SIL International Home

Literacy in the 90's
The Role of SIL

This informative booklet, now published here on the Web, was originally printed in the 1990s. As a historical document, it reflects SIL's work in literacy during that decade.


Previous | Next

Mother Tongues: Breaking the Language Barrier

Most of the world's illiterate people live in nations in which scores or even hundreds of languages are spoken. The developing countries contain most of the world's 6,170 living languages. More than 60 percent (3,764) of these languages are spoken in Africa and Asia, and another 20 percent (1,216) are spoken in the islands of the Pacific [Grimes 740].

Teaching children to read
Teaching children to read

Though individual language communities can be relatively small, they may, when put together, make up a large portion of the population of a given country. In Guatemala, 44 percent of the population is made up of local language communities [Grimes 61]. In Papua New Guinea, the ratio is about 98 percent and in a number of African countries, close to 100 percent [Grimes 632, 145-358].

Language can be a major barrier to literacy. When a person speaks an unwritten language and is expected to learn to read in a language he does not understand, becoming literate can be a confusing and frustrating process. Many give up permanently, convinced that reading and writing are beyond their grasp.

Informal one-on-one instruction takes place in Ghana
Informal one-on-one instruction takes place in Ghana.

Gerardo Wipio Deicat, drawing on his experience as a Peruvian educator and Aguaruna Indian, states that "those who teach in a language other than that of the child in the lower grades are violating principles of good pedagogy and are guilty of cultural imposition. More often than not, this type of education has been the cause of native children dropping out of school and experiencing psychological trauma, resulting in their failure to learn to read and write." [Deicat 79.]

A good mother-tongue literacy program begins with linguistically sound materials. UNESCO has recognized this principle, calling for the linguistic study of unwritten languages before the production of dictionaries, vocabularies, and literacy materials begins [UNESCO 1976, 192-193]. Similarly, SIL requires its field linguists and literacy specialists to have a solid background in linguistic theory and field methodology before beginning fieldwork. In the field, linguists commit large blocks of time to living in the local communities, learning the local language well, and doing careful analysis, before beginning work on literacy materials.

In India, Oriayns attend evening classes in village literacy centers, learning to read by the light of a gas lantern.
In India, Oriayns attend evening classes in village literacy centers, learning to read by the light of a gas lantern.

This approach requires a long-term commitment but can produce impressive results. When SIL began work in Peru in the late '40s, schools were non-existent in Peruvian Amazonia. Literacy was unknown among the lowland minorities. Today, more than 600 schools operate in this cultural area. Seven hundred indigenous teachers and supervisors, 60 percent of the total staff, teach in these schools and provide administrative leadership. In less than 40 years, 15,000 children speaking 28 languages have learned to read and write in their mother tongues and many of these have gone on to more advanced education in normal schools (teachers colleges) and universities, with many of these planning to return to their local communities to serve their people.

Previous | Next