Integration of skilled immigrants
How to overcome the Language Barrier

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How important is language acquisition to the integration of skilled immigrants? This is the subject of “Deutsch lernen für ein Leben in Deutschland” (Learning German for a Life in Germany), a report on the latest research findings and studies by the Goethe-Institut. The bottom line: Early and well-tailored language-learning programmes are a must for a modern host country.

Whether it comes to successful job interviews or making new social contacts, one of the major hurdles facing immigrants who come to live and work in Germany from countries outside the EU is the language barrier. The brief analysis "Deutsch lernen für ein Leben in Deutschland (Learning German for a Life in Germany) sheds light on how language acquisition affects the integration process in the group of foreign skilled workers and employees who leave their home country voluntarily and in a planned manner. It’s based on the latest academic research as well as surveys and evaluations carried out by the Goethe-Institut between 2012 and 2022. The backdrop to these considerations is the labour shortages caused by demographic change in Germany, which now make the country dependent on foreign skilled labour.

A migration process beset with challenges and contradictions

Strategies for the development of a modern host country, as reflected in the Skilled Immigration Act of 2020, inevitably involve some conflicting goals. One important question is: How can the demand for prior language and intercultural skills be reconciled with the interest in having to face the lowest possible barriers to starting a new life in Germany? There’s no denying that expanding language training programmes abroad alone is no longer sufficient to attract more skilled workers. Studies show that it’s also important to lower barriers that deter many people from coming here. This is one of many problems besetting the integration process. To provide a clearly structured overview of the various challenges involved, this summary breaks the migration process down into three phases: preparation, transition, and integration.

Language acquisition and migration: the appeal of learning German

Many people in non-EU countries want to move to Germany. The principal motives mentioned in surveys are the good job and career opportunities here as well as the high quality of life and security. The most frequently cited obstacles to emigration, on the other hand, are concerns about finding work in the host country, insufficient means to afford the move and inadequate language skills. The fact is that the more foreign the German language seems to foreigners, the harder it is for them to learn it – in script, pronunciation and structure. This makes it all the more important, according to the German Council of Science and Humanities, to expand early language support services, as early attendance of language courses has a positive effect on the decision to migrate. Another recommendation is to always take into account the situations, motivations and needs of the various target groups in designing language-learning programmes.

By expanding these programmes, the Goethe-Institut will continue to play an important role in the immigration process. Skilled workers from countries that have at least one Goethe-Institut tend to have better German language skills upon entry. Not only that, but increasing the number of Goethe-Instituts there tends to correlate with increased immigration rates from those countries. Multilingualism is firmly established in many national education systems, and interest in German as a second foreign language (after English) is growing in some regions. One of the recommendations of the report is to boost efforts to improve the image of the German language abroad.

Transitioning to Germany: Why language skills pay off

In the transition period, skilled workers often spend several months preparing for exams, applying for visas and looking for jobs. Migrants who were interviewed after coming to Germany confirmed that it is helpful to get a realistic picture of what living and working in Germany involves whilst they’re still living in their native country. The greater the differences between the country of origin and the host country, the more important pre-integration programmes are to help prospective emigrants bridge the gap, with courses that take local cultural and political influences into consideration more than they have in the past. Integration courses have proved effective in familiarizing migrants with German behavioural norms and values. Mentoring programmes and so-called “tandem partnerships”, in which each partner teaches the other their language, also play an important and community-building role.

What are the hurdles facing prospective skilled workers at this early stage of integration? According to a 2022 OECD survey, they want more support not only in job searching and handling immigration formalities, but also in language learning. It turns out that German language skills acquired in their country of origin soon pay off in their new everyday lives, whether it’s a matter of looking for a job or a flat or dealing with the German authorities and other administrative offices. Recent studies also show that a command of English can make up for a lack of German language skills in some professions, e.g. in highly skilled jobs in the IT sector, where English is the principal lingua franca. Against this backdrop, the German Council of Experts on Integration and Migration (SVR) recommends making allowance for English language skills in drafting the new Chancenkarte (“Opportunity Card” visa for immigrant workers) for 2024.

Entering the workforce: What promotes integration

According to the latest research, language skills and professional advancement are mutually reinforcing elements of a virtuous circle. Conversely, immigrants who don’t speak German seldom find a traineeship/apprenticeship or a higher-skilled job, seldom get opportunities for professional advancement and often find themselves stuck in low-paid jobs. The occupation-orientated language support programmes of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) are particularly well suited for immigrants entering the German workforce: these programmes, which build on integration courses and run from language proficiency level B1 to C2, are considered very important by 75 per cent of German employers. The key aspect here is that these courses distinguish between the different language skills required by different target groups. For example, while verbal communication on an equal footing seems a must in the health care sector, other qualities are required in, say, the construction industry. On the other hand, job seekers with inadequate language skills are not necessarily excluded from the labour market, but may remain unintegrated as a result. Studies show that skilled workers with a poor command of German tend to be hired for jobs that don’t require any formal qualifications or social interaction, but are physically demanding. Moreover, their precarious terms of employment allow them very little free time to attend language courses in order to improve their German and make social contacts.

To sum up, the report “Learning German for a Life in Germany” finds that good language skills are not only indispensable for successful entry into the German workforce, but also for long-term career advancement and remaining in Germany. Language skills are the key to forming social contacts and networks – and, consequently, for participation and integration into German society. Another takeaway is that integration is a process that makes demands on both sides, on immigrants and native Germans alike.