Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The power of words

My 22-month-old daughter was sick last night. She coughed and coughed in her sleep, tossing and turning, until eventually she threw up a little. She's a champion at that kind of thing. When we went in to change her, she looked up with her little lip turned down and said, "Vomity. Yucky." And then she put up her arms and said, "Mummy, cuddles. Kisses."

Delightful vomit notwithstanding, watching her learn to talk is one of the most amazing parts of an already amazing parenting journey.

Today is International Literacy Day, and Bloggers Unite has called for posts to raise awareness of literacy issues around the world.

Without literacy, this blog would not, of course, exist. All of us have been privileged enough to receive an education that gives us access to the joyful world of words. We love words so much that we not only devour millions of them every year by reading, but we create tens of thousands ourselves.

As a writer, how often do you sit back and think about where this all began?

Sophie has just gained full understanding of nouns. She knows that everything has a name- sometimes more than one name. The dog is both a dog, and a Daisy. Her father is both Daddy, and a man. You can call the same thing a jigsaw, or a puzzle. She also knows that sometimes different things have the same name. A potato is something you eat; it's also a toy from which you can add and remove body parts.

She's constantly asking the names of things, and the challenge of pronouncing big new words delights her. Strawberry. Umbrella. Refrigerator. Butterfly. We take these words for granted every day, but they're a world of wonder to her. She tells me every time she sees one of these things, so proud of herself.

And now she's on an even bigger journey of discovery- she's exploring the brave new horizon of adjectives and verbs. Big truck. Pink dino. Woolly bear. Eat banana. Crazy dance. She's thirsty not only to name things, but to describe them. The way they look, feel, and behave shapes her experience of life. The right adjective makes her laugh out loud. Silly grandma. A truck is big because it's bigger than her. The dog is naughty because she barks too much. How annoying, and how wonderful to be able to express that annoyance. The fact that there are so many colours to learn- blue, purple, orange, pink- intrigues her.

What an incredible world we live in!

Books and reading are our window into things we can't see ourselves, and experiences we've never had. It's a truly miraculous thing that we can convey a detailed image, an emotion, a personality, from one mind to another, using only words on a page. To read is to be part of a world so much bigger than the one you inhabit. To read is to be part of all humanity.

To write is to celebrate that early wonder of putting words together to show how they make you feel. One day, in the far-distant future, my little girl is going to be a spinner of words, too- and all because she loved them from the first. Because she had parents who celebrated language, because she has access to an education in which literacy is a core component of learning. Because she lives in a country with a 99.0% rate of literacy, and because she's in a privileged demographic, purely by accident of birth.

Her story might be different if she'd been born to another family, in another place, even within Australia. If she'd been born in an Indigenous community, she'd be growing up where the literacy rate is in places up to 70% lower than the rest of the country. Not good enough. The global statistics are likewise frightening- from Bloggers Unite and UNESCO:

Some 774 million adults lack minimum literacy skills; one in five adults is still not literate and two-thirds of them are women; 72.1 million children are out-of-school and many more attend irregularly or drop out.

It's not just the joy of words that is stolen by a lack of minimum literacy. It's also a voice. It's difficult to know what any of us can do to help raise rates of literacy in other places- I know my family has chosen to do what we can by sponsoring two World Vision children of Sophie's age, in Malawi and Chile.

But at the least, I would urge those of you with the privilege of literacy- everyone reading this blog, as it happens- to never take for granted the power of words, or the ability you have to read and learn, and to write and share.

Keep on celebrating your love of the world and everything in it, always.

Sophie sits in front of one of our 14 bookshelves, reading to her teddy and her dog :)


  1. Claire, those first words and sentences are magical, aren't they? And then, all too soon, they're using those linguistic skills against you. LOL

    We have a couple of World Vision kids, too - one in the Philippines, one in Sri Lanka - and a little girl in an orphanage in China. We started sponsoring them when our kids arrived, when we saw all the opportunities and advantages our brood had - including being taught to read and write - which should be available to every single kid in the world, regardless of where they are born. Maybe some day ...

    Great post! :-)

  2. Lovely post Claire. I come back to the same example time and again but the first time I saw this, it seared its way into my brain.
    On the Canadian show Trailer Park Boys (which is about exactly what you think it's about), one of the main characters is constantly going on about his own stupidity; "I never got past Grade 9" he keeps saying, as an excuse when he does dumb stuff or when his plans don't work out.
    The scene that frightened me was one where he came up with some new money making scheme and couldn't explain what he meant to do, crying out something like "I don't have the words!"
    And that was just so sad. It reminded me of Helen Keller, remembering how beastly she felt when she had no words in her world and how much richer her life became after Teacher.

  3. Clarie,
    What a lovely post! Sophie's blessed and so are we because you share her story and love. ; )