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Illiteracy in Germany

October 4, 2011

People who cannot read nor write properly aren't only found in developing countries. In Germany, some 7.5 million people are illiterate and manage to hide their inability from friends and colleagues.

A hand holds a pen and writes down words
Some 7.5 million adults in Germany cannot read or write properlyImage: picture alliance/dpa

The characters on the page seem to be moving. They become blurry and indistinct, and they don't mean anything to the young boy trying to read. He struggles to grasp their meaning. It's just a bunch of confusing, motley characters to him.

That's how school felt for Tim-Thilo Fellmer when he tried to read and write in class. He used to fall under the category of the so-called functional illiterate people; those who are able to read and write single sentences, but fail to understand short texts such as work instructions.

Living in fear

In second grade, Fellmer was diagnosed with dyslexia. Today, as a successful author of children's books and owner of a publishing company, he is not too fond of his time in school. He said it was extremely stressful not being able to accomplish certain things in class, yet still manage to hide his inability at the same time.

A boy in front of ABC cards
Children who don't learn to write and read in school will face tough times as adultsImage: dpa

"I always had to use tricks in order to muddle through," he said looking back. "I always lived in fear that I was discovered and would attract attention."

Shocking statistics

According to a study done by the University of Hamburg, about 7.5 million people in Germany are illiterate. About 4.3 million of them are native German speakers. In Germany, more than 14 percent of people of employable ages can be considered functionally illiterate, the study said.

What shocked the researchers most was that their study showed more than ten percent of functionally illiterate Germans held an advanced degree of some kind.

More than 8,000 people between the ages of 18 and 64 were interviewed for the study.

Using tricks to get by

In order to get by in their daily routines, illiterate people develop certain tricks and excuses to avoid situations where they are put in a position where they have to read and write. When they need to fill out a form, they simply say they forgot their glasses or that they just injured their arm or their hand. They often memorize important texts that are crucial at work so that they don't have to read them.

By doing so, they are able to hide their secret for years – and even manage to hide it from friends, family members and at work. They fear to be socially excluded once their secret is out. Signing up for a literacy course means potentially revealing their predicament.

Illiteracy is still considered a taboo in Germany. The adult education center in Bonn doesn't put journalists in contact with people who are attending literacy classes anymore. According to employees at the adult education center, oftentimes these interviewed adults stop attending literacy classes after being interviewed, even though that means they'll miss a great opportunity.

Small class attendance

Peter Hubertus, founding member and general manager of the Association of Literacy and Basic Education, knows how hard it is for illiterate people to decide to enroll in a literacy class. "Only about 20,000 adults are attending reading and writing classes."

Peter Hubertus
Only about 20,000 adults attend literacy classes, said Peter HubertusImage: DW

But most of the literacy classes are not tailored to meet the exact needs of those affected, Hubertus said. Because classes at adult education centers are usually only offered three to four hours a week.

That might be working for people who have a job, but for unemployed illiterate people that's just too little. They have more time on their hands and also need better and more intensive learning opportunities.

"It's plain to see that a lack reading and writing abilities is often the reason that the unemployed are not working anymore," Hubertus said.

He points to corresponding German classes for migrants. Those extensive classes with a maximum of 1,245 hours are cheaper, sometimes even offered for free. The same conditions should apply for illiterate people whose native language is German, Hubertus said.

Help in many forms

Even though the literacy classes are often less than ideal, Tim-Thilo Fellmer took advantage of this learning experience. He tried several other jobs after he finished his apprenticeship in motor mechanics, but he couldn't really excel because he couldn't read nor write properly. In his mid-twenties his desire to tackle his problem grew stronger and stronger. He attended a class with the adult education center, and continued to take classes there. Later on, a private tutor, friends and his girlfriend helped.

A blackboard with drawings of a car and a tree and words in German
Three to four hours of class a week is not enough, said Peter HubertusImage: DW

"I also used technical devices, such as computer programs to become literate," Fellmer said.

Who is responsible?

Many illiterate adults say it's their own fault. But Fellmer points to the educational system. Packed classes with a lot of students don't leave room for individual support which is crucial for children with difficulties reading and writing, he said.

It took 10 years until he was able to gain sufficient skills in reading and writing. It was a long time that eventually paid off, he said. He can only advise others to follow his lead. "It's worth it because you'll get so much good in return."

Author: Mehrnoosh Entezari / sst
Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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