SIL International Media Release

International Literacy Day 2008—Literacy is the best remedy

(September 2008) SIL International commemorates the annual United Nations-declared International Literacy Day. This year’s theme, celebrated in Paris on 8 September, highlights the clear link between health and literacy; improved health results when life-changing information is available to a community in a language they know best.

On the occasion of International Literacy Day 2008, UNESCO's Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura states:

"Today's gravest health concerns cannot be adequately addressed unless literacy finds a central place in public health policies and strategies. An illiterate person is simply more vulnerable to ill health and less likely to seek medical help for themselves, their family or their community….
"Literacy is a powerful, yet too often overlooked, remedy to health threats, with the potential to promote better nutrition, disease prevention and treatment."
Women in a literacy class A woman who participates in a literacy programme will have better knowledge of health and family planning.
– Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura

In recognition of International Literacy Day, Fredrick Boswell, SIL Executive Director, said, "Around the world, thousands of minority language communities are experiencing the new opportunities literacy opens to them. In the more than 70 countries where SIL works, literacy classes and teacher training courses bring new hope to thousands of people each year."

"Literacy is a remedy, but more importantly it is a prophylactic," said Pat Kelley, International Literacy and Education Coordinator for SIL. "Fieldworkers in ethnic language literacy programs worldwide find that literacy impacts not only after-the-fact treatment but also prevention. People who are literate have the capacity to use their literacy skills in effective preventive measures for community health, economic, and social ills. Inadequate local level literacy is a hard pill to swallow."

UNESCO called attention last week to the SIL publication, Why Languages Matter, which "provides readers with real life stories about how literacy programs in local languages are helping to achieve the Millennium Development Goals," some of which address literacy remedies for health issues.

Language development plays a significant role in giving communities tools for meeting these goals. One of SIL's primary activities is to support ethnolinguistic communities in their efforts to develop education programs that enable adults and children to become fluent readers and writers of their own mother tongue and also to gain fluency in a language of wider communication. SIL also responds to requests from local, regional and national agencies to assist minority language communities in developing culturally appropriate bilingual and multilingual education programs.

Around the world, communities are discovering that by using their own language, they are also developing solutions to health-related challenges. Reading materials in local languages that discuss hygiene, nutrition, and the prevention and treatment of diseases have proven to be effective in improving general health and life expectancy. The availability of culturally-relevant information dispels misconceptions surrounding HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

The mortality rate for children is reduced when information about disease prevention and treatment is presented in local languages. Conversely, poor understanding can lead to dangerous or even fatal misinformation. Ethnolinguistic communities can combat diarrhea, malaria and other common illnesses when they are able to read essential health information in their own language.

A mother is better able to care for herself and her family when she is literate in her mother tongue and has access to health information in a language she understands well. Language development facilitates the introduction of new concepts and the accurate translation of new terminology.

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