Education and Language

Learning German – For Love. How Women Benefit From Courses that Prepare Them to Join Their Husbands in Germany

Prospective immigrants into Germany from non-EU countries must now acquire basic language skills. The pre-integration courses run by the Goethe-Institut are mainly attended by women. What do they learn? And how do they cope after they arrive in Germany?

The Knotts | © privateSakhorn Butchanon and Jürgen Knott were married on 11 October 2551. On our calendar, their marriage took place in 2008, but for Buddhists, year numbering starts more than 500 years before the birth of Christ. Sakhorn is known as Lilly, because of her fair skin. Every Thai is given a nickname soon after birth and tends to go by that name rather than their given name. Lilly is 41 and comes from Northern Thailand. She grew up in the village of Dong Kheng, where her parents still live. The couple had a Buddhist wedding in the family home. Lilly and her husband fetch a photo album.

The photos show monks in saffron robes and the family and villagers. It must have been a beautiful ceremony. It is the second marriage for both of them. They both say that they never imagined ever marrying someone from a different culture. It’s not just the distance (8,700 kilometres): Dong Kheng in Thailand and Waldsassen in the German Oberpfalz region are worlds apart. The Knotts met closer to home, in the Czech Republic, in a traditional Thai massage studio where Lilly was working. She came to Europe because she could earn more money here than at home. They did not marry immediately, but they decided very soon that they wanted to live together in Germany and that Lilly should learn German. However, her visa application to the German Embassy in Bangkok was rejected. Before she could join her husband in Waldsassen, a small town with just 7,000 residents, she needed to acquire basic German language skills in her own country – a requirement of Germany’s Immigration Act for citizens of most non-EU countries since 2007 and one which still arouses controversy. The question is whether it is politically motivated, or whether it brings genuine practical benefits for learners.

Listening is the Hardest Part

Lilly Knott signed up for the “Start Deutsch 1” course at the Goethe-Institut in Bangkok. The examination – developed by the Goethe-Institut and used worldwide – corresponds to level one (A1) on the scale of competence laid down in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. What was the hardest part for Lilly? She doesn’t hesitate: “Listening!” Students are required to listen and understand what they hear in an every-day situation, such as a public announcement over a loudspeaker, and then complete various written exercises based on what they have heard. “The Germans speak really quickly!” says Lilly with a smile.

After the German Government made the acquisition of language skills a prerequisite for spouses wishing to join their husbands or wives in Germany, demand for the pre-integration courses at the Goethe-Institut in almost all the countries concerned soared. In Thailand, for example, it increased fourfold. However, since mid 2009, it has fallen back by 10 per cent, says Dr Ulrike Lewark, Head of the Language Service at the Goethe-Institut in Bangkok, probably because many new language training providers are now running courses in the provinces. Even so, more than 1,500 women attended the courses and took the examination at the Goethe-Institut in Bangkok in 2009 – and 82 per cent of them passed. The pass rate among external examination candidates who only come to the Goethe-Institut to take the test is much lower.

Lilly Knott also failed the examination at her first attempt. The second time round, she scored 66 per cent – equivalent to an ”adequate” grade, and a massive achievement given that her parents were rice farmers and she only attended school for seven years. She also missed out on much of her schooling due to prolonged illness. She taught herself to read and write when she moved to Bangkok. “I learned from newspapers”, she says. In Bangkok, she worked in a German-Thai sausage factory and later opened a restaurant with her first husband. After that, she trained in Thai massage. For a while, she was the personal physiotherapist of the President of East Timor.

When Lilly came to learn German, she had to start from scratch. She began by attending a four-week literacy course to learn the Latin alphabet. This preparatory course was “very important”, says Lilly. Then she attended two language courses, each lasting four weeks and comprising 80 teaching units. In addition, she had private lessons in the evenings with her teacher, Marisa Fritzenwallner, to go over what she had learned. Otherwise, she says, she could not have managed the workload.

Many People are Not Accustomed to Formal Learning

“The students are very hard-working”, says Marisa Fritzenwallner, a Thai by birth. “But many of them are not accustomed to formal learning. At first, you have to tell them what they need to write down – or not.” It’s not that the examination is too difficult, she says, but many women – most of the students on the courses in Bangkok are female and between 18 and 50 years of age – want to take the exam too early as they are so keen to get to Germany. She encourages her students to be patient. She is rigorous in her approach, especially when it comes to pronunciation: “If someone can’t pronounce the ‘r’ correctly, I’ll get them to repeat it over and over again”. Sometimes, it helps to practise with a mouthful of water. “She’s a good teacher. And strict!”, says Wassana Redl, née Suraket, laughing. She passed the exam at her first attempt and scored 71 per cent, saving herself time and money. The course costs 7,500 baht – twice the monthly salary in some of Thailand’s rural regions and equivalent to around 190 euros. As a rule, the money is sent from Germany.

