and communities. This, in turn, promotes the development of literacy, numeracy, language and life skills. Family learning recognises the vital role that parents, grandparents and other members of the family play in their children's education. Furthermore, it values and supports all forms of learning in homes and communities. It seeks to break down artificial barriers between learning in different contexts: in formal or non-formal settings in schools or adult literacy courses on the one hand, and in informal home and community environments on the other. Very often, the desire to help children with schoolwork motivates parents or caregivers to re-engage in learning themselves and improve their own literacy, numeracy, language and other basic skills. For this reason, family literacy and family learning initiatives support adults, whose own education has been limited for various reasons, in helping their children with learning. The focus of family literacy and family learning is therefore on both children's and adults' learning.
BANGLADESH CONTEXT: It is very much true that literacy is traditionally understood as the ability to read, write, and use arithmetic. The term's meaning has been expanded in modern times to include the ability to use language, numbers, images, computers, and other basic means to understand, communicate, gain useful knowledge and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture.
The concept of literacy is expanding in OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries to include skills to access knowledge through technology and ability to assess complex contexts. It is pertinent to ask here about the Bangladesh perspective. How much are we spending on skill development through education? According to Global Education Digest 2015, Bangladesh spends 2.0 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 13.8 per cent of total government expenditure on education. This is meagre even by the standards of our neighboring countries. Bhutan spends 6.0 of GDP and 17.8 of total expenditure on education. In cases of India and Nepal those figures are 3.8 and 4.7 of GDP and 14.1 and 22.1 of total expenditures respectively.
It is high time we overhauled our education system for better output to keep pace with the international community in the arena of human development with particular emphasis on achieving hundred per cent literacy. Recently, Bangladesh government is attaching importance to learning of foreign language for the workers who intend to go to foreign countries for job or work. This is a positive step no doubt. But those at the helm of affairs need to realise that today not only children but adults -- both male and female -- are required to understand more than foreign language in addition to their mother language. It would be wise to take note of this reality and take appropriate steps in line with the theme of International Literacy Day 2019.
Professor Quazi Faruque Ahmed is a member, National Education Policy 2010 Committee & Chairperson, Initiative for Human Development (IHD).