The Complications of Semi-Literacy

I’ve written previously about the myriad ways in which non-verbal communication takes place among our adopted people group. Alongside of this, literacy and orality also represent a crucial spectrum for understanding communication in a culture. This spectrum is fertile ground on which to sit and ponder for those who want to understand our people group – and how their communication relates to gospel ministry.

Turns out that over over 90% of Christian workers present the gospel in highly literate forms – and most are not aware that they are doing so. Those who are highly literate (like me) simply tend to assume that the highly literate way of thinking and communicating is the norm. However, it is actually far from the norm for the locals we are seeking to reach in Central Asia. It’s also far from the norm for thousands of other groups around the world.

Our people group’s culture can be represented as confoundingly semi-literate, with both minorities that are illiterate and also minorities that are highly literate. Being semi-literate means that the majority of locals have attended more than 10 years of school and are able to read and write, but they continue to learn primarily by oral means. This is evidenced by the fact that most locals do not read for pleasure and many do not read books at all. It’s also evidenced by the ongoing power and use of proverbs in local culture – even in the most progressive cities. Locals generally prefer to get their news from radio, television, and increasingly, social media. Even for university graduates the ability to read a written text, understand it, and summarize it in their own words is a difficult exercise – yet this is the marker which distinguishes the highly literate. Songs are heavily relied upon in the early childhood education and rote memorization dominates the classroom as children progress through the school system. Some of my friends have memorized entire school textbooks in preparation for important exams. All of these are markers of a culture that largely prefers oral means of communication.

A highly literate minority does exist, however, complicating the picture. For our adopted people group in particular this highly literate group makes it difficult to get a clear sense of the true state of literacy. Publishing and print media in the local language have made great strides since the early nineties. Bookstores abound in the bazaars, poets and authors are celebrated and honored, and yet the general literacy rate remains woefully low. University graduates discuss translated copies of Nietzsche yet go home to mothers and aunts who are completely illiterate and learn their money’s value by the color of the bills, not by the numbers printed in the corners.

The causes of this situation are complex. It’s clear that the nearly constant warfare affecting the population over the last century has regularly undermined progress in literacy, as entire generations dropped out of regular schooling due to war, sanctions, and ethnic hostilities. Recent economic crises have also hit the local school system hard, with teachers’ salaries not being paid, public schools sometimes closed, hours reduced, or situations where teachers are present but not providing instruction. The future literacy of today’s school-age children is being once again undermined. Covid-19 lock-downs have only made this situation worse.

Given these realities, Christian workers among our people and similar groups must not rely solely on highly literate means of sharing the gospel and discipling, even though that is often our default. However, neither can purely oral methods be adopted due to the strong minority of literates. Rather, a middle road should be explored where highly literate means are used to engage the literate elite who stand in the ancient Central Asian tradition which values philosophy, poetry, and literature – while partially-oral means are simultaneously used for the majority. The highly literate are in need of solid intellectual content in areas like apologetics and theology. The vast amount of Islamic material and Western 20th century secularist or Marxist material available in print in the local language requires a corresponding body of Christian content. Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Orwell, Hemingway, and many others have been resonating strongly with highly literate locals for several decades without a Christian challenge – a concerning reality since the highly literates often influence the future trajectory of the population. Even in our most conservatively Islamic towns, it’s acceptable to be a Muslim or to be an atheistic communist, but not to be Christian. And yet as the intellectual elite go, so eventually goes the general populace.

However, for reaching and discipling the majority of locals, their semi-literate, illiterate, or pre-literate status needs to be acknowledged and somehow addressed. This is particularly important for reaching local women, who have much lower literacy rates than men. Narrative teaching, the creation of new proverbs and songs, the use of scripture memorization, and audio and video resources could be developed to serve and equip locals for learning and passing on spiritual truth. This at times may mean that the preferred group discussion format of Western workers, where locals are asked to engage the text critically on the spot, may need to be replaced or supplemented by the more traditional local religious lecture format, or by group discussion based on a narrative presented orally yet still clearly rooted in the written text of the Bible. Social media also presents a promising platform as a medium suited for visual and audio content and short bursts of written content. Over the past decade social media has been eagerly adopted and highly used by the typical local (They know way more about Snap Chat and Instagram than I ever will). While we develop strategies and tools to meet locals where they are on the orality-literacy spectrum, we also need those who will simply devote themselves to the life-changing work of literacy training – just like my mom used to do in Melanesian villages.

Our adopted people group are simply not uniform in the area of literacy and orality. This demands that multiple strategies be pursued at the same time. It’s a both/and. Oral means can supplement the church and its spread as it grows slowly toward greater literacy. This means we will need to get creative and include elements in our church gatherings that can edify both an illiterate grandmother as well as a Zorba-The-Greek-reading masters student. This is, frankly, quite complicated. And yet this is the reality of our people group. The future indigenous church here will need to reach the full spectrum – so we must also strive to do so.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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