It’s no accident that fast food establishments display pictures of their gourmet meals above the counter. About one in seven Americans can’t read English well enough to decipher complex messages like “Double quarter pounder” (why isn’t it a half pounder?) and “Filet-O-Fish.” (what exactly is an O-Fish?). These phrases are not in anybody’s dictionary, let alone an explanation of them. This could mean four hundred thousand potential sales lost every day – so they say it in pictures.

If you feel smug about being the sort of highly literate person who can read a whole menu, just take a trip to Greece or China and you will experience instant illiteracy. Traffic signs and newspaper headlines are incomprehensible, and restaurant menus make no sense at all. Years ago, when I was traveling in rural Greece, I can remember being led into the kitchen by exasperated waiters so that I could choose my food right out of the cooking pot, because I couldn’t understand either the menu or their explanation of it, Some parts of Brooklyn make me feel the same way.

The origin of language is a mystery. How did we get all the way from primitive grunts of “duh” and “yeah, right” and “cool” – all the way to the language of Shakespeare and Whitman – and then back again? If language is a mystery in itself, reading and writing are even harder to explain. Presumably writing came before reading. But why would anyone start to write when nobody could read, and how could anybody learn to read before writing was invented?

Even some American-born kids fail to grasp the principles of reading and writing. Schools are so permissive these days that they can sail right through all the grades without paying any attention at all. My old English teacher, Mr. Thomas, had ways of getting our attention. He would grab us by the hair and bang our heads on the desk. Nobody ever graduated from our school without being thoroughly literate, although all of us have had a slight headache for the rest of our lives. Today’s teachers are forbidden to use such effective methods, so a few kids slip through the educational net and need to catch up with the written word later.

Immigrants have a better excuse. They have to learn a whole new language – reading, writing and speaking – from zero. English is a long, hard road for tutors and students. Who can make any sense out of a language that can produce sentences like: “My dear friend Joe had a tame deer that knew him by sight but was afraid of anybody new. He dyed it green to protect it from hunters, but it died anyway at eight one morning, so he ate it.”

Sometimes literacy may seem like a burden – leading as it does to college, tests, tax forms, and reading the annoying junk that scrolls across the bottom of CNN news. You can get along without being literate – shopping in supermarket, watching movies and TV for entertainment, and working in the landscaping business.

But literacy extends a person’s menu choices, opens up opportunities for education and citizenship, and above all opens the door to five hundred years of great literature. It’s more than just being able to understand legal documents or newspapers or doctor’s instructions– it’s being given the key to culture based on the written word. That’s what our culture still is – not TV shows or video games, but all the literature, all the poetry, all the knowledge, everything the human race has achieved and created in the past five thousand years. It’s all written down.

Copyright: David Bouchier