Reading and writing is no child's play

By Misch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

About one in eight people in Luxembourg is functionally illiterate, i.e. has difficulty understanding the content of longer texts. Many of these people have learned over the years to hide their situation, to "put on an act" for a society that has long abandoned them. Five of them tell the story of how they found the courage to change their lives.

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"'G' and 'K', those are difficult letters when they are at the end of a word. Because there we can't hear the difference", says Danielle Rieff as she hands out the cloze worksheets. "The trick is to put the word in the plural, then you can hear the difference clearly: Anzug, Anzüge." (German for "suit") The three women and two men sitting across from her in a room at the Université Populaire in Esch-Belval have decided to take a step that has taken a lot of courage: they want to learn to read and write. "Finally", says Claire (all names of course participants changed by the editors) who is about to retire after the course. "If not now, when?"

What seems self-evident to much of society is anything but. About one in eight adults is functionally illiterate, meaning that they have difficulty reading and understanding the content of texts longer than a short sentence. For many of them, even single words are sometimes a challenge. Every instruction, every form, every newspaper article or timetable is an almost insurmountable hurdle. Older people are affected significantly more often than young people, and men, at 58.4 percent, slightly more often than women. Many are professionally active, often in the catering sector or as cleaners. This is also the case for the course participants: Marcel has been a baker for 39 years, Claire was a cleaner, Katie is currently in this profession. Functional illiteracy occurs when a person falls through several holes in the system: they would be able to read, but they never learned. There are many reasons for this and, as learners will report, usually several at the same time.

An everyday life without reading

All course participants have developed strategies to hide their situation: "After all, you are immediately portrayed as stupid if someone finds out that you cannot read or write. Because 'any child can do that'. It would be a horror if my neighbour read this …", Anne summarises her ongoing game of hide and seek for almost 60 years. At school she learned "to knit and work with macramé", but "not the things we really need. So we play theatre for people so they don't make fun of us." It's a facade that's not easy to keep up, after all, the ability to read is a prerequisite in almost every everyday action.

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