Everything else.. How Sri Lanka is Nailing Literacy and Multilingualism this World Literacy Day

How Sri Lanka is Nailing Literacy and Multilingualism this World Literacy Day

2019 Sep 7

The 8th of September was declared International Literacy Day by UNESCO on the 26th of October 1966 at the 14th session of UNESCO’s General conference. Now, celebrated worldwide, why is this day so important?


Literacy is a basic human right and celebrating the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies is an integral part of our advancement as a species. This goes beyond just reading, writing and counting skills. Literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world. Literacy is also a driver for sustainable development. Better education enables greater participation in the labor market; thereby improving child and family health and nutrition, and reducing poverty.


Globally, however, at least 750 million youth and adults still cannot read and write and 250 million children are failing to acquire basic literacy skills. Because of this celebrating such a day annually prompts the world to create awareness on this important subject.



International Literacy Day 2019 will focus on ‘Literacy and Multilingualism’.


Throughout time, with development and tremendous changes in society, the literacy rate of the world has grown dramatically. But we still face challenges that hinder the growth further due to linguistic diversity in education. By addressing this problem with this year’s theme, it’s not only possible to face the challenge but also meet sustainable development goals.


South Asia, West Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa have the highest level of illiterate population, while South Sudan’s Literacy rate is as low as 27% and Afghanistan at 28.1%. Furthermore, there are 123 million people between 15 and 24 years of age who cannot read or write. Of these illiterate youth, 76 million are women and 54 million of them are based in only nine countries: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, United Republic of Tanzania, Egypt and Burkina Faso.


Sri Lanka on the other hand is doing way above most countries with a staggering literacy rate of 92%. Yet, at the time Sri Lanka received independence from Britain in 1946, the literacy rate in the country stood at a mere 57.8%, with female literacy being 43.8% while male literacy was 70.1%. In just over a 60-year-period, despite being in the lower income group of countries, Sri Lanka proudly was able to achieve a literacy rate of 92% despite the civil war and two devastating insurgencies.



The cause in the boom in the literacy rate and reduction in the illiteracy rate from 43% to now less than 8% was mainly due to the changes in the education system in Sri Lanka after independence. Our heartfelt gratitude should go to honorable C.W.W Kannangara for initiating the free education system. What was once considered as only an elite high class right became approachable for even the lowest income barer. Education was mainly done in the English medium during the British governance but after the free education system was implemented the Kannangara reform introduced the ‘swabasha’ mother-tongue (Sinhala) as a compulsory subject regardless of race, cast, gender or religion. This happening in our motherlands history is a great example of how Multilingualism, the 2019 theme for World Literacy Day, plays a vital role in improving and growing the literacy rates worldwide. For majority of the population, English Elocution and information technology has also become very important with the determination our youth is showing towards globalization and linguistic advancement in speech, the country moves forward daily.


Of course, the Sri Lankan education system nor our literacy rate are not at peak levels. But fortunately, we are a country that is constantly evolving, adapting and growing. So this Literacy Day, let’s give a hearty cheers to Sri Lanka and work towards continuous improvement.