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"literacy" and "information literacy"

Camilo Roumer
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 1, 2007, page 15)

The Translation Bureau’s Terminology Standardization Directorate recently prepared a synthesis of research findings on the terms "literacy" and "information literacy" at the request of the Délégation générale à la langue française et aux langues de France. The in—depth study of related terms, combined with conflicting opinions of specialists, made the task fairly intricate . . .


The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2004) defines "literacy" as:

  1. the ability to read and write.
  2. competence in some field of knowledge, technology, etc. (computer literacy; economic literacy).

The Gage Canadian Dictionary (2000) propounds a virtually identical definition:

  1. the ability to read and write.
  2. minimal competence in any field: computer literacy.

The entry in the Dictionnaire Robert & Collins Senior (2002) illustrates the uncertainty surrounding the adoption of a French equivalent for "literacy":

[of person] fait de savoir lire et écrire; [of population] degré d’alphabétisation…

The definition broadened to encompass:

[The] ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in wider society.Footnote 1

In French, "littératie" (or "littéracie") in Canada, and "littérisme" in France are used to translate "literacy":

La dernière révision du concept francophone d’alphabétisme est apparue (initialement au Québec) avec les termes « littératie » et, moins fréquemment, « littératies » […] En France, le Journal officiel a publié en août 2005 une définition du terme « littérisme » : capacité à lire un texte simple en le comprenant, à utiliser et à communiquer une information écrite dans la vie courante. Le littérisme, conçu comme l’antonyme de l’illettrisme, serait ainsi un équivalent du concept anglais de literacy, couvrant aussi la numératie.Footnote 2

L’utilisation récente du terme « littératie » découle principalement du fait que dans nos sociétés modernes en constante mutation technologique et scientifique, le simple fait de pouvoir lire et écrire ne constitue plus un indicateur adéquat de la capacité des individus à traiter l’information dans leur quotidien. C’est pourquoi la littératie constitue en fait une redéfinition du concept d’alphabétisme mettant ainsi l’accent sur l’application quotidienne que font les individus de leurs capacités au sein de la société, plus particulièrement leurs capacités à traiter l’information écrite, qu’elle soit de nature numérique ou alphabétique.Footnote 3

"Alphabétisme" is also frequently used to designate the concept of "literacy":

Literacy defined

Définition de l’alphabétisme

The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) identifies three dimensions of literacy: prose literacy, document literacy and quantitative literacy.Footnote 4

L’Enquête internationale sur l’alphabétisation des adultes mesure l’alphabétisme en se servant de trois catégories de capacités de lecture : les capacités à l’égard de textes suivis, de textes schématiques et de textes au contenu quantitatif.

This acceptation of "alphabétisme" does not appear in standard dictionaries. In fact, according to the Nouveau Petit Robert (2007), "alphabétisme" refers instead to a:

système d’écritures reposant sur un alphabet (opposé à écriture idéographique, syllabique).

However, the Dictionnaire universel francophone (Hachette 1997) defines the related term "alphabète" as follows:

Qui sait lire et écrire.

According to the same source, the adjective "alphabetisé" describes:

une personne qui a reçu une alphabétisation.

Moreover, "alphabétisme" is used in a number of specialized documents as an equivalent for "literacy."

En français, « alphabétisme » et « analphabétisme » sont les termes généralement employés pour traduire « literacy » et « illiteracy », tandis qu’« alphabétisation » se réfère à l’« apprentissage de l’alphabétisme ».Footnote 5

Although "alphabétisme" is not found in standard French language dictionaries in the sense of "literacy," it is still the term most commonly used in Canada to designate that concept. It is in fact as broad in meaning as "littératie" and "littérisme":

". . . literacy means more than knowing how to read, write or calculate. It involves understanding and being able to use the information required to function effectively [in society]. Literacy involves comprehension and understanding – not only of the written word, but also of the spoken word."Footnote 6

Hence, our findings confirm that "alphabétisme," "littératie" and "littérisme" are synonyms used to render "literacy," i.e. the ability to read and write and, by extension, the ability to use relevant information to function in society.

Depending on the context, different French equivalents are used to designate the second sense of "literacy" (competence in some field of knowledge), for example, "connaissance," "compétence," "maîtrise," "culture."

Information literacy

The English acceptations and the scope of the term "information literacy" differ from one source to another:

There are many different definitions of "information literacy" (also called "information competency" or "information fluency" by some practitioners) because the term is often confused with "computer literacy" and "bibliographic instruction." While there is a great deal of overlap among the three terms, "information. literacy" is the more comprehensive. Perhaps the best succinct and comprehensive definition is: "the ability to locate, evaluate, and use information to become independent life—long learners."Footnote 7

The American Library Association (ALA) provides the following definition:

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) offers this one:

[…] knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner.Footnote 8

The ALA’s definition of the related term "information—literate individual" further describes the concept:

An "information—literate individual" is able to determine the extent of information needed; access the needed information effectively and efficiently; evaluate information and its sources critically; incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base; use information. effectively to accomplish a specific purpose; understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally.Footnote 9

It is clear that the term "information literacy" is used to refer to [translation] individual characteristics, as well as to the various initiatives which help individuals acquire these characteristics.Footnote 10

In French, "maîtrise de l’information," "culture de l’information" and "culture informationnelle" are widely used to render the concept of "information literacy." However, according to Brigitte Juanals (as quoted by Françoise Chapron),Footnote 11 these terms are not synonyms. She makes a distinction between "maîtrise de l’information" and "maîtrise de l’accès à l’information," "culture de l’accès à l’information" and "culture de l’information" or "culture informationnelle," which, according to her, designate three distinct levels of competency with respect to information. Therefore, "maîtrise de l’information" and "maîtrise de l’accès à l’information" refer inevitably to the technical and methodological abilities inherent in the research process.Footnote 12

In conclusion, "culture de l’information" and its synonym "culture informationnelle" are appropriate French equivalents for "information literacy," namely, proficiency in making judicious use of any type of information.Footnote 13[translation] This implies possessing the abilities, the knowledge and the mindset required to identify information, be acquainted with sources of information, develop strategies to locate and research information, evaluate the information, use it, format and broadcast it, from a problem—solving perspective.Footnote 14

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