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Illiteracy in Germany

Karin Jäger / bmSeptember 8, 2012

About 7.5 million adults in Germany cannot read or write properly, even if they attended school for years. Ernst Lorenzen used to be one of them. But now the 57-year-old is a literacy advocate.

Chalkboard photo illustration (Photo: HandmadePictures)
Image: Fotolia/HandmadePictures

"For me, a new life has begun," Ernst Lorenzen says of learning to read. "I am thrilled. I didn't know how great everything in books is."

Lorenzen has not only found joy in reading. He has also discovered the courage to confess what used to be his Achilles' heel. He founded a support group for people who have gone through the same struggle in the northern German town of Oldenburg.

Ten functional illiterates attended the last meeting. But an estimated 12,000 illiterate people live in the area around Oldenburg. Even though they might be able to decipher letters and single words, they are unable to read and write coherent sentences. They are illiterate.

Lorenzen's literacy handicap has cost him a great deal of time and energy. It has thwarted career moves. All told, it has cost him dearly.

But illiteracy has also forced Lorenzen to become inventive. To deal with his inability to understand complete sentences, Lorenzen became a master at developing coping strategies.

"That was all connected with a huge effort and great suffering to get through life," he said.

Ernst Lorenzen (l.) and Brigitte van der Velde of the Alogos self-help group in Oldenburg. (Photo: VHS Oldenburg)
Lorenzon remains involved with his support groupImage: DW

In Lorenzen's early days at school, he had difficulty understanding lessons. Eventually, he was told to sit in the back row and simply listen - which only confused him more. Understanding even less, he eventually gave up.

Resourceful perfectionists

Other illiterates also try to hide their problem, citing problems such as arm pain when writing. Another strategy is to squint while trying to read and claiming to need glasses.

"In Germany we have a prejudice that such an adult is less intelligent," said Peter Hubertus of the German Association of Literacy and Basic Education in Münster.

"When it is revealed, the fear is that he will be forever confronted with this prejudice," Hubertus added. "Therefore it is important to make it clear that these people have to be very clever to get through life."

Peter Hubertus
Hubertus said many illiterate people are cleverImage: Bundesverband für Alphabetisierung und Grundbildung

Among other forms of aid, the organization offers help over the phone to those seeking advice.

Increasing difficulties

Job opportunities for unskilled adults who could not read and write were previously limited to washing dishes or working in construction. But in our media-saturated age, people have to write applications just to receive unemployment benefits. Also, searching for a job often requires the use of a computer.

Lorenzen has been lucky. He has worked as a journeyman carpenter for 39 years with the same company, and his employer is aware of his illiteracy.

"What is important is what is produced," Lorenzen said. "That was always good. So this was how I got through life."

If Lorenzen sounds carefree, he only got to where he is today after great difficulties. His wife and two children have helped him cope with everyday life.

Opportunity from necessity

"Children are often the reason adults learn to read and write," explained Hubertus. "Another is the loss of a caregiver involved in the life of the functional illiterate."

The loss of assistance for making purchases, scheduling doctor's appointments and writing correspondence can force some functional illiterates to live independently.

A stroke of fate caused Lorenzen to go back to school. At 55, he was unable to work fully. He'd enjoyed working from home and didn't want to "mess up" by daring to set foot in a school again. But for the past two years, he has studied every morning with his peers.

"You always think you are completely alone," he said, "but that's not true."

Photo illustration of a person reading with the help of their index finger (Photo: dpa)
Gaining literacy can be an arduous process for working adultsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Themendienst

About 7.5 million adults in Germany cannot read or write properly, even though they have attended school for years. This shocking figure was revealed in a 2011 study by the University of Hamburg. The study also showed that roughly 57 percent of illiterate people are unemployed.

There are about 20,000 places throughout Germany that offer reading and writing courses for illiterate adults. Most are offered at adult education centers known as Volkshochschulen (VHS).

"When I started 25 years ago, I thought, now is the time to find Emsland's illiterate people," said Margret Heuking-Seeger of VHS Lingen/Ems. The institution was one of the first schools to offer courses for people with reading and writing difficulties in the district of Emsland in Lower Saxony.

To help people who couldn't read or write, the teacher posted ads in doctors' offices and parishes promoting the courses. The problem of illiteracy was evident in underdeveloped Ems, but illiterate people seemed reluctant to try the new courses.

"Many were afraid of being discovered," Heuking-Seeger said.

Margret Heuking-Seeger, of Volkshochschule Lingen.
Heuking-Seeger has worked with the illiterate for more than 25 yearsImage: VHS Lingen/ Ems

Many students today are as ashamed of their illiteracy as pupils in the past. So the school offers a separate entrance and rooms away from the facility's main doors.

"If they meet an acquintance in the hallway," Heuking-Seeger said, "they will pretend to be in the building just to use the toilet."

'You can always learn'

Lessons at the center in Emsland are tailored to students' individual needs. Once students have gotten over their shame - which can take years - practice sessions are held in libraries, the town hall or the tourist information office. The idea is for students to realize what new functions are within their reach.

"They should not forget that being unable to read and write means exclusion from cultural life," said Heuking-Seeger.

For his part, Lorenzen has discovered a passion for reading and writing. His friends have even suggested that he write a book. He might do so - but only if he finds the time, since the self-help group in Oldenburg keeps a special place in his heart.

"Age plays no role," Lorenzen said. "You can always learn."