International Literacy Day: What do Oral Learners do in a World of Words

The majority of Africa, along with a few other countries, has a literacy rate of 75% or less. However, approximately 80% of the world (5.7 billion people) is classified as primarily oral communicators (

Why are so many people oral communicators? Technology. Andy Butcher states, “And in parts of the world with long-term high literacy rates, many younger people prefer to listen to, watch, or discuss something rather than read about it” (page 51, Seeing Your World). People, especially the youth, just don’t like reading.

Words and Women

Technology is not the only reason, however. The inability to access education also creates a barrier to literacy. This hindrance has caused women and girls to make up 2/3 of the world’s illiterate population due to their lack of access to education.

Not only that, but many women are faced with the responsibilities and duties of being the sole providers and care-takers for their families. (see Female Head of Household Map on page 14).  In addition to all of the stress and limitations, mothers are “victims of all evils within communities and societies,” according to Waghmare (page 17).  This in turn can lead to women having poor health and further decreasing their chance to become literate.

Spoken Possibilities

As technology becomes increasingly more advanced and spreads into areas of low literacy rates, it also becomes simpler and easier to use for both literates and non-literates.  Examples of this can be seen in all the latest smartphones and apps.  Siri, equipped with speaking capabilities, can speak and type the information that you requested.  The information is then available to both someone who can read and to someone who cannot.  Also, all apps are represented on a tablet, iPad, smartphone, etc. as icons (sometimes with or without words), rather than just a word or words.  These new advances encourage orality rather than literacy.

Reframing Evangelism and Discipleship

The Church has had a large focus on developing literate Christian leaders so that they could be more effective thinkers and doers.  Stan Nussbaum, an expert in African Missions, thinks differently.  His thoughts on this traditional development “has been tragically handicapped by attaching it so exclusively to literate methods” (page 53).  Literate methods are still needed and very important to global missions; however, a focus on non-literate tactics in areas where the people are primarily oral communicators could see tremendous success.


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