Orality vs. Illiteracy

The difference and why it matters.

Davar Audio Bibles

What is orality?

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (2009) defines orality as a reliance on spoken, rather than written, language for communication. the term “reliance on” is key- while many of us use spoken language extensively, orality is relying on spoken language instead of written communication.It is essentially the use of speech rather than writing as a means of communication, especially in communities where the tools of literacy are unfamiliar to the majority of the population. An oral learner is a person who engages a new idea through spoken word. Orality can be by preference or by necessity, as in the case of someone who is illiterate.

Primary orality exists in communities that have no written language and little or no acquaintance with reading and writing. This form of orality is increasingly rare. Secondary orality uses television, radio, film, and the like to communicate to the speakers of oral communication: story, song, poetry, proverb, drama, and discussion. Traditional orality refers to situations in which people are familiar with reading and writing but they use oral communication for most of their daily living.

What is and oral culture and how prevalent is it?

In an oral culture, communication is via stories, songs, and symbols: memorizing what is heard is key. Their lifestyle is communal, they learn in groups, have a circular life perspective, and value the source of the information. In contrast, a lettered culture relies on literary sources for information, learners memorize what they’ve read, have a linear life perspective, and an institutional lifestyle.

According to the Oral Learner’s Initiative, one-third of the world population cannot read the language they speak and another third of the world are part of an oral culture and therefore choose to learn through nonwritten methods. They engage with the outside world at work, the supermarket and even church, orally. Together this combines to make up 4 billion oral learners.

How is orality different from illiterate?

Illiteracy is just one portion of orality, and those who are illiterate are just one category of oral learners.

Oxford Dictionary defines illiteracy as the inability to read or write. This simplistic definition does not allow for ranges of literacy. Someone who can simply write their name can be counted as literate, yet they are unable to fill out a medical form, follow written instructions, or read a book. Literacy by this definition does not factor in comprehension.

Widespread studies on this topic have left more questions than answers. According to Grant Lovejoy, Director of Orality Strategies for The International Mission Board, a UNESCO report on World Literacy Day revealed that the definition of literate varies greatly from county to country with many counting age or years in school as an indicator of literacy rather than comprehension of the written word.

Lovejoy goes on to say that “reducing the phenomenon of orality simply to ‘illiteracy’ has often led people to conclude that orality is something to be minimized by literacy campaigns.” He believes that “when we focus on orality rather than literacy, we recognize oral learners are capable of using beautiful, sophisticated, and moving speech.”

What can I do to help reach oral learners?

Lovejoy cautions Christian groups from taking government statistics about literacy at face value and presenting only written materials to those they minister to. Oral people will not grasp the literate teachers and be reluctant to admit there is a problem. They may look spiritually unresponsive when in reality they can not comprehend the written material.

Audio bibles provide a way for oral cultures to hear God’s Word and learn of His love for them in their home language- the intimate, well-known language they grew up speaking. Davar has published more than 230 audio bibles since 2009. Join us through prayer and financial support and help us reach the 4 billion oral learners!

Learn how you can be part of the work Davar Audio Bibles is doing here.



Orality Journal, Volume 1, Number 1, 2012, The Extent of Orality: 2012 Update by Grant Lovejoy, Director of Orality Strategies for IMB

Orality as a complex involves seven disciplines; principles and conclusions are drawn from researchers provided by Emory University, Ohio University, University of Kentucky, and Calvin Edwards and Associates. Chuck Madinger further elucidates ‘orality as a complex’ in ‘A Literate Guide to the Oral Galaxy’, Orality Journal 2, no. 2(2013): 11.

Oral Learners Initiative, www.oli.world

Orality and Theological Education: Oral Preference Learner Swiping through the Literate Galaxy By Dr. Samuel E. Chiang and Dr. Grant Lovejoy

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