Thursday, January 26, 2006

Illiterate

I was one of those kids who was born to read. Always well ahead of the rest of my class, I was often sent to classrooms with older students for my reading lessons. I adored reading, I thought everyone should be reading as much as I was, and so I cajoled all the kids around me into reading. Most of them didn’t appreciate my overbearing nature when it came to reading, a lot of them simply didn’t like to read, or hadn’t yet learned how to read proficiently enough to enjoy it. I looked at classmates who couldn’t read with disdain, and began choosing my friends based on how well they could read. I couldn’t imagine how horrible it would be to not be able to read.

It wasn’t until I got older that I realized there were quite a few people who couldn’t read, including adults, and instead of focusing on the ignominy of such a lack of skill, I began to support programs that taught people how to read. There was still nothing worse to me than not being able to read, but I didn’t blame anyone anymore for their digressions – instead I chose to educate them. I was very secure in my singular, English speaking world – there was no question of my literacy.

Until now.

As I sit with my mother-in-law and struggle over the correct pronunciation of Greek words I remember my early years and wallow in the irony of it all. Sure, in America I am 100% literate. In Greece I am barely functionally literate. When I think of all the languages I don’t know, I start to get a bit depressed. What exactly does literacy mean? How can I be secure in my literacy if I am illiterate in hundreds of languages all over the world? If only I had thought of this as a child, when it would have much easier to absorb and learn new languages. For now, I’ll just have to learn to live with the shame as my battle to learn Greek wages on.

14 comments:

Flubberwinkle said...

Greek parents have waged a war against foreign language illiteracy. That explains why there are soooooooooo many foreign language centers (frontistiria). We don't want our kids to be isolated from rest of the world, as Greek is not in high demand outside our borders.
Good luck with your Greek!

Alabman Boy said...

Enlish is the only won that couts anyway. If you speak a good englis than why worry abut other languags. Gramap Jo alwys says if they no spek englis why taka too em.

Eleni said...

I'm like you. I read for joy and have since I was a child. Hard to imagine life without books.
But the thing about literacy in Greece that is most striking to me is the small number of people who actually read books. In the village where we live (off and on), reading books is considered to be a little wierd, and definitely anti-social. (You mean you'd rather read books that go over to Tzeni's house and drink coffee? Incomprehensible!)

I was commenting on this to my husband last year, who suggested maybe I was just negative about Greece. And maybe I was, but then again, the next day, all the Greek papers were full of reports that Greece had the lowest rate of readers of any country in the EU.

Even the kids we know who have spent years in a foreign-language frontistiria do not appear to enjoy reading books in any language. Newspapers, yes, they are read obsessively. But books? Maybe in Athens or Thessaloniki, but not in the rural villages. At least that is my experience.

So if a person is capable of reading Greek, but chooses not to, are they more literate than the person who struggles in Greek, or reads in another language? To me, literacy means not just being able to read, but taking the time to do so.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sympathetic. Very. As a non-Greek professional woman married to a Greek for almost 25 years, who lives off an on in Greece, I've struggled hard with exactly what you are describing. It does get easier. Really.

adfjkaj said...

Mel and the rest. I'm guilty as all of the Greeks. We read newspapers because it's quick, to the point and current events..

However, to stop and read a book and get involved takes more time than we believe we have. This is false as I know myself many times at night having delved into Stephen King or Dean R. Koontz only to realize the dawn of a new day has arrived...

Eleni said...

Scruffy, I think it's something more than not having the time. If I watch TV, I read less. If I surf the net for hours, I read fewer books. (Like now for example!) I think it's more along the lines of whether you have developed the habit of reading books.

For me, books are necessary regardless of how much time I have. When I was in school working two jobs, or when I was in a job working 80 hours a week, I always read. And I am not alone, there are people like me all over the world. It started with my mother reading to me every night and taking me to the library weekly once I was old enough to read myself. And now I read because it gives me pleasure that I don't get from anything else.

