Literacy and Second Languages

Literacy impacts people’s ability to learn a second language and how they can connect with the world. When basic reading, writing, and comprehension skills are not developed due to a lack of childhood education, it can be a real struggle to communicate and learn a new language.

second-language-3The effects can last a lifetime


Some of my Italian relatives with low literacy levels immigrated to Australia in the 1960s and still struggle with English related tasks today. Their children are often their interpreters, fill in important paperwork for them and help them navigate our increasingly English-based digital world. Although global literacy levels have improved over the years, according to UNESCO a staggering 750 million people in the world are still illiterate.

second-languageDeveloping young brains


An important research study by neuroscientists suggests that learning languages in early childhood can be most beneficial because this is when cognitive skills and brains begin to develop. Learning a second language improves concentration, sharpens memory and strengthens problem-solving skills. It can also encourage understanding and acceptance of different cultures by exposing children to new contexts about the world. Another Swedish study showed that learning a foreign language can increase the size of the brain even in adults which is truly amazing!

sun-booksHelping children in Uganda


Many of today’s illiterate people are in Africa. The World Literacy Foundation’s wonderful Sun Books initiative enables children to reap the benefits of literacy and second languages. Primary school children in remote areas of Uganda access solar-powered tablets containing digital content and e-books in English and their local language.

They can have fun learning by doing playful activities. English sets a foundation for them to connect with the world and by using these devices they can also be part of the digital age while they learn.

Youth literacy leaders


The World Literacy Foundation’s Youth Ambassador Program is another great example of how literacy and proficiency in second languages can help young people engage in truly meaningful ways. Some of the participants, from almost 70 countries, are not only literate but also bilingual. They can, therefore, advocate for literacy and education in their own communities and other countries to spread their message on a global scale.

What else can we do?  


The need to connect with the world will surely continue to rise as digital breakthroughs make it a smaller place. The power of literacy and its impact on learning new languages is, therefore, more important than ever.

Let’s foster this power in our children and our communities by taking advantage of the many benefits language education provides. We can also show empathy to non-native speakers around us to give them the dignity each person deserves.


By: Eliana Furnari