Illiteracies

March 15, 2011 § 6 Comments

Travelling is always a good reminder of everything that you don’t know about the world, and everything that you take for granted, particularly if you go to a place with quite a different language or culture. In Perth, I don’t think twice about planning a trip across the city on public transport, ordering food, looking up directions online, reading the body language of people around me. In Bangalore, the background information required to do all of these things becomes much clearer to me.

I try to order food, and don’t know: is it table service? Do I pay now, or later? Which things on the menu will I like? Is it polite to smile at the waiter, or make small talk with the cashier?

I walk past the bus stand, and all of the information is in a script I can’t read.

I use Google Maps to try to find my way around, and not only can’t find my current location, but also don’t know the language of the urban geography: how long will it take me to walk a block? Will I see that turnoff, if I walk past it?

When I walk around, people stare at me, and I don’t know if they’re being friendly or impolite or just curious. When I watch my Indian friend buy something at a shop, the discussion seems angry to me, although I know it isn’t – there’s just a different code to body language, and the Australian expectation that people will serve you with a smile (whether they’re happy or not) and “Have a nice day!” (whether they care or not) isn’t there.

At home, I’m highly literate. I can speak, read, and write in English. I can communicate effectively in social and academic settings, wearing different selves in different spaces. But here, I’m illiterate in so many ways: I can’t read the script, I can’t read body language, I can’t read the urban geography.

When I stumble on these illiteracies, I do it from a position of privilege. I can go online and ask for help, knowing that there’s a vast store of information in English. India’s colonial history means that many people speak English, and most signs are in English. I have the material resources to bypass difficulties: I can go to a restaurant that caters for foreigners, or hire an auto if buses are too complicated.

I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be trying to navigate these illiteracies from a marginalised position. To be a new immigrant in Perth, for example, who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t have a privileged economic position. Moving around the city, making friends, even everyday tasks like buying food, must be so very hard, so very tiring. And if you’re not literate in a language that’s well-represented online, you can’t just ask for help on Twitter or look up a guide on Wikipedia.

The group I’m working with here, Janastu, is starting some interesting projects related to Web accessibility for people who don’t read English. I’m also getting a chance to find out about other interesting projects to connect people online – today I had a look at the CGNet Swara blog, which lets people from the Central Gondwana region of India make blog posts by phone. I’m really curious to see how these projects work, and the ways in which they might transform some of the illiteracies that affect access to the Web.

And, while I’m doing it, I can work on becoming literate in new ways myself.

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§ 6 Responses to Illiteracies

  • Michelle Carroll says:

    WOW – sounds like you’re very lucky to be working on something so wonderful .. Enjoy the challenge

  • Rob Young says:

    Nicely thought through Sky. In recent years I have been to Sicily where I just didn’t understand what was expected of me in a restaurant and Iceland where the entire culture was just outside my experience. How do I relate to people who go from 4 hours of sunlight a day to 24 hours of sunlight a day.

    Makes for some very interesting life experiences.

  • Jude Cotter says:

    And while just getting food and shelter is hard, you should see what’s required by the immigration department. We are both highly literate, but the forms that we have had to fill in for Joey’s visa are incredibly confusing. For someone who doesn’t have English as a first language, or a brain the size of a planet, it must be an terrifyingly vulnerable place to be.

  • Claire says:

    An interesting point I read in an article some time ago was that developing countries often have technology jumps — so for example, a country might have gone directly from candles to LED lights while skipping incandescents, because by the time their economy was strong enough to get electrical lighting all round, technology had advanced to LED lights. That brings a whole new level of complexity to the idea of remote communities — particularly indigenous ones or under-represented ones, like rural Indian villages — being able to post online using cell phone technology. It’s skipping “traditional” publishing and going right to social networking and streaming media, in a sense.

    • sky says:

      A good point, and a really nice way of thinking about it! I also think it’s useful to think about it as a way of building on other literacies, rather than thinking of “able to read and write in English” as the only model of literacy. I’m planning to write another post soon about literacies that focuses on other people’s competence, rather than my own areas of incompetence :)

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