Millions of books are published annually, but how do we choose?

The World Literacy Day was observed last week under the global theme 'literacy in a digital world'. African experts in Kigali were on cue reflecting on one of the Day’s objectives about what it means to be literate in increasingly digitally-mediated societies.

The World Literacy Day was observed last week under the global theme ‘literacy in a digital world’. African experts in Kigali were on cue reflecting on one of the Day’s objectives about what it means to be literate in increasingly digitally-mediated societies.

In one of their summations, they emphasised use of indigenous languages, especially in early childhood education. This is already possible as countries in the region endeavour to suitably incorporate ICT in education according to their local situations.

 

Such a policy would be a boon to those of us concerned that our children don’t speak their mother tongue as the continent becomes increasingly urbanised.

 

Everyday speech is evolving into a blend of street lingo such as the Kinyafranglais (Kinyarwanda, French and English) on Kigali’s streets, Lunglish (Luganda/English) in Kampala or the Sheng (Swahili/English) widely spoken by youth across urban Kenya.

 

But there is the malaise of a literacy that many of us are aware of – if not already guilty of – where many of us can read but simply don’t want to. This, despite the knowledge that reading widely broadens one’s understanding of the world and leading to an improved mind both psychologically and cognitively.

The malady has been manifesting itself in itself variously since the advent of the digital age, and mainly through the 140 character tweets or bursts of vehement and often unhelpful opinions we consume and contribute on social media.

One might nonetheless say it has also had a silver lining, such as with the moments of comic relief it may offer. Sample the poster announcing the “Literacy Campain Book Fair” that drew amused trolls on local social media. Note the misspelling in the word “campaign”, which was supposed to celebrate the World Literacy Day no less.

Yet it is not so much the misspelling gaffe, as that served to draw attention among the social media hordes who would otherwise not have mulled what the World Literacy Day stands for.

In a way, therefore, the gaffe may inadvertently have illustrated the Day’s third objective, which was to explore how digital technologies can support progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal 4, especially Target 4.6 to ensure the youth and a substantial proportion of adults achieve literacy and numeracy.

In February the world observed the International Mother Language Day (IMLD) with the overall objective being to contribute toward promoting Global Citizenship education, as well as in support of SDG Goal 4.6.

The IMLD 2017 theme was “Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education.”

It affirms the African experts’ suggestion that using indigenous language in early childhood education could be a more practical springboard to better understanding of the foreign tongues in their role as languages of instruction in the upper classes.

Of course, there’s every reason to use one’s mother tongue as a language of instruction all the way to university, except that languages are sometimes limited as purveyors of concepts.

Some of our indigenous languages may not always be equipped to describe concepts in the plethora and complexity of the subjects that must be learned through school to the highest qualification (quantum mechanics, say).

But languages are malleable, thus if one insists that the mother tongue should be a language of instruction, it must imply an assimilation of global concepts that describe our world as we currently live it.

The speaker must also be prepared to be fluent in at least one of the global languages so that they may productively fit in the globalised digital economy.

To come back to the malady of aliteracy, it has been compared to illiteracy in another age when the vast majority did not have the choice whether to read or not.

The American literary scholar Richard Poirier once observed how in an affluent, democratic age “people have acquired enormous cultural power, but they do not exercise it by reading.

Their cultural power is expressed by their choosing, as they could never have done before, not to read, or at least not to read Literature.”

And, yet, in an age of information overload, of which available UNESCO data estimates that 2.2 million books are published per year, how to choose?

The digital age now affords a repository solution of virtual libraries that some of us have already vainly crafted a personal scriptorium of hundreds or thousands of ebooks that we can’t hope to read in a lifetime.

We must read, but the average reader hardly does ten books a year, if at all.

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