International Literacy Day

International Literacy Day is an international holiday sponsored by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), a specialized agency of the United Nations that focuses on issues relating to education around the world. On their website (hyperlink), UNESCO identifies “the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights” and insists there is a growing need “to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society” (1). International Literacy Day was established by UNESCO on October 26th, 1966 in an attempt to bring awareness, not only to the high level of illiteracy worldwide, but also to the importance of literacy for the individual and the community. Every year, the UN chooses a specific theme to address various obstacles to literacy and quality education. Previous themes have included “Literacy and Sustainable Development”; “Literacy and Health”, with a focus on Epidemics such as HIV, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; “Literacy and Empowerment”, with an emphasis on Gender Equality and the empowerment of women; and “Literacy and Peace”.

This year, for its 52nd year, International Literacy Day will focus on “Literacy and Multilingualism” in hopes to embrace “linguistic diversity in education and literacy development” (1). With the theme “Literacy and Multilingualism”, International Literacy Day hopes to enable discussions of how multilingualism is characterized and utilized in a world today, a world that is both highly globalized and digitalized.

The lowest literacy rates today can be seen in North Central Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Typically these low literacy rates are tied with people’s inability to access quality education, whether dictated by a lack of resources, poverty, gender inequality, or other cultural factors. 

However, despite the high rate of illiteracy in Africa, the Middle East, and many parts of Asia, these regions have seen leaps and bounds in youth literacy. While the high rate of illiteracy of elders has remained the same in the past ten years, statistics have shown more and more children and young adults are becoming literate.

  • According to Merriam-Webster, the terms “literate” and “illiterate” can be defined as follows: 
    • literate – “educated; able to read and write” 
    • Illiterate – “having little or no education: especially unable to read or write”

Today, 17% of the world remains illiterate, and while 17% doesn’t seem like a lot, the population of the world in 2018 was just over 7.5 billion people. That means 1.3 billion people around the world are unable to read and write today.

When considering the significance of this number, it is important to keep in mind that this number denotes only the number of people who cannot read or write. These “illiterate” people are still capable of communicating and interacting with the rest of the world by other means. For example, numerous communities around the world today remain oral societies; this means they communicate, operate, and pass information along orally, without writing down their thoughts, ideas, and/or histories. 

As part of the western world, Americans often forget that literacy is not exclusive to English. Literacy refers generally to the ability to read and write a language, not the ability to read and write in English. So this year, together with the celebration of this year’s International Literacy Day, one September 8, people around the world will celebrate and bring awareness to what Multilingualism is and how it operates in different countries, all the while seeking to educate and remind the world that literacy is a global issue, not an English issue. 

For more information on International Literacy Day, visit the United Nations website found here.


(1) “International Literacy Day,” UNESCO.

(2) Figures courtesy of UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “Fact Sheet No. 45”, Sept 2017. 

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