Vernacular Literacy: A Re-Evaluation

By R. B. Le Page; Penelope Gardner Chloros et al. | Go to book overview

2
Social Contexts Conducive to the Vernacularization of Literacy

LAWRENCE D. CARRINGTON

with contributions from H. Devonish, R. W. Fasold, J. Gerbault, C. Juillard, and E. Tonkin


INTRODUCTION

Vernacular languages can remain unused for literate purposes for either technical or societal reasons. Technical reasons would include lack of a writing system, or of a standardized spelling system, or of linguistic descriptions that would allow ready development of these. Societal reasons would include the demographic and structural and political characteristics of the community, the legal status and political and economic affiliations of its languages, the attitudes towards them of members of the society, the educational processes, and the availability of literacy instruction. In this chapter we seek to identify the contexts that might be conducive to the vernacularization of literacy by focusing on the societal interfaces between literacy and vernacular languages. Of course, technical factors eventually become part of the societal discussions, but here we recognize their suitability for separate treatment with limited reference to the social environment.

For purposes of this discussion, it is best to work with a neutral definition of literacy as a skill that allows the creation and interpretation of written records. This is necessary because implanting literacy within non-literate environments is complicated by the ways in which views of literacy in such environments are entangled with the associations it bears in literate environments. There is a widespread unstated assumption that the applications of the skills of literacy should be similar wherever they are introduced; this thinking certainly pervaded the 1953 Unesco monograph. To free ourselves of the pre-judgements it would be appropriate to invoke Gudschinsky's definition of a literate person. She writes ( 1968: 146): 'That person is literate who, in a language he speaks, can read with understanding anything he would have understood if it had been spoken to him; and can write so that it can be read, anything that he can say'. Her definition compresses into a single quotable statement the critical element of reciprocity between oral and written competence together with scrupulous neutrality in respect of the area to which the skills of literacy are applied. For these reasons, the definition is applicable to any culture.

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