Thursday, February 17, 2011

What is Literacy?

We can feel good about the fact that literacy in the United States is 99% -- until we realize that this puts the USA tied for 21st with 24 other nations, all behind Tonga (99.2), Kazakhstan (99.6), Slovenia (99.7), Estonia (99.8) and Georgia (100%).  (Data is from  this Wikipedia article which cites this United Nations Development Programme report.)  According to the CIA World Factbook table on Literacy there is no common definition, so the CIA accepts prima facie the numbers provided by local governments.  Afghanistan counts those over age 15, which is a common threshhold.  Albania counts people over nine years of age.  Averages also must be parsed out by gender. 

I once worked a project where my manager was an ethnic Estonian.  He told me that during the worldwide depression of the 1930s, Estonians counterfeited postage stamps in preference to money.  He said that measured by the number of books published annually per capita in the native language, Estonia was second only to Iceland in literacy.  I never checked the figures from the 1930s, but today's numbers are available.  By this standard, the USA, which publishes the most books overall, is again 21st, behind Israel (20) Hungary (19), Estonia (14), Iceland (2), and the Vatican City (1). 

The table is at the bottom of this post.  I compiled the numbers from the usual sources via Wikipedia: books published annually; and 2010 population estimates.  I found it interesting to look at the number of people per book.  At the Vatican City it is four.   Here in the USA, it is over 1100. 

Of course, it is important to read the data.  The UK greatly leads the USA in books published annually, but literacy in English extends to the USA, Australia, etc.  My own copies of The Wealth of Nations and The Communist Manifesto were published in the UK, but bought (used) here in the USA.   The same must be recognized for Spanish and Chinese.  Hong Kong and Taiwan lead in literacy, but the mainland is third in total books published.  Also, literacy in ideographs can be problematic.  In a college class in Japanese for Business, I learned that it is paradoxical that a nation with 99% literacy has markedly fewer readers of newspapers.  To read a newspaper requires knowing about 3000 kanji characters.  I do not know what it takes to be literate in Chinese in China, but 3000 characters seems about right, given that Ogden's Basic English lists 850 words. 

The United Nations Development Programme and the CIA both agree that literacy is a measure of prosperity and freedom.  Thus, it is telling that Arabic does not appear in the top tier.  In Iran, it is Farsi.  The most populous Muslim nation is Indonesia, where Arabic is a foreign language.  As the home of Mecca, with its small population, Saudi Arabia could be like the Vatican City, but it is not.  And that speaks to the economic and political poverty of the Arabic nations. 

Spain is joined by Argentina and Mexico as a top producer of books.  That compounds the magnitude of the raw numbers.  So does the aggregation of the UK, Canada, the USA, and Australia.  To balance that consider the linguistic isolation of leading producers such as Israel, Hungary, and Vietnam.  At the other extreme, India is a nation with five official languages.  Its rank (45th) does come as an aggregate of all books against total population.  Still, when contrasted with China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the internal lingusitic barriers explain much of India's poverty.

Where does all of this leave the USA?  And how does the Internet impact the statistics?  What does it mean to be a nation of bloggers and tweeters? 


Click to see full chart of statistics.

Rank(Books published)NationYearBooksPopulation
(2010 estimate)
 (per 100,000 Pop)
People Per Book
79Vatical City2009228800285004
52  Iceland20071,533318,452481208
2  United Kingdom2005206,00061,792,000333300
24  Finland199613,1045,378,800244410
26  Denmark199612,3525,560,628222450
12  Netherlands199334,06716,648,100205489
18  Switzerland199615,3717,782,900197506
6  Spain200886,30046,152,925187535
9  Taiwan200742,01823,162,123181551
23  Sweden199613,4969,412,851143697
30  Hong Kong20009,7737,061,200138723
25  Belarus200912,8859,481,100136736
22  Belgium199113,91310,827,519128778
5  Germany200796,00081,802,000117852
28  Czech Republic199610,24410,515,818971027
34  Austria19968,0568,396,760961042
31  Hungary19969,19310,014,324921089
36  Israel20066,8667,697,600891121
1  United States2008275,232312,055,000881134
51  Latvia19961,9652,229,500881135
4  Russian Federation2008123,336141,927,297871151
7  Iran201065,00075,078,000871155
35  Portugal19967,86810,636,888741352
19  Romania200814,98421,466,174701433
14  South Korea199630,48748,501,000631591
37  Greece20026,82611,306,183601656
10  Italy199635,23660,545,940581718
17  Canada199619,90034,353,000581726
11  France199634,76665,821,800531893
8  Japan199656,221127,370,000442266
13  Turkey200931,41473,722,988432347
32  Australia20048,60222,561,000382623
21  Poland199614,10438,092,000372701
20  Ukraine200414,79045,795,911323096
29  Argentina19969,85040,091,359254070
38  Malaysia19965,84327,565,821214718
16  Mexico200720,300112,322,757185533
33  Thailand19968,14267,070,000128238
15  Brazil200922,027190,732,694128659
3  China2007136,2261,342,310,000109854
39  Vietnam19935,58186,930,000615576
42  Indonesia19964,018237,556,363259123
27  India199611,9031,194,010,0001100312
54  Nigeria19911,314158,259,0001120441

1 comment:

  1. If we could find numbers regarding the number of books purchased per capita, or the number of books read per capita per year, that would seem to be more accurate.

    I think that literacy is a gray line like most other human abilities. Where is the line between "rich" and "poor?" Where is the line between "attractive" and "average looking?"


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