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What Is Literacy? A Personal Interpretation

Updated on September 18, 2010

“01001000011001010110110001101100011011110010110000100000011010000110111101110111001000000110000101110010011001010010000001111001011011110111010100111111” and “¿Hola, como estas?”. You might be wondering how these two phrases have anything to do with one another since one is written in binary and the other in Spanish. Despite the fact that they’re written in different languages, they both end up saying the same thing, “Hello, how are you?”. If a computer scientist who didn’t know Spanish or a Spanish speaker who didn’t know binary were to try to make sense of these obscure phrases, they would only be able to discern the meaning of one and not of the other because of their different literacies. Most dictionary definitions of literacy include being able to read and write but literacy was more than that in the case of the computer scientist and the Spanish speaker. Even though both their definitions of literacy included reading and writing, the difference came in the how they read and wrote. During the 16th century, for example, many Europeans considered themselves to be literate because they could read and write. At the same time, peoples in the Americas relied primarily on an oral system of conveying information. Even though they did not use writing as much it did not mean that they were illiterate because literacy had a different meaning to them. But what is it that I think makes literacy something more than just reading, writing, or speaking? During my time in high school, particularly in my computer science and art classes, I became aware of the great dependency that literacy had on the language it was being applied to. To me, literacy became the ability to use and understand different aspects of a language as a form of communication, regardless of what the language may be.

The German Lorenz cipher machine, used in World War II for encryption of very high-level general staff messages
The German Lorenz cipher machine, used in World War II for encryption of very high-level general staff messages

The 1940s saw the first modern, electrically powered computers when they were used to crack the language that encrypted Nazi transmissions during World War II. By the 1950s, the predecessor’s of today’s modern computer languages were being used. During these times, programming languages were heavily dependent on the hardware in which they were used. This placed a great importance on the rules and syntax of the languages that were specifically used to interact with particular computers. Technological advancements later produced more versatile computers that could support a wider variety of computer languages without much of a hardware restriction. This created a wider availability of computers to the public which caused software developers to place a greater emphasis on the user-interface of programs for better accessibility to wider audiences. The number of programming languages since then has grown by the thousands but most programmers agree that the language C and its many variations is one of the most powerful.

Learning how to program in C was like learning a whole new language. It had its own rules I had to abide by. Just like English had its own grammar and vocabulary, so did C in its syntax, style, data types, and variables among other things. In my computer science classes, I had to learn the “grammar” of the computer language in order to program successfully.  With it, I was able to communicate information to the computer through commands or to a user through programs.

When we coded programs in class, my computer science teacher would always remind us of the importance of keeping into consideration the types of people that would be using those programs. Similar to knowing who my audience was whenever I wrote an essay, I had to know whether the person using my program would be a doctor, a teacher, or a businessman as well as the purpose of the program. This helped me to design the program by knowing how complex to make it and what features to include in it in order to make it suitable for that particular user.

In one of my assignments, I had to create a specific program similar to those used in library databases. The program had to be able to work with massive amounts of information on books and other types of media commonly found in public libraries. Some of the features that the program required included the ability to sort information according to the user’s need and the ability to search through given items and find specific titles. In addition, the user had to be able to add, remove, and re-arrange information within the database. Since I knew that in real life programs like these were used by librarians, I designed it to operate through a simple, user controlled menu through which he or she could access all of the program’s features. Through these given specifications, I was able to write up a program that would perform these tasks through a user friendly interface.

By being able to understand the different aspects involved in computer science, I was able to pass information to both the computer and to other people. Even though most languages typically work with words, computer science deals mainly with mathematics. Just like languages whose characteristics include reading, writing, and speaking, languages in computer science are also used to communicate information, even if through different means. By developing an understanding of the language and by being able to apply that understanding to real situations, I was able to become literate in the programming language of C.

While most computer languages work mainly through the use of logic and numbers to express information, other languages take a more artistic approach in conveying ideas. My high school art teacher, Mark Lightfoot, always said that being artistically literate meant being able to express your ideas through the understanding and command of art. Throughout my years in his class, Mark introduced us to many artists of the past and to the techniques that they employed in their artwork. Some of them included renaissance inventor Leonardo Da Vinci, famous for The Mona Lisa, and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, well known for her surreal self-portraits. From these and other artists, Mark assigned us projects in which we engaged in producing artwork of our own that was modeled after their artistic styles.

One such instance was when I worked on a collage based on my life story. I designed it by arranging magazine cutouts of different geometric shapes and sizes on a contour of a spiral. By placing pictures that pertained to my life in a series of seemingly broken and jagged pieces, I was able to express my personal experiences in a contrasting fashion. Similarly, the puzzle-like organization of the collage showed comparisons through patterns, much like Pablo Picasso’s best known artistic form, cubism.

The rules and syntax for art were a lot more lax than those of other languages which allowed me for a more flexible way of expressing myself. This gave me a chance to work with different mediums such as paints, pastels, pencil, charcoal or combinations of them which, through their unique colors and textures, permitted me to easily capture my thoughts on paper. Despite the versatility of art, in my mind, I still had to maintain a certain order and arrangement of ideas that I placed in my artwork, even if they appeared abstract to others.

After three years of studying the works of the old art masters of history, I came to comprehend and become familiar with different artistic styles through my own imitations of them. Even though art was not a traditional language such as English, Spanish, or French, my literacy of it was what allowed me to illustrate my thoughts and ideas not through writing or speaking but through images.

Throughout high school, my meaning of literacy grew to encompass different types of languages. For me, literacy’s single definition used to be based on the single idea, constantly enforced at the elementary and middle school levels, that reading, writing, and speaking were important in literacy. Through the influences of computer programming and art, my own idea of literacy evolved into something that took into account the language that it was being applied to. This was important because not all languages employed the use of reading, writing, and speaking which meant that being literate did not require the ability to do all three but simply some combination of them that allowed for the use and understanding of the language. By becoming literate in several languages, I was able to utilize visual images as well as 1’s and 0’s to effectively express my ideas.

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