Wassana – known as May – now lives with her husband in Filderstadt-Bonlanden, near Stuttgart airport. She comes from Ang Thong, 200 km from Bangkok. In Thailand, she was a book-keeper for the ”Empower Foundation”, a charity which among other things provides assistance for tsunami victims. In Stuttgart, she is a maid. It’s hard work, says May, but she likes living here. Her 14-year-old daughter from her first marriage will be joining her soon. So what was it like when she first arrived – could she make herself understood, at least at a basic level? Yes, she says, and smiles. But her husband shakes his head: “She didn’t know enough German to buy a bread roll!” But the couple spoke English to each other at first, which he admits did not help. They finally switched to German six months ago.

Drama Cushions the Culture Shock

Anyone who has passed the A1 examination understands around 650 German words and can actively use around 300 of them. But of course, this is only the first step towards mastering the language. And although the courses help students prepare for daily life in Germany with exercises about shopping or filling in forms, they are no substitute for real-life experience. Many of the women – and the men – who marry a German have never been to Germany and have no idea what to expect. Şükriye Dönmez offers practical assistance to prepare them for the potential culture shock. An actor and cultural education specialist who grew up in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, she initiated and runs an additional drama-based programme at the Goethe-Institut in Istanbul to support the language tuition. And there is no shortage of interest, for the largest group of examination candidates come from Turkey – 10,775 in 2009.

At first, Erika Broschek, Director of the Language Service in Istanbul, was sceptical whether the additional offer would bring any benefits. But now she’s enthusiastic about it. The students are very keen to write their own dialogues and “are much less apprehensive about speaking”, she says. Şükriye Dönmez developed a multi-step approach which uses drama to put students at their ease and get them talking. At the end, they perform short sketches about situations in which the two cultures collide. “At the supermarket, for example: there’s a charge for a plastic bag in Germany, but in Turkey, it’s free. And that can quickly lead to misunderstandings.” Or on the bus: “In Turkey, you call out to the driver when you want to get off. In Germany, you have to wait for the bus to reach the stop.”

I didn't Want to Learn German

Gönül Erol Kara, one of Şükriye Dönmez’s former students, recently experienced her first ”culture conflict” in her new home city of Stuttgart, when she went to help up a child who had fallen over – the normal reaction in Turkey. But the child’s father was quite rude to her, saying that the boy had to learn to stand up on his own. She laughs. Gönül Kara is a self-confident 35-year-old woman from Istanbul, where she met her husband – a German with a Turkish background – last year. She makes no secret of the fact that at first, she didn’t see why she had to learn German before she could get a visa – after all, her husband speaks Turkish. But she learned the hard way that language skills are useful. Soon after her arrival, she took some photos of the Turkish Consulate-General in Stuttgart – an act which resulted in the police being called and Kara having to explain herself with her few words of German. “After the examination in Istanbul, a lot of the students thought, that’s it, I’ve made it”, she says. “But the real test starts when you get here.” It’s about becoming more independent.

“You Need this for Yourselves”

It was also helpful, says Gönül Kara, that the language course in Istanbul gave her the chance to form friendships which sustain her now that she is living in Germany. Best of all, she has a good friend living just 10 minutes away. The women from Thailand also keep in contact, at least by telephone, with other Thai women living in Cologne, Freiburg and Ingolstadt. These networks help to ward off feelings of isolation. One problem, however, is the examination stress, complains Kara, even though the Goethe-Institut in Istanbul offers additional psychological support. “All the students on the course were totally focussed on the exam”, she says, with her mother-in-law translating from Turkish. And as Şükriye Dönmez points out: “This kind of pressure instantly puts people off learning the language.” She would prefer a system of mandatory attendance which sends out the message that: “You need this for yourselves.” However, the supporters of the current system make it very clear that the aim is to prevent potential forced marriages and, in the worst-case scenario, organised human trafficking.

It’s the women themselves who provide the strongest argument in favour of the courses. The courses motivate them to continue learning in Germany. If there is no Goethe-Institut locally, they can attend the local adult education college. Gönül Erol Kara intends to start again at A1 level now that she lives in Stuttgart, simply as a refresher course, and because the local course will fill in some of the gaps. She has always worked, she says, and as soon as her language skills are good enough, she plans to find a job. In the meantime, May Redl has passed the B1 examination – the advanced level – as well as an orientation course to give her a basic knowledge of German history and politics.

Lilly Knott has also passed the B1 examination at the adult education college in nearby Tirschenreuth. The local newspaper published a photograph of her and the other successful candidates. As soon as their daughter goes to nursery, she intends to apply for a job as a Thai masseuse in the Sibyllenbad, a spa and wellness centre in Neualbenreuth. Lilly, who was “sized up” – the couple agree that this is the right word – by people in the small community of Waldsassen when she first arrived, is making progress every day. Now, if her neighbour talks to her and invites them over for dinner, she understands and can tell her husband. “I love Bavarian food”, she says. And smiling, she adds: “And the snow!”

Patrick Wildermann
has worked as a freelance journalist since 1994 and has lived and worked in Berlin since 2003. He is a contributor to the culture section of Tagesspiegel, as well as to tip city magazine and Theater der Zeit, writing news, reviews and profiles of figures in the arts and culture scene.

Translation: Hillary Crowe
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V.
April 2011

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