How common is it for people to be literate only in a language other than their mother tongue? I know that ASL signing community members generally learn to be literate in English, since there is no widely accepted method of transcribing ASL, with all apologies to the inventors of Sutton Sign-Writing. But are there other examples in communities whose languages are spoken rather than signed?

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    I'd say this is the case for the majority of populations in Africa and Melanesia.
    – user483
    Jul 13, 2012 at 13:26
  • The main spoken Syriac dialect of Turkey (Turoyo) has no accepted written form and it has several hundred thousand speakers (mostly in Europe). Kurds in Turkey, where the Kurdish language has been to some degree banned, are unlikely to be literate in their mother tongue, instead learning to read and write in Turkish. Jul 13, 2012 at 20:03
  • (apologies for a bit of political flavor) Yes, this happened often in countries or territories under colonial domination. The local language, being mother-tongue for vast majority of population, is declared "provincial", "redneck speech". Schools taught primarily (or only) in metropoly language. Usually this ended up with people were literate only in a language of metropoly. Jul 14, 2012 at 15:53
  • For as long as Hindi and Urdu are different languages, and for as long as Serbian and Croatian are different languages, and for as long as Mandarin and Cantonese are dialects of one language, no apologies for political references on this list should be considered necessary. :) Jul 14, 2012 at 20:56
  • @jlovegren's comment is the correct answer here. E.g. in Senegal they don't teach children Mandinka or Wolof in school; they teach French. Jul 17, 2012 at 16:07

1 Answer 1


As @jlovegren said, this is not an uncommon situation, especially in parts of the world that did not have a long history of literacy.

Take for instance Senegal as an example. The majority L1's in Senegal are Wolof and Puulaar, and a wide variety of other L1's are also spoken. Literacy in Puulaar is 10-30%, and is even lower in Wolof.

But the languages of instruction are French and Arabic (M Fall, 2011):

Wolof children in Senegal—West Africa—develop their first literacy skills in their second language (L2), French or Arabic, not in their first language (L1), Wolof. The Wolof language is primarily oral, and even though a written system has been recently developed, children still do not read and write in their L1

A similar situation exists with Bahasa Indonesia, the standardized official version of the Malay language in Indonesia. 23,000,000 speak it as an L1, but over 120,000,000 as an L2. Bahasa Indonesia is the primary language of instruction, and there is wide literacy in that language. So, there are many people who speak their native language orally but who can read and write Bahasa Indonesia.

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