Have you ever visited a foreign country where you didn’t understand a word of the local language?


It really is a strange and disorientating experience.


Everyday tasks such as buying tickets, reading a menu or finding a particular type of store are fraught with difficulties when everything is written in an unfamiliar and seemingly incomprehensible language.


Without the aid of the written word we have to resort to scanning our surroundings for recognisable symbols: a Coca Cola sign, a “No Smoking” sticker or a picture of a bus on a timetable.


And even that doesn’t always work successfully.


Twice, in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, I wandered into shoe shops while trying to locate a pharmacy merely because the stores had large green crosses jutting out from above their doors (a sure sign of a pharmacy back in the UK).


But imagine if your purpose there was for more than just tourism. In fact, imagine if you had to navigate local bureaucracy in order to obtain medical treatment, to register to vote or to apply for a job, all in a written language that means as much to you as Hungarian means to me.


Well, for millions of people worldwide, that’s the reality of their everyday lives.


The problem of illiteracy


An estimated 774 million people over the age of 15 across the globe cannot read or write in their mother tongue. Often, but not always, these people are from poor or isolated communities and their existing social problems are compounded by a lack of literacy.


Basic literacy is something that the majority of us take for granted. From firing off a quick text message to looking up information online, we’re so accustomed to using these skills that we rarely register just how much they impact our everyday lives.


In fact, consider what you need to learn a second language. The ability to read a textbook, to translate a word into your mother tongue and to make notes on how to use a certain form... all of these skills only exist because you had the benefit of literacy as a starting point.


Without the foundation of being able to read and write in our native language, these basic methods of learning would be impossible.


But the benefits of literacy extend far beyond communicating by text or learning a second language. In many developing countries, growing up illiterate means being practically condemned to a life of poverty, inequality and poor health.


Things that we take for granted and tasks we perform with ease are made almost impenetrable without the ability to understand and use written language.


Why does literacy matter so much?


Literacy is not just about the ease of communication that comes with reading and writing. It’s actually deeply entwined with development issues such as poverty, healthcare and equal rights.


Let’s take a look at some of the most important benefits of literacy:




Perhaps the most obvious benefit of basic literacy is the increased ability to find secure and well-paid employment. Literate individuals enjoy a far wider range of career choices and are more likely to pursue routes to equal pay and fairer working conditions for themselves and their families.


Lowered crime


The risk of young adults and adolescents becoming involved in crime is dramatically reduced if they have literacy skills. These skills not only provide them with a greater chance of finding employment and lifting themselves out of poverty, but they also are a way of engaging more with their communities.




Access to healthcare is an issue that is indelibly linked to literacy rates. Basic advice on issues such as hygiene, sanitation and disease awareness is often imparted in written form, meaning it’s unobtainable for those who struggle with reading. Literacy also makes a big difference in people’s abilities to access medical treatment.


Gender equality


Women who can read and write are more likely to demand equal treatment, more capable of utilising their voting rights and stand a much greater chance of achieving both financial and social independence.


International Literacy Day 2016


International Literacy Day dates all the way back to 1965 and will be held this year on Thursday, September 8th. The event aims to address development issues by encouraging the spread of literacy to some of the poorest communities around the world.


Organised by the World Literacy Foundation, it encourages members of the public to get involved in projects and fundraisers intended to reduce illiteracy as much as possible.


This year’s campaign is called “The Sky’s the Limit,” and aims to eliminate the digital divide for students in the developing world.


The Foundation hopes to achieve this goal by providing solar-powered tablets to schools in isolated areas, meaning they can access books, learning resources and training tools for teachers, even without a reliable electricity supply.


What can you do to help?


The World Literacy Foundation suggests numerous ways ordinary members of the public can make a real difference to literacy rates around the world. This could be from organising an awareness raising event to booking a speaker from the World Literacy Foundation.


Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail:




For those who really want to throw themselves into the issue of worldwide literacy, the World Literacy Foundation is keen to enlist the help of volunteers to join their team.


The position is a great way to gain invaluable skills within the nonprofit sector while contributing to their mission of promoting global literacy and education.


Find out more here.




There are countless ways you could campaign on behalf of the World Literacy Foundation including hosting a book club, running a marathon or organising an awareness raising event at your place of work or school.


Anyone with a great idea can submit it to the Foundation via the link above.


Book a speaker or event


If raising awareness is something you’re particularly keen on, then booking a speaker from the World Literacy Foundation may be for you.


The Foundation has a dedicated team that is available for organised events at schools, workplaces or conferences to speak about why literacy is so important.


To enquire, follow the link above.


Image Sources


Hero Image by Monica H. (CC BY 2.0)