The Other Side of Literacy

For the vast majority of my life, I have been literate – as one would expect the average person born, raised and educated in Canada to be.

I grew up speaking and understanding the language that my entire society spoke (and started learning French in grade 1).

I learned to read and latched onto that pastime with a passion (enjoying everything from Put Me in the Zoo and Amelia Bedelia, to Jane Eyre and Persuasion).

I learned to write and have often enjoyed both leisure writing (such as this blog, some poetry and songs, and a few stories) and academic writing (on topics which varied from osteoporosis to the Devil’s Brigade, and culminated with my fourth year seminar paper on “The Changing Discourse on British Malaya” – though perhaps I didn’t enjoy writing that as much as I enjoyed finishing it!).

Being able to speak, read and write in the language of your society is, for the majority of people, expected and, for the majority of people, completely doable. In Ontario, it is not too much to assume that the teller at your bank, the boy bagging your groceries, or the random person you stop to ask directions to, will be able to understand and respond in English, too.

Literacy is assumed… and up until a year ago, it was something I took for granted.

I used to look at new immigrants who were just learning English or struggling to be understood through heavy accents and feel sorry for them – sorry that they were having difficulty communicating. “That must be so frustrating for them,” I’d think. In retrospect, I really did have as much compassion for them as I could, considering I still had only ever operated in a society that functioned in my native language. However, this past year has opened my eyes and my heart wide to the fullness of the challenges that non-native language speakers face in a society. And that, my friends, is because I have personally crossed over to “the other side of literacy”.

For those of you who may not have experience over here, let me share my reflections from over the past year with you…


On the other side of literacy…

On the other side of literacy, you start back at square one. Scratch that – you start beforesquare one. Seriously.

When you acquire your first language as a baby, you have months of experience of hearing the words and the sounds, and having certain words repeated over and over again for you, so that your mind is able to start sorting the sounds and separating what you’re hearing into words.

Honestly, when you are first exposed to a new language, your brain doesn’t know what to do with all of the new sounds. When you are listening to a new language, all of the sounds run together into one long mess of “noise” that means absolutely nothing. It’s impossible to even know where one word ends and another begins!

And I hope this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but this is intimidating and stressful. It’s like your mind just shuts down, because no matter how hard you want to be able to understand, you don’t stand a chance because you can’t even tell one word apart from the next.

The only way I’ve found to start progressing out of this stage is to actually start learning a few words.

On the other side of literacy…

On the other side of literacy, you are forced to realize that sufficient vocabulary for daily life does not come in one day. Or even one week. Or one month…

The first few words (usually of introduction) feel like such a triumph, and they are! When you are finally able to attach meaning to the sounds “namaste” or “sawadee kh”, you feel like you are on top of the world! You are able to understand, and even reply, to a greeting in a foreign language!

And then… you hear a new strand of sounds: “tapailai sansai chha?” or “sabaay dee mai kh?”



In the space of less than one second flat, your mind is frozen again. You don’t know these sounds and they have no meaning to you.

A reminder of just how little you actually know.

On the other side of literacy…

On the other side of literacy, you do eventually start to learn. By one way or another, the sounds will break into individual words, a few of those words will gain meaning for you, and you’ll start to make a bit of sense out of the conversations around you.

In language class (which I’d recommend most), or from any of a variety of do-it-yourself learn-to-speak programs, you will start putting sentences together.

Mero desh Canada ho.
Dichan choop sii khiaw hk.
Mero jolaa tablemaa chaa.
Thaa mii satang, dichan ja baythiaw thii phratet Canada kh.

This is infinitely helpful in improving your understanding of the conversations around you, and even in answering a few simple questions.


On the other side of literacy…

On the other side of literacy, it takes a lot of courage to actually use the words and phrases you’ve acquired.

One fear to face is the reality that if you ask a question or make a statement in your new language, people are going to respond in that language. And you may not be able to understand that answer (thus potentially plunging you back into the mind-numbing stage).

