Having been around the world more than a few times lo these many years, I have developed a functioning literacy that gets me to the nearest restroom and orders my favorite steak. In fact, after one tiny miscue (where, in a Paris restaurant, I once declared myself a chicken), I get along pretty well in most places.
A few small towns in France and Germany have been cause for concern (or great fodder for YouTube, had there been a camera!). My feeble attempts to order a McMenu deux sans fromage were laughable.
Don’t even get me started on Brazil, where my rudimentary Spanish was fairly insulting to our wonderful Portuguese-speaking hosts. And forget about South Korea, where I am truly at the mercy of our clients.
In these – and many other places – I am functionally illiterate. If it weren’t for a broad willingness to post signage in English, I can’t imagine how I’d have survived in places like the Netherlands, Belgium or even Wales. (I swear, I think the welsh have some sort of ban on the use of vowels.)
Wandering South Korea and Japan really opened my eyes, though, to the reality of illiteracy. Even in Brazil and Germany, a familiar alphabet and decades of primetime TV made it possible to guess what signs might be saying. But in Asia, I was completely lost. The only thing I knew for sure was that Korean symbols are round. What those round symbols actually mean – nope, nothing. In America, I’m considered reasonably literate. Graduate school, decades of working in newspapers, marketing and public relations, these add up to a better than average vocabulary (at least where my Words With Friends friends are concerned). But in many places around the world, there are six-year-olds better at finding their way.
Here’s the scary part of the story. For many people all across the globe, this isn’t a temporary obstacle or amusing anecdote to share once they’re back on their home turf. For many, it’s a daily struggle.
As many as one in five worldwide cannot read! According to the World Literacy Foundation, 20 percent of us can’t read. Twenty percent!
September was World Literacy Month. To help raise awareness, fast-food chain Burger King decided to show its customers what it’s like for so many of their neighbors by making a small change to drive-thru menu boards. Take a minute and watch this video:
I’ll be honest here. Until I started working with folks beyond our borders, illiteracy wasn’t something I thought about. It’s not that I didn’t care. Much like the people in this video, its impact simply didn’t occur to me. But we cannot think that way.
Thank you, Burger King, for bringing staggering statistics down to a personal level that we can all wrap our heads around.