Love, Language and the Goethe-Institut
The much-criticised language tests for non-EU nationals wishing to join their partners in Germany are better than their reputation – and should remain in place.
Virtually no other aspect of German integration policy has aroused as much ongoing controversy as the transitional legislation introduced in 2007, which requires women (and men!) from non-EU countries who wish to join their partners in Germany to demonstrate basic German language skills – as soon as they apply for a visa. “No love without German!” is how many immigrants describe it. They criticise the rule on the grounds that it discriminates against certain groups of immigrants – and fails to address one of the real issues, which is to prevent forced marriages. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) has now brought forward draft legislation to abolish the tests.
Senior managers at the Goethe-Institut thought long and hard about the new legislation. Should the Goethe-Institut support its implementation, and if so, how? As the flagship institution for the promotion of German culture and education abroad, Goethe prizes its political independence, and its public acceptance is partly based on the fact that it is not bound to any government mandate. But without the Goethe-Institut’s extensive network of German language courses – offering learners a wide choice of classes and examinations – the new legislation was bound to fail. So we decided to play our part: working with almost 400 examination partners worldwide, we aim to keep teaching and examination standards high. For many prospective immigrants, the language test is a major obstacle – creating challenges for the Goethe-Institut in fulfilling this expanded remit. But other aspects of its new role seemed even more complicated. How was the Goethe-Institut supposed to help prevent forced marriages, for example? There was bemusement among staff when the new legislation came into force in 2007.
Nonetheless, everywhere in the world, the Goethe-Institut has faced up to the challenge. After all, it was always part of the Goethe-Institut’s remit to prepare immigrants – students and academics, artists, journalists and executives – for residence in Germany by offering them language classes. But the new target groups are different from the established clientele. For these new groups, passing the exam is personal: it opens the way for a new life with their partner in Germany. What’s more, many of them have very little experience of learning a new language – and for a few, it’s their first chance to develop any literacy skills.
If the language test is to have a positive impact on immigrants’ prospects for the future, additional measures are required to support their learning. They need specially qualified teachers, courses must be tailored to their individual requirements, and in some cases, classes must be provided to equip students with the literacy skills they need before they can start to learn German. Very often, students have to move to a new area, far from their own homes, to attend the language classes. For these students, their new life in a “foreign” place begins long before they arrive in Germany. In these difficult circumstances, psychological support is often the only way to help them withstand the pressure from partner and family – and the expectations that students have of themselves.
Now that these courses have been up and running for five years, however, it is clear that what was originally a bureaucratic requirement has created new opportunities in education policy. The courses are well-received: a recent study shows that looking back, almost 90 per cent of immigrants who have attended a pre-integration language course in their home country regard it as very helpful or helpful in preparing them for a life in Germany.
This impression is confirmed by professionals in the immigration authorities: they report that women in particular are now better informed about their rights and opportunities, are more highly motivated, and are more demanding when choosing their integration course. And of course, they have better communication skills. They gain from the experience of successful learning – and it’s not just about improving their language skills. This, perhaps, is the real benefit of the language courses. Some of our students find out, for the first time in their lives, that education is empowering, boosting their self-confidence and helping them master the challenge of starting a new life in a new country.
One challenge remains, however: on average, 11 months elapse between taking the test in the home country and starting an integration course in Germany. In some cases, it can take years. The Goethe-Institut is setting up a range of free online services to bridge this gap, so that the skills acquired in the home country are not forgotten by the time the immigrant joins the integration course in Germany.
Being obliged to learn basic German language skills in the home country increases immigrants’ prospects of integration when they arrive in Germany. Perhaps that’s stating the obvious. As for preventing forced marriages: well, of course, the new rules only do that to a very limited extent. There are indeed some students – mainly women – who deliberately fail the exam time and time again until the marriage is called off. But this kind of anecdotal evidence is not enough. That’s another reason why the 2007 legislation is the subject of debate. The fact that the Netherlands introduced a similar language requirement, only to abolish it in 2011, is seen by many as a sign that the German provisions will ultimately fail as well. Besides the SPD’s draft legislation, this is the tenor of a recent motion tabled by the Left Party in the German Bundestag. What’s more, the Federal Constitutional Court will soon have to rule on a constitutional complaint on the issue as well.
is the former Head of the Language Department at the Goethe-Institut's Head Office in Munich, and now serves as the Director of the Goethe-Institut in Athens.
Translation: Hillary Crowe
Reprinted in translation with kind permission of the Süddeutsche Zeitung