I like this person's explanation of the phenomenon:
"Reading is absurd, isn't it? Page after page of symbols. Voices in our heads that aren't our own. Why persist? We may read for entertainment, to pass the time, to visit other worlds, to expand our sense of what is possible. We hunt for treasure, rarely satisfied, but seeking new things to which we can aspire, clues and answers to what our lives are meant to be. At best, perhaps, we read to challenge ourselves and to be changed. "

Although I've read King and Koontz (and will again in the future) and agree they are good storytellers, they do not write the kind of books that bring me joy, or give me insight into the world around me.

Eleni said...

One more thing: My theory for Greeks reading less has to do with something other than time. I attribute it to a very active social life since, by definition, reading is a solo activity. At least in the village where we live, people do not spend their free time by themselves. Instead, they go for coffee, or to the kafenion, and for a volta, or to church, or to dinner or to ANYTHING else that involves other people.

To want to be by yourself in our village is one of those cultural phenomenons that the relatives simply do not understand. When my husband is out of time, I am happy to spend my time peacefully reading and enjoying my own company. This bothers the relatives who worry about me being lonely and want to fill my hours for me. When I say, thanks I'm happy I've got a stack of books to keep me company, I get a blank stare of incomprehension. And of course, no one believes that I'm telling the truth. But I am.

Eleni said...

oops, I meant when my husband is "out of town"

adfjkaj said...

Eleni,

You should spend more time reading than posting.

(just kidding)

Well, at least for me, I used to read one book a week religiously until the internet came. I also used to watch TV every night for a few hours.

Now, since 1998, I watch little to no TV, and read practically a book every 3-4 months if I'm lucky.

The internet and it's pull has addicted me and I just can't get away. Call it lack of discipline, etc, but I just cant shut it down.

In fact, my wife kidded me the other day and said she asked the lady at Hondo Center if they had any perfume that smelled like the computer. The clerk asked why? My wife told her so that my husband will notice me more.

ARghhh.. Help me! I need to get away from this terminal....

Now, that's a good story..

melusina said...

Books are my life. I enjoy the internet, I enjoy movies and good TV, but if I couldn't read, I think I would die.

I think you are certainly right about the social life in Greece Eleni - it is crazy here. I am not a horribly sociable person, I used to be, perhaps too much so for awhile, so now I prefer to curl up at home with a movie or a good book. Thankfully, my husband, despite his Greekness, is on board with that. But social life takes up so much time here - just listening to the schedules of my in-laws. I'm sure people here find me a bit weird for being so introverted, but hey, that is who I am.

I picked up a bit on my reading when someone pointed out to me how few books I will still have left to read if I read one book a week for the rest of my life (and that is supposing I live to a ripe old age!). That freaked me out, and got me reading like a maniac again.

Granted, I tend not to read King, Koontz, and the like, but it isn't because they aren't entertaining. I guess I consider it the sugar cereal of literature - easy to read, quick story, perfect for a doctor's office waiting room or on an airplane or train.

adfjkaj said...

Yeah, I'm a sugar eating kind of guy. I also read Dr. Seuss now.

melusina said...

Dr. Seuss is a god. I was asking my husband yesterday if any of his stuff had been translated into Greek...because my husband never read any Dr. Seuss.

And it wasn't an insult to that type of literature. We should all be so lucky to write such a novel someday. ;) I just prefer more quirky, dark, less predictable stuff. And I really did enjoy the Stand.

Emily said...

Melusina; I think we might actually be the same person. Well, you appear to have a separate life, blog, etc, but I know EXACTLY what you are talking about. I couldn't survive without books. When I got to Greece and realized just how hard it is to find books in English, I nearly freaked out. Well, I kind of did.
I love to read alone, write alone, and go to the movies alone. I like to see people too, but sometimes I need time for myself. Some of my Greek friends do seem to think this is strange, and one even expressed sympathy that I "had" to go to the cinema solo. I tried to explain that I like it that way.

Emily said...

Also, I don't know why I haven't been reading your blog until now. I will be checking it regularly!

melusina said...

Hey Emily! Glad to see you here!