What is it like to be economically illiterate?

Illiteracy : In the labyrinth of letters

Berlin - Four million people in Germany cannot read this text correctly - because they are illiterate. An estimated 160,000 of them live in Berlin, worldwide there are 760 million. They are often poor, isolated, and dependent on other people. Economic damage running into billions is the result. This is a reminder of the 45th International Day of Literacy, with which Unesco wants to draw attention to the problem on Wednesday.

"Illiteracy is expensive and harms the economy," says Andreas Brinkmann from the Federal Association for Literacy and Basic Education (BVAG). Because those who have learned little or cannot read and write are more likely to be unemployed. So he pays no taxes and receives social benefits from the state.

Poor education among young people, including illiteracy, could become extremely expensive for society in the years to come. In 2009, the Bertelsmann Foundation calculated that damage of 69 billion euros could arise in the next 20 years. Today one in five young people is poorly educated. Most are functionally illiterate, says BVAG expert Brinkmann - people who can only write and read at the level of a second grader even though they have attended school.

When illiterate people find a job, it is usually one that is poorly paid. But the offer in this area is getting smaller and smaller. "Simple workplaces are being rationalized away and filled with robots and computers," says BVAG managing director Peter Hubertus. “Writing and reading is now also necessary for simple jobs.” Forms have to be filled out, invoices written, work processes documented and safety or work instructions read.

Those who find it difficult to write and read often try to camouflage themselves. “Many negotiate deals with colleagues. For example, they take out the rubbish so that they don't have to write, ”says Brinkmann. So they made themselves dependent and lived in constant fear of being discovered. Illiteracy is not a reason for dismissal - at least as long as the quality of the work is good. However, some companies showed responsibility and paid their employees reading and writing courses, says Brinkmann.

Anyone who manages to use the Internet can visit special pages there. Around 250,000 people use the DVV's online learning portal, where they can explore the world of letters using images and sound. For advanced users there is a new social network called "AlphaVZ". Here you can make contact similar to Facebook.

The adult education centers also offer more than 3000 reading and writing courses per year. But too few illiterate people take part, according to the German Adult Education Association (DVV). Also because of the money: Two lessons cost up to five euros - that is too expensive for many of the often unemployed illiterate people. The Federal Employment Agency does not feel responsible. "Literacy is part of general education - that is a matter for the states, not the federal government," says BVAG boss Hubertus. There is a lack of coordination in this country, he criticizes. "In Germany there is no central body that specifically promotes literacy."

Not so in France - there has been a national agency since 2000 in which various ministries work together. It aims to combat functional illiteracy. Because Paris knows: teaching to read costs money, not to do it, but it is even more expensive.Severine Weber

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