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As illiteracy is called cultural, educational or psychogenic individual deficits in reading or writing up to complete failure in these disciplines. If, on the other hand, an entire linguistic or cultural community is affected, which has become very rare in the course of the 20th century, one speaks of a lack of writing, a culture of orality, or orality . The lack of literacy anchored in a culture is called illiteracy .

From a historical point of view, the literacy rate of the world population has risen dramatically in the last few centuries. While only 12% of the world's people could read and write in 1820, the proportion has now reversed: Only 13% of the world's population are still illiterate. Over the past few decades, the global literacy rate has increased by around 4 percentage points every 5 years - from 42% in 1960 to 86% in 2015.

In 2011, according to a study by the University of Hamburg, around 4% or 2 million of adults in Germany were totally illiterate and more than 14% or 7.5 million were functionally illiterate.

Functional illiteracy or illiteracy : the writer cannot express himself in a way that is felt to be appropriate in a social context

The opposite of the illiterate , the inability to read, is the alphabet.

Definitions and differentiations

The process from illiteracy to literacy is called literacy . The illiteracy rate is the proportion of the adult population who cannot read or write. The equivalent is the literacy level.

There are several definitions of illiteracy:

  • Primary illiteracy is when a person can neither write nor read and has never learned either (see also written language acquisition ). In developing countries and emerging economies , the illiteracy rate is higher than in industrialized countries , but there it decreases drastically with social progress and literacy increases.
  • Secondary illiteracy is a term that has been used since the 1970s in cases where the skills to use language in writing have been forgotten. One of the reasons for this is that written and print media have lost their importance ( telephone and screen media have increased).
  • Semi-illiteracy is when people can read but not write.
  • As functional illiteracy or illiteracy , the inability is called, writing in everyday life so to use as it is considered in a social context for granted. Functionally illiterate people are people who recognize letters and are quite able to write their name and a few words, but who either do not understand the meaning of a somewhat longer text or do not understand it quickly and effortlessly enough to be of practical use . There is no fixed line between "understanding" and "not understanding".
    In many industrialized countries, too, there are so-called functional illiterates, although they can show that they have attended a generally accessible education system, but have in the meantime partially or completely forgotten the skills that were more or less poorly learned there.

Illiteracy and Disability

Illiteracy can be caused by a disability, especially an intellectual disability or long-term or chronic illness, or it can be linked to the complex known as learning disabilities . In Germany, it is not considered a form of disability according to current legislation, although current studies have shown that illiteracy leads to a significant impediment to the personal and social integration of the individual.

The hopelessness of being illiterate and finding a job on the labor market that enables an income above the reference value mentioned below is not legally considered a disability.

Rights of illiterate people in Germany

Social law

As in accordance with Section 44 (2) sentence 1 SGB ​​VI, only those insured are deemed to be unable to work who, due to illness or disability, are unable to work regularly or to achieve wages or earnings that exceed one seventh of the monthly reference amount for the foreseeable future , and since the respective labor market situation must not be taken into account (see Section 44, Paragraph 2, Clause 2, No. 2 SGB VI), illiterate people who cannot find any (more than marginal) work are not entitled to a disability pension.

Citizenship Law

In 2007 the Hamburg Senate launched a Federal Council initiative to set uniform standards for language skills in naturalization procedures in Germany; the then CDU citizenship deputy Alexander-Martin Sardina addressed the issue of naturalization of illiterates then in the state parliament. According to a ruling by the Administrative Court of Baden-Württemberg in Mannheim in February 2009, a foreign illiterate person in Germany has no right to be naturalized. Social, political and societal integration requires the ability to understand local media and communicate with the German population. For a sufficient integration it is to be demanded that he can independently check written declarations, which are made in his name, at least according to their essential content for correctness.

Illiteracy by country

Illiteracy by country (UNESCO study from 2002)


The "Leo. Level-One Study “determined a value of 7.5 million (around 14 percent) functionally illiterate among German-speaking people of working age in Germany. On the basis of this data, the Neukölln association "Reading + Writing eV" calculated that 316,000 people in Berlin cannot read and write properly. The Adult Education Association estimates an unreported number of 164,000 for Berlin.


In France , on November 28, 2013, a study was published by the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE). According to this, around 11 percent of all French people are illiterate. In the Île-de-France region , two thirds of these people did not go to school in France; they are immigrants .


In Italy in 1861 (at the time the state was founded) the rate of illiteracy ( analfabetismo ) was 78 percent (Sardinia, Sicily and Calabria around 90%; Piedmont and Lombardy around 60%). According to a census ( censimento generale ) in 1951, the quotas were as follows: Piedmont 3%, Aosta Valley 3%, Liguria 4%, Lombardy 2%, Veneto 7%, Trentino-South Tyrol 1%, Friuli-Venezia Giulia 4%, Emilia -Romagna 8%, Tuscany 11%, Marche 13%, Umbria 14%, Latium 10%, Abruzzo and Molise 19%, Campania 23%, Apulia 24%, Basilicata 29%, Calabria 32%, Sicily 24% and Sardinia 22% .

Film documentaries

See also

- Legasthenie, Dyslexie, Agrafie -


Web links

Wiktionary: Illiteracy  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


Institutions in Germany

Institutions in Austria

Institutions in Switzerland

Individual evidence

  1. Compare also spoken language vs. Written language .
  2. ^ Literacy - Our World in Data , Historical Development of Reading Skills. The data are available under the Creative Commons BY license. , accessed on May 12, 2019
  3. Education: 7.5 million Germans are illiterate. In: February 28, 2011, accessed February 22, 2019 .
  4. Anke Grotlüschen, Wibke Riekmann: leo. - Level-One study of literacy among adults at the lower competence levels. (PDF; 3 MB) In: Universität Hamburg, February 2011, p. 2 , accessed on August 19, 2020 .
  5. L 3 RJ 15/03 Landessozialgericht Berlin - judgment of July 22, 2004
  6. Small written question "Naturalization of illiterate women and men in Hamburg" from MP Alexander-Martin Sardina and answer from the Senate. (PDF) Printed matter 18/6614. Hamburg Citizenship - 18th electoral term, July 17, 2007, accessed on December 4, 2015 .
  7. Integration: Illiterate people have no right to naturalization - WELT. In: Retrieved February 22, 2019 .
  8. ^ National Decade for Literacy and Basic Education - BMBF. In: Retrieved February 22, 2019 .
  9. 316,000 Berliners are illiterate - BZ Berlin. In: November 27, 2013, accessed February 22, 2019 .
  10. Jonathan Brendler: Les personnes en difficulté à l'écrit: des profils régionaux variés - Insee Première - 1475. In: 2011, accessed on February 22, 2019 (French).
  11. ^ En France, 11% of the 16 à 65 ans en «situation préoccupante face à l'écrit». In: November 28, 2013, accessed February 22, 2019 (French).
  12. ^ Roberto Sani, Maestri e istruzione popolare in Italia tra Otto e Novecento , Vita e Pensiero, Milano, 2003, pagg. 81-84