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Sprechen Sie deutsch?

Marcus Lütticke/ sst, cbAugust 10, 2013

Foreigners who marry a German are allowed to live with their spouse in Germany - if they are able to speak German. The EU Commission views this as a violation of European law.

A bride with light skin and red hair kisses a dark-skinned groom with black hair. (Photo: Gina Smith)
Image: Gina Smith - Fotolia.com

The most important thing for Asefe Weindlmayr was to move to Munich quickly so she could live with her husband. But even though they are married, moving in with him was by no means an easy task. Weindlmayr wasn't allowed to move to Germany because she didn't speak German.

According to Germany's Residence Act, which came into force in August 2007, men and women who want to reunite with their spouses in Germany have to prove they have a basic understanding of the German language.

But Weindlmayr only knew a couple of words. She worked as a project manager for a German company in Teheran, which is how she met her husband. In addition to her mother tongue, Persian, she also speaks Arabic and English. The 26-year-old is well-educated and experienced in learning foreign languages, so it should have been fairly easy for her to acquire the skill in order to move to Munich. "But I used to work full-time and my job required me to travel a lot," she told DW. "That's why I wasn't able to regularly attend a German class."

Portrait Asefe Weindlmayr. (Photo: private)
Weindlmayr managed to pass the German testImage: Asefe Weindlmayr

Watching TV and learning online

Weindlmayr tried to learn German on her own after work. She watched German television and made use of DW's online German classes. After three months of intensive preparation, she decided to take the language test.

"I was really stressed out and under a lot of pressure, because I knew that this was the only chance I had to finally live with my husband," she said. The test went well, and after another three months, the paperwork was finalized and she could finally travel to her husband in Germany.

According to the EU Commission, such exams violate EU law. In May, the EU launched an investigation - in this first stage, Germany is expected to comment on the matter.

Essentially, it's a matter of interpretation. According to the EU's regulations on family reunification, member states are allowed to demand certain "measures of integration" from foreign spouses. That's what the German government says it's doing.

EU Commission building in Brüssel. (Photo: picture alliance/ Arco Images GmbH)
The EU Commission claims Germany's rules for spouse immigration violates EU lawImage: picture alliance / Arco Images GmbH

Language classes not accessible everywhere

But the German residence act causes problems for many married couples, according to Swenja Gerhard, a lawyer working for the IAF, an association trying to help bi-national families. The IAF argues a mandatory test before being allowed to enter Germany would be wrong.

"In many countries there's not even the possibility to visit language schools," Gerhard said, adding that some people might not have access to electricity or the Internet. That would stop them from learning the language via online classes; others might not be capable to acquire language skills on their own.

That's why she advocates for mandatory language classes in Germany, which she said are more effective and easier to implement. Such classes already exist, but are usually available only after basic language skills have been documented.

The Goethe Institute, which offers German language classes abroad, has seen demand for their services rise significantly since the residency act was passed in 2007. "All of a sudden, we had a new, unfamiliar task at our hands," Klaus-Thomas Frick from the Goethe Institute said. "Working with this new target group and meeting their needs was an enormous challenge, also methodologically speaking."

Success rate varies widely

How successful participants are with the test varies from country to country. In 2012, more than half the participants in Bangladesh, Kosovo, Pakistan and Ethiopia failed. In South Africa, Croatia, Ukraine and Russia, more than 80 percent passed.

Frick said it's extremely difficult to acquire German skills in some parts of the world. But he still said he thinks learning the language before entering Germany makes sense.

The final decision on the legality of the German language tests will most likely be made by the European Court of Justice. Weindlmayr won't be paying attention to the proceedings anymore. She has already moved on to the next step and even found a job in her new home country.