The word for “literacy” in Spanish is an example of linguistic ingenuity: alfabetización. An invented English translation would be “alphabetization,” or acquisition of the alphabet, the set of building blocks for written communication.
Over the last 10 years I have developed a strong curiosity and academic interest in adult literacy. For children with access to education, learning to read and write is an age-appropriate activity that is nurtured and celebrated. But children without access to education, or who have access but experience barriers to developing literacy, become adults who often hide their inability to read and write and have to come up with survival strategies for living in a world of assumed literacy.
The latest figures from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy showed that 14% of adults in the U.S. lack basic literacy skills in English. Within that group of the population, 39% identified as Hispanic.
Those who identify as Hispanic may not necessarily speak Spanish, and they may not necessarily be first-generation immigrants, but the term “Hispanic” is used to group people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds who all share some relationship to the Spanish language.
Let’s assume that some of those Hispanics who lack basic literacy skills in English are Spanish speakers. I have collected anecdotal evidence from every place I have lived in the U.S. that there is a subset of Spanish speakers who arrive here with little or no literacy skills in Spanish. (I haven’t found a good source to give a number here, and this information would be very difficult to collect through traditional census or survey methods which require that respondents be literate!)
One source estimates that it would take 500-1000 hours of instruction for an adult who is literate in his or her native language to acquire basic literacy skills in English. The key phrase in that sentence is “literate in his or her native language.” If such an adult received instruction for 3 hours each week, 52 weeks a year with no vacations, it would take him or her over 3 years to accumulate 500 hours of instruction. How much longer would it take an adult who is not literate in his or her native language?
Let’s go back to those children who don’t have access to education or who face barriers to developing literacy. Then imagine those children growing up to become adults who leave their countries of origin and arrive in the U.S. where they have to learn to communicate in a new language, English. There are ESL programs available to them through schools, churches, and community organizations, but when they walk in to the first session, the instructor starts writing on the board and handing out texts or workbooks.
These are courageous people.
As someone who has never experienced anything like this, I assume it would be a little bit like arriving in a remote part of Japan, where I not only do not understand the language being spoken, I also can’t decipher any of the written characters on signs or printed materials to attempt to associate the sounds I hear with what I see.
As I mentioned before, I have collected anecdotal evidence that nearly every Latino community in the U.S. probably has a small group of first generation Spanish-speaking adult immigrants who are not literate in Spanish. Those communities with large populations of immigrants from countries with lower literacy rates, such as Guatemala or Bolivia, may have greater numbers of Spanish speakers who cannot read or write in their native language. Furthermore, Latin Americans from indigenous backgrounds may speak Spanish as a second or third language, which could represent even greater barriers to Spanish literacy.
I am currently doing research to find Spanish literacy curricula developed specifically for non-literate Latino immigrants, who were not only marginalized in their countries of origin, but are also living on the fringes of a marginalized group in the U.S.
The Centro Latino for Literacy in Los Angeles has developed one such curriculum, called Leamos. You can view a video about their initiative here that includes a testimonial from a woman named Mercedes.
I will post more updates as I dig deeper into this important issue. Be grateful for your literacy skills today!