September 16, 2014 by Debra Gittler


Last week, September 8, was International Literacy Day. How do you translate International Literacy Day to Spanish? We can’t figure it out.

Literacy, a word loaded with so many connotations. In English, it goes far beyond the traditional definition “the ability to read and write.” We talk about visual literacy, financial literacy, technological literacy.

Literacy implies competency, knowledge, comprehension, expression, deep-thinking, analysis, interpretation.

But in Spanish, there’s simply no comparable word.

Alfabetización, or to be “alfabetizado/a”—technically the translation for literacy or literate—just doesn’t carry the same implication. First, you don’t hear the same play on words to bring literacy into other venues; there’s no such thing as “financialmente alfabetizado” or alfabetización tecnológico”.

Actually, alfabetizado, the adjective for literate, is the same word used to describe a list in alphabetical order. And that’s the real challenge, the term in Spanish remains too tightly tied to letters and alphabet to capture the nuance of thinking, curiosity, questioning that literacy does.

Letrado, another word to refer to a literate person, has an air of academia. On googletranslate, it translates in English to literate, but the Spanish definition is “A person legally authorized to advise and defend the rights and interests of another person in legal matters or a lawsuit.”

This lack of vocabulary is a constant frustration and motivation for us at ConTextos. On the one hand, we believe that so much of literacy instruction and concepts of literacy in the Spanish-speaking Americas are based the lack of a powerful word to guide the practice. To “alfabetizar” means make sure the learner knows her alphabet; it implies the basic ability to recognize letters and apply phonemic awareness. There’s no insinuation of the deeper thinking, critical analysis or interpretation that being literate has. As a result, teaching sticks to the mechanical skills rather than the deeper thinking.

ConTextos’ isn’t the only organization that recognizes this problem. “Literacidad” is a new word being floated about by some circles, an attempt to address the chasm in Spanish to address the 21st Century Skill of literacy. It hasn’t caught on, though, and even in our circles, we get a lot of push-back for even trying to use the word.

So here’s the question:

In Latin America, students learn through rote memorization, copy and dictation. At all levels, from kinder through university, they aren’t encouraged to think deeply, question or analyze. Learning stays at a mechanical, surface level. Are these practices in part a reflection of a language that has no word to describe the intricacies and nuance of literacy? Is it possible that the Spanish-speaking Americas stick to outdated learning techniques because they lack the vocabulary to imagine a deeper sense of thinking and understanding?

ConTextos believes this reality is part of the challenge that we confront. How can we be a Spanish-language literacy organization, when the Spanish language has no word for literacy?

Debra Gittler
Founder and Executive Director

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