Why Literacy?

As a literacy consultant, I am often asked, "Why do you need to teach people to read their own language when they already know how to read another language?" A 2018 literacy training workshop in Myanmar clarified the reason.

Bending over a low, wooden desk, Mr. G. glanced at the chalkboard and back down at his paper, arduously, drawing an 'A'. Glancing behind him, he smiled at the thirty young adults crowded into the small wooden schoolhouse. They caught on quickly to this new writing system, but for him, this alphabet was challenging. A tea break provided relief for his strained back and eyes as he shuffled into the bright sunlight and drank in the fresh mountain air.

Following Mr. G.'s gaze, I looked out across the thatched roofs visible in the village to the clouds drifting across the mountains behind this village tucked in the mountains of northwest Myanmar. The Goga people had asked for help translating the Bible into their unwritten language. Now with their first, newly developed primer, teachers and village elders had gathered together to learn to read and write their mother tongue. Despite Mr. G.'s advanced years, he relentlessly pored over the letters of his language. Each day, excitement shone in his eyes as he sounded out the primer lessons. Turning to this dear believer, I asked, "Brother, why is it so important to you to learn to read and write your language and to have the Bible in Goga?" Motioning slowly with his calloused hands toward the nearby rooftops and distant villages beyond the mountain peaks, he replied, "Because, if we have the Bible in our language, we can more easily witness to others." With his limited Burmese skills, Mr. G. had experienced that using the Burmese Bible complicated presenting the Gospel to Goga speakers who were not fluent in Burmese. Using a Goga Bible translation while witnessing in Goga would make for an easier and clearer presentation of the Gospel. He longed to use a Goga translation that they could easily understand. But he would still have to be able to read the Goga translation. How will the Goga read and use their Bible translation for personal spiritual growth and soul-winning if they cannot read their own language?

Mr. G.'s answer and attitude impressed on me the need for literacy. He would not have been able to read the Bible in Goga. These thirty educated teachers were all literate in Burmese, but they also had to learn the Roman script that is being used for their Goga language, a script that is far different from the Burmese script. Each day, they eagerly tried to read stories in the primer to see how much more they could read. They anticipated the day when they would be able to read the Bible in their own language. Then, once the Bible is translated into Goga, the Goga believers will witness to others in Goga and will see God’s Word spread more effectively in people’s hearts. H.B.