The feeling of illiteracy

What does it feel like to be illiterate?  You and I will never know, given I wrote this and you’re now reading it.  But I might have gotten a view into that world.

During my recent trip back to the United States, I realized how relaxed I was.  I didn’t have to pay constant attention; everything felt so familiar.  I also realized how much of my relaxation was due to comfort with the language, both verbal and written.

Understand that the road sign “Mass Pike” means Massachusetts Turnpike, and that a “turnpike” is a type of highway?  No problem.  Order just what I want in a restaurant (“hold the onions”)?  No problem.

It was that lack of stress that made me realize the constant stress I’ve been feeling by living in a land with a different language.

The Czech language, being a Slavic language, has very few shared words with English.  Unlike Romance languages that have many words with common origin to English.  Hence, I can order a meal in Spain, France or Italy and probably get what I want.  Sausage = “saucisson” in French.  But sausage = “uzeniny” in Czech?  Not so much.

Steve Martin had a stand-up comedy routine in the 70’s where he talked about ordering an omelet in another country, only to get a shoe with melted cheese on it.  Exactly.

If you look past the fact that many people in the Czech Republic can speak English with me, I’m otherwise functionally illiterate there.  How do illiterates cope?  You learn to copy.  Using visual memory alone I can now get places.  But I’m missing so much meaning in communication with others. On a couple of occasions, I looked at loitering teenagers and felt paranoid about whether they’re making fun of me.  I’ll never know.

Stress.  Paranoia.  Ineffective communication.  Imagine how an illiterate person feels.

Illiteracy is a scourge.  It begets poverty.  And ignorance.  And we all know that poverty and ignorance are breeding grounds for much of the behaviors we dislike in the human condition.

Sure, people cope with illiteracy.  Periodically, you read inspiring stories of illiterate, millionaire entrepreneurs.  Yes, they beat the odds and their triumph over adversity makes us feel good.  But the odds they beat are gigantic.  For every person who succeeds despite being illiterate, surely millions of others do not.

You cope.  But you don’t prosper.

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2 thoughts on “The feeling of illiteracy

  1. Don,

    “My hovercraft is full of eels”

    If you don’t know what I’m referring to, watch the Monty Python skit in the YouTube link above. I’m always amazed at how pop culture and comedy can crystallize a topic like this, even if its from over 30-ish years ago.

    Seriously though, other languages and countries aside, your post makes me think, in tech PM leadership much of your effectiveness comes from the street cred you get from speaking other languages. I’m not a software engineer but if I can’t speak with confidence about things like the capability of HTML5 to the dev team, I’ll be quickly ignored. Likewise, I’ve never done the day jobs of my users, but if I can’t carry on seemingly easy conversations using their lingo and slang, including the occasional f-bomb (in my industry), they won’t buy my stuff because they won’t get me. So, for me different languages and translation is a skill where literacy is required, but still you’re always learning.

    Or, I could be wrong.

    1. Mark, I think your analogy is spot-on. I wish I thought of it myself….

      I agree: product managers need to speak the language of many constituents, for example to translate between the words of users/buyers into the words of technical stakeholders.

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