There is a great deal of difference between being able to piece together “hongnaam thiinay kh?” (“bathroom where?”) and being able to understand “turn left at the next hallway, go straight past the Mister Donut toward the Starbucks, turn right into the small corridor, and it’s the third door on the left”.

Another fear to face is the reality that they may not understand you (for one reason or another). This is especially frustrating, because you are trying so hard, drawing on every resource you have, simply to communicate a message (try asking a taxi driver to stop at the walk-over bridge instead of driving for another 10 min to drop you off at the door to the mall when you don’t know the word for “bridge”). You do this little mental dance through your available vocabulary to piece together something that achieves the same effect to you (such as “stop here – I want to walk” accompanied by the sign language for “walk” – as if that would help…). And then… no good (you end up driving around a new area of town wondering how annoyed he’s going to be when you work up enough nerve to ask him to go back to the main road…). (In case you didn’t catch on, this happened to me yesterday.)

Another fear of a different type is simply wondering, if you work up the nerve to speak in your new language using the words you know, will anyone actually want to converse with you? For example, I am now able to ask in Thai “if you had time and money, what would you like to do?”, but that’s not exactly the kind of question you ask just anybody when passing them in a hallway! And it’s not generally ‘normal’ to ask your waitress what her favourite colour is and if she likes mountains…

For a long time, it seems you lack the right vocabulary to talk to the people around you, and lack the right people around you to use the vocabulary you have.

On the other side of literacy…

On the other side of literacy, you just can’t read. Period.

If the new language uses the same script as yours, then at least you can try to sound words out, but of course that means nothing if you don’t have the vocabulary to attach meaning to what you’re reading…

If the new language uses a different script, then you’re in for a whole new level of challenge! Not only are the sounds and words of the language completely new, but the signs and symbols are foreign as well. The process begins again… One letter runs into another – where does one stop and another begin? Where does one word stop and another begin? What sound does each character make? And so on and so forth…

On the other side of literacy…

On the other side of literacy, you want to read. Desperately.

I don’t even know what to add here, except that it really seems like every piece of writing I see is calling me to read it…

The more I learn of the oral language, the more the writing draws me in…

On the other side of literacy…

On the other side of literacy, understanding is limited and effective communication is essentially impossible. Not forever, but for now.

And that is hard to get used to.

It is hard for someone who is used to being articulate to be reduced to working with less than a preschooler’s vocabulary.

It is hard for someone who is used to reading challenging novels to be reduced to looking at the pictures on the can to know what kind of food is inside.

It is hard for someone who is used to writing academic papers to have difficulty remembering the characters needed to write their own name.

It is difficult, but we have to realize that it is a phase, a phase in the development of our new literacy. Each moment of frustration is fuel to continue learning. We will never reach literacy if we do not go through the process of becoming literate.

On the other side of literacy…

On the other side of literacy, is a passion and drive to learn, and a humility that says “I amso not there yet, but I am on my way”.



On your side of literacy…

On your side of literacy, when you’re the one who knows how to read, how to write and how to speak, never fail to stop and appreciate the fact that you are able to understand the world around you.

On your side of literacy, take a minute to remind yourselves that those who do not know your language do know a language as well as you know your own.

On your side of literacy, remember that broken English is not a sign of mental incompetence, but is rather a sign that someone is going through the process of becoming literate in a new language.

On your side of literacy, don’t mistake simplistic terms as insensitive or rude, but rather remember that the speaker is working with a limited vocabulary (not to mention the whole idea of cultural literacy).

On your side of literacy, remember that just because someone can’t read English doesn’t mean they can’t read.

And finally, on your side of literacy, offer a hand to those on the journey there. Take a minute to tell them what your favourite colour is. Pause to help them “read” an EXIT sign. Leave a little extra space between your words – spoken and written. Take the condescending tone out of your voice. Smile.

On behalf of those becoming literate, thank you…


And so, I’ll leave you now with my two newest Thai words: “Saphan” means “bridge” and “uaak” means “puke/barf/hurl”. I learnt these words so that I can piece together a sentence like “stop at the bridge or I’ll puke in your car!” *sigh* You’ve gotta love taxis in Bangkok… 🙂

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