Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Can you read this?

Charlemagne couldn't read, never got the hang of it, slept with a book under his pillow, always planning to acquire what was clearly a handy skill.  

Last year, I linked to a Time magazine list of ten important ideas in the world today.  One of them was that tv is the hot new thing.  Not for you and me, maybe, but for millions who have just gotten a path to some electricity and acquired a tv.  Your smartphone could be the latest, greatest thing for you, but the tv is that for many people in the world today.  Sometimes we say "Try to keep up" but to be more accurate, maybe we should sometimes say "Try to keep appropriately down" or "appropriately behind".  Playing with new ideas and temptations can easily divert our attention from the actual condition of the world's peoples.

More basic, I think, than tv, is the ability to read.  I imagine that it can not only matter whether you can read but which language (s) you read.  Some friends were talking yesterday and one said he had a Netherland heritage.  That lead to a discussion of the learning to speak Dutch and one said that he had been among Netherlanders but heard only English.  He asked why and was told," Who wants to speak Dutch when you can speak English?"  I have heard anecdotes about a Brazilan businessman who explained why he required his sons to learn English: "Portuguese is tomb."  I heard from a guide in Switzerland that the five most spoken languages in the world are English, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Mandarin.  I heard that a Japanese man, transferred to New York for business purposes, and his family found they preferred to argue in English as it was more convenient than doing so in Japanese.

I am slowly reading about Globish, the various forms of partial English in different parts of the world and their development and use.  The world's aviation and air travel system and the world's internet system both use English quite a bit and help to spread that tongue.  I read that numerically there are more speakers of English in China than in England.

So, in which languages you can decode fixed symbols probably matters.  Still, the ability to read anything matters, just as the ability to use a computer a bit matters.  Socrates, 400 years before Christ, is sometimes said to have looked down on writing with suspicion.  In his day, without writing and its decoding, people used their memories.  What would the new technology of making marks do to the human mind and memory, anyhow?

Something like one quarter of the current world population is illiterate.  It is true that cell phones and YouTube can bypass the need to acquire the ability to read but text messages and the titles in YouTube, as well as the text surrounding them and on the pages leading to them, show that the world today is far more available to those who can read.

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