Building a Bridge to Germany

Whether it’s a matter of managing labour migrants’ expectations, helping them "learn how to learn" or alleviating their uncertainties, teachers and trainers of teachers of German as a foreign language can play a vital part in pre-integration, i.e. in developing skills that will help them cope with the challenges of living and working in Germany.

By Kristina von Klot-Heydenfeldt

What’s the best way to help prepare people for the working world and everyday life in a foreign country with unfamiliar rules and unwritten codes of conduct? Questions along these lines are addressed in a study entitled “Annäherung, die im Heimatland beginnt” (“Integration Starts in the Home Country”), which came out this past March. One of its main findings is that, in addition to learning the language, foreign workers should learn intercultural skills, ideally before coming to Germany, for these skills are a decisive factor of their success in the German job market and their social integration. The study was prompted by the Federal Government's "Skilled Labour Strategy", according to which Germany will require an annual influx of some 700,000 migrant workers till the year 2030. The study makes a number of recommendations – addressed to a wide-ranging network, including educational institutions and private-sector agencies in the migrants’ countries of origin as well as German government ministries and various actors in the field of pre-integration – on the need for counselling, orientation and information to supplement German language instruction for prospective labour migrants. What the approaches mentioned in the study have in common is the need to take into account the labour migrants’ varying profiles with regard to occupation, educational and language level, learning skills, origins and migration experience. The conclusions to be drawn for the concrete development of pre-integration programmes and specific suggestions for relevant actors, especially teachers and teacher trainers, can be broken down into three areas of action and related practical considerations.

Expert counselling before departure
Expert counselling before departure | © adobe.stock

1. Reality check and managing expectations

Newcomers unfamiliar with a country and its inhabitants can soon be disappointed with jobs, salaries and neighbourhoods that don’t come up to their expectations. This is why misinformation, e.g. misleading job descriptions, the prevalence of which often varies considerably from one country to another, should be rectified as early as possible. Experience shows that successful integration hinges as much on critical reflection on one’s own expectations as on learning the language. A kind of reality check is imperative to give prospective labour migrants a concrete idea of everyday life in a foreign country, including everything from shopping in a supermarket and riding a train or bike in a big city to the tacit etiquette to be observed at a party at work or a parent-teacher meeting at school.

Practical considerations

Managing expectations is an important part of any pre-integration programme. In addition to acquainting prospective labour migrants with the rudiments of German culture, that involves an introduction to the German working world and how it is organized, e.g. with regard to professional standards, social systems and rights and duties in the workplace, as well as application procedures and the recognition of occupational qualifications. The reality check should also involve intercultural training to enable prospective labour migrants to compare their personal expectations with the real situation in Germany and to address questions like: Is it true that Germans tend to keep their distance from strangers? And: How does it feel to live permanently thousands of miles away from close relatives? Questions about finding housing and about leisure activities in Germany are also important.

As to the choice of formats, both online and face-to-face formats go down well. Online formats such as blogs, vlogs, Facebook pages, apps and online seminars, for example, have proved effective in opening doors across cultures. Intercultural training in communication and in how to apply for jobs is also much in demand, as is online counselling in test-taking and study skills. Many prospective migrants are interested in online access to German films, music and podcasts, as well as the possibility of being sponsored online by migrant workers in Germany.
On the other hand, classroom courses that allow for direct face-to-face interaction have proven effective in imparting complex information. Audio-visual aids are a particularly popular means of exploring German culture together with others outside the classroom. Conversation groups and conversation courses taught by native speakers not only boost learners’ confidence in their use of the spoken language, but also provide an opportunity to video-conference with experts in various professions who are already living and working in Germany.

Learning the language still opens the most doors.
Learning the language still opens the most doors. | © Goethe-Institut Bosnien und Herzegowina

2. Teaching the language and developing autonomy

Learning the language is still the most decisive factor, the key that opens the most doors for skilled foreign workers in Germany. This means learning both the technical terminology needed to communicate competently on the job and the everyday language needed to take part in social life in Germany. Another key skill mentioned in the study is "learning how to learn", i.e. the ability to obtain information autonomously. This is linked to the ability to handle one’s personal affairs by and large independently even in a foreign country. The object is to enable migrant workers to call on the right contacts for their concerns as soon as they arrive in Germany so as to relieve some of the pressure on local integration systems.

Practical considerations

It helps migrant workers gain greater autonomy if they receive an all-round initial orientation with regard to counselling and integration structures in Germany and if they can establish initial contact with local German companies. One programme along these lines is called "Career Days": German employers and counselling centres invite people in for one-on-one interviews to discuss their prospects in the German job market. Face-to-face exchange with potential employers is a way for them to get beyond anonymous job applications, to make their first personal contacts, to network and take proactive steps towards developing their own careers in Germany. The same goes for dealing with the German authorities: the better informed migrant workers are about whom to turn to for questions about labour regulations, for example, or how best to go about moving to Germany with their family, the more confidently they can handle the plethora of rules and regulations so typical of Germany.

Relieving insecurities about everyday life
Relieving insecurities about everyday life | © adobe.stock

3. Relieving insecurities

The study also found that the greater the cultural differences between the country of origin and Germany, the greater the need for pre-integration and the greater its added value. Whether it’s a matter of differences in education and training, in everyday working life or in the political system: when it comes to deciding whether or not to immigrate, uncertainties about future life in Germany weigh all the more heavily the more the basic social conditions differ between the two countries. The study points out that labour migrants are confronted with all sorts of practical questions about everyday life in Germany, such as: "How do I sort my trash correctly? What are German eating habits? How do I know what a reasonable rent for a flat is? How do I determine my tax bracket? Am I entitled to continuing education? Can I take payment in lieu of vacation?”

Practical considerations

In order to prevent culture shock, the study highly recommends promoting opportunities for direct exchange with compatriots who have already been through immigration. Thanks to their experience, they can serve as mentors and “buddies” who can credibly communicate the challenges labour migrants face abroad, help and advise them, and, last but not least, drive home to them that thorough preparation is a must. Another effective means of allaying the insecurities of migrant workers is for German entrepreneurs to invite them in for “job shadowing” and to sit in on German language classes. This gives them a look inside a German company, a sense of what it’s really like to work there, which can help allay their anxieties about a new life and a new job in a new country.

Given the considerable commitment involved in pre-integration for everyone concerned, it may be consoling to bear in mind that even the best preparation can provide little more than a foretaste of the multifarious challenges facing migrant workers in Germany. The key to successful pre-integration is to put across to prospective labour migrants that there’s no way to clear up all the questions and eventualities of life abroad in advance. But pre-integration can serve as a bridge between a prospective labour migrant’s place of origin and their destination, and a mainstay of Germany’s culture of welcoming people from all over the world.