I grew up in a family of readers and debaters. One of my earliest memories is sitting in nan’s bedroom with nan, mum and I all reading. Years later, living back at nan’s as a young single mother with my daughter, I had a strong sense of déjà vu sitting in nan’s bedroom but this time with 4 generations of women reading, my daughter was only 2 but she was sitting with her book mimicking her elders. We also spent most nights of the week debating current affairs around the kitchen table. In my world ideas and words mattered and all of us used them as weapons to make our way through the world.
Illiteracy as I saw it, was something that happened to other people. Looking back, I’m sure my subconscious thought patterns around this were condescending and worse, patronising. Without really thinking about it I’m pretty sure I saw illiteracy as something that happened to a particular group of people and that it was the government’s responsibility to provide these people with the tools to help them help themselves. In short, I had a lefty benevolence complex that lacked any real understanding or depth – hey if we were perfect we would be in Nirvana already right?
Being lucky enough to move overseas for work for a few years in my mid 40’s put me on a steep learning curve for language, literacy and how it affects all areas of your life. My husband and I went to live in Amsterdam. Have you ever listened to a group of Dutch people in a group talking excitedly? Probably not – Dutch isn’t really spoken much outside of the Netherlands as 95% of Dutch are proficient in English. I thought I had landed on the set of Sesame Street and everyone was doing Swedish chef impersonations. I desperately wanted to integrate myself as much as possible into my new community, but I couldn’t speak the language. Language both shapes and reflects culture, until you speak the lingo, it’s very hard to really ‘get’ the culture.
I failed miserably at learning Dutch. But here are some of the things I learnt from not being able to read (or speak) the language. It is incredibly frustrating dealing with bureaucracy and being at the whim of whatever mood the person behind the counter is in. I had no chance of negotiating the system when I couldn’t read the notices that were sent to me. This severely curtails your ability to try and get the best deal for yourself. You also have to cope with people looking at you like you are an idiot.
Simple things like reading the instructions on the medicine bottle became a source of immense stress – yes, the doctor told me the dose but I couldn’t always remember what she had said. I missed several trains by mixing up between going to somewhere and coming from somewhere. For my first month I was exhausted – everything was so foreign and doing what used to be simple tasks took about 25% more effort. By 5pm my brain had done enough work for it to be 11pm.
All of these stresses were minor in comparison to how my social life was changed. When socialising with Dutch friends I couldn’t talk about current affairs unless I had seen it on the TV. I couldn’t discuss latest book releases. I often hesitated when contributing to conversations, second guessing myself. Dutch friends would talk in English when I was in the group but it was clear that they would prefer to be speaking in their native language – and fair enough too.
This also happened in the context of having a very privileged experience. First, I was an Ex Pat – a class of person seen by the natives as sometimes annoying but legitimate (as opposed to refugees but that is another story). Second, because 95% of Dutch people speak English they were always willing to speak in English rather than Dutch.
How individuals interacted with me taught me my biggest lesson. When colleagues, strangers and officials saw me as an equal we found a way to bridge the divide and the experience was enriched for both of us. One thing I learnt very quickly was that when people collaborated with me – rather than ‘helped’ me, my learning and my emotional experience were both a lot better off.
If we want our country to be one where nobody feels inadequate or has to struggle with reading a prescription, catching a bus or engaging in life fully, those of us who can need to realise that we aren’t better – we have just had different learning, experiences and genetic coding.
Leanne Minshull is the Director of the Tasmanian branch of the Australia Institute and small business owner in Hobart. Here, she writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.