If a person who only knows English, goes to say a country like Japan, could he be considered illiterate in Japan? What I am asking is whether a person who can read and write in one language, can be considered illiterate in another. If not, then is there a word that can effectively characterize being unable to read or write in a foreign language?

illiteracy - a lack of ability to read and write (dictionary.com)

This definition of illiteracy is a bit broad for me. Does it only apply if a person cannot read and write at all in any language? Or can you be literate in one language but not another?

  • 3
    I'd say illiteracy is a lack of ability to read or write a language you know. It's mostly applied to people who don't know how to read or write at all, but since pretty much everyone knows at least one language, they can be considered illiterate in that language by default. If you know how to speak Japanese, but can't read or write kanji or kana, I wouldn't think it strange to say that you were illiterate in Japanese. Sep 24, 2016 at 14:57
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    I feel quite sure that the word illiterate, in any context, is politically incorrect nowadays, unless used by way of self-deprecation. I have never heard illiterate used without qualification, merely to indicate that a person could not speak a language which was foreign to them. I have said, of myself, something like I'm afraid I'm illiterate in Swedish. But I would not say it of someone else.
    – WS2
    Sep 24, 2016 at 15:01
  • If you know how to speak Japanese for example, but only knew how to read/write the language a little bit, would you then be considered largely illiterate, or half illiterate in Japanese?
    – Jon
    Sep 24, 2016 at 15:01
  • @Jon: We don't use [il]literate to refer to how well [or badly] someone knows a foreign language. We talk about their competence [in the language]. Sep 24, 2016 at 15:14
  • @JanusBahsJacquet You are completely correct. There are so many languages and writing systems in the world that if being unable to read and write a language we do not speak made us illiterate we'd all be in that condition.
    – BoldBen
    Sep 24, 2016 at 20:39

1 Answer 1


In normal usage illiterate is used only to describe someone who cannot read or write at all. If you will allow me to reverse your example, a person who can read and write Japanese is not usually considered illiterate, whatever country they are in.

If you have established that you are talking about a specific language, you would normally say that a person 'cannot read English', or possibly 'is not literate in English'. To say they are 'illiterate in English' would be very unusual, although technically grammatically and semantically correct.

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