What’s It Like To Be Illiterate?

One of things most of us take for granted is being literate. I certainly do – it terrifies me to think that I might not be able to read and therefore absorb information and learn. We’ve been travelling in Spain for the last two plus weeks and it has been a period that in which basic assumption about life has been challenged.

We’re out “touristing” every day, and as we walk around the major attractions there is often signage, and quite often only in Spanish. One quickly realizes that it isn’t productive to attempt to read these descriptions. At least we recognize the little squiggles otherwise known as letters (which isn’t the case in some Asian destinations) but many of the words they form are beyond us.

So we get the idea of the challenges (largely of the past) that those who can’t read face. But to actually say we are illiterate may be an overstatement. We actually do know many of the words, whether they be learned Spanish words, sprinkled in English words, or words that simply look English.

While this semi-literate state seems to help most of the time, what it has caused me to wonder about is if it might, at times, be a more challenging one if we aren’t careful to recognize when it is afoot. For instance:

  • Look-alike words can be deceiving. In English we live in suburbs, but in Spanish we want to be careful when we enter the suburbio (slum). Without knowing the true meaning of the word, walking into something called a suburbio might have some negative implications!
  • Many places offer English translations as a service but they aren’t always quite as helpful as we would like. Check out the adjacent picture. We can read the words but do we really know what they mean?IMG_6215 (2)
  • We understand enough of the words to think we have the complete picture but our assumptions about or dismissal of other words might completely alter the meaning. Reading a menu, we saw brocheta de higado de pollo.  We knew what most of that meant … some kind of chicken skewers.  Turns out higado is liver … I’m pretty happy I didn’t make any assumptions and order this item (apologies to those that like chicken livers)!

All of this is amplified a similar deficit of verbal language skills and we end up with a fairly complex communication challenge – one that goes beyond just not understanding to wondering if we understand correctly or are being understood correctly.

A jumble of communication!
A jumble of communication!

This need to concentrate on communicating has me thinking about where else this type of issue might appear in my life.  It seems to me that it might be something that might be something to be aware of when I am operating from a comfort zone – one where I am feeling very much at home with the subject matter and my knowledge of it.

Is it possible that communications from such a place might assume a similar level of knowledge and familiarity within the parties I am communicating to, when in fact they may be listening to me as if I am speaking a foreign language?  Might making them feel “semi literate” in that they understand the words I am speaking/writing but they don’t have the familiarity required to fully put them into context? Might this cause a greater risk of misunderstanding?

What awareness do we have of whether we are among similar minded people? How often do we check in with our audience to make sure that we are speaking the same language? What assumptions of others knowledge or indeed interest do we make?

Where this strikes me as particularly important is when we are in a leadership position, whether that be of a team, a project or a meeting.  Is it incumbent on the leader to establish a common language, to flush out those who are feeling semi-literate and taking the time to create that common way of thinking/communicating?

How does this all land with you?  Are there times you can relate to when, looking back, you understand that there was a literacy issue?

Published by

Ian Munro @ leadingessentially.com

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

5 thoughts on “What’s It Like To Be Illiterate?

  1. Not being able to read or write would close off a large part of the world. It is a terrifying thought to me. I have known several people that could not read when I worked at the Mustard Seed. When they learned to read, the whole world opened up to them. I am so grateful that I can read and write!

    Even so, being able to read (as huge as this is), the written word is just 17% of communication (or something like that). Tone of voice, facial expression, hand gestures all contribute to understanding.

    I laughed at the sign you posted. It looks as if someone took Spanish text and shoved it into Google translate. 😀

    Diana xo

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