Language tests still controversial five years on | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 23.07.2018
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Language tests still controversial five years on

Before foreigners can join their spouses in Germany, they need to demonstrate a basic knowledge of the German language. The legislation has been in place for five years and is still highly controversial.

Vladimir Knack never asked himself if he should learn German when he moved to the country in the mid-90s. Only 13 at the time, he spent six months in a special language class then had to attend regular classes with German children. It was hard, he said, but still easier than his parents' generation had it.

"The younger people had a much easier time," he said. "The language came more or less automatically in kindergarten and then in school. But when you start to learn a foreign language at the age of 40 or 50, that's hard."

Maria Knack took German language lessons to move with her husband, Vladimir, to Germany

Maria Knack took German language lessons to move with her husband, Vladimir, to Germany

Minimum language requirements

Vladimir was studying for his high school diploma and had enrolled to study economics. Then he met Maria through exchange program with a partner university. Not long after he got his diploma he moved to Russia to be with her as part of a job with a German company. They spent one year in Minsk and decided to marry and head to Germany. They were also aware that Maria would need to learn German. "I went to a language school in Minsk and did some tests. First A1, then B1. But A1 was enough to allow me to move to Germany."

A1 is the first level of the German language exam system. At this level, people are able to find there way around and understand numbers, times and prices, as well as fill out basic forms. Since 2007, this has been the level of familiarity with German that foreign nationals who want to move to Germany to be with their partners.

The demand for German language lessons at the Goethe Institute has doubled since 2007

The demand for German language lessons at the Goethe Institute has doubled since 2007

Increasing demand for language lessons

The new requirement increased demand for German language lessons at language schools around the world. After an initial 65,000 spouses registered for the exam, the number has now settled to about 40,000 per year. A quarter of those people live in the cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Similarly, Turks make up by far the largest immigrant population in Germany.

The number of German courses offered in Turkish branches of the Goethe Institute has doubled since 2007, said Klaus Thomas. He is a specialist on the subject of the immigration of spouses at the Goethe Institute headquarters. "In terms of space and staff levels, we were at full capacity. We had to rent extra rooms to carry out exams, and then draft in examiners."

Marei Pelzer says the legislation fosters clichés and is a restrictive measure

Marei Pelzer says the legislation fosters clichés and is a restrictive measure

Rapid expansion

It soon became clear that it wouldn't make sense to put all spouses looking to move to Germany into regular German classes. Many of them were not used to intensive learning lessons or only attended school for a short period, with some unable to read and write in their native tongue. The Goethe Institute adapted their course options, produced new learning materials and sent their teachers on specialized training courses.

But all of these efforts to accommodate those wishing to move to Germany have not appeased critics of the language tests. Marei Pelzer from the organization Pro Asyl called the legislation a "very restrictive measure to prevent the unification of families," under which many refugee families also suffer.

Refugees come from regions torn by crisis or war where attending German classes is practically unthinkable. The law's intention of preventing arranged marriages through language tests, Pelzer said, is specious. It fosters cliches, which may apply to individual cases, but do not apply to the majority of people who wish to move to Germany. The legislation, according to Pelzer, "contravenes European law, is also incompatible with protection of families and is damaging, without having any recognizable benefits."

The legislation is a contravention of EU law, says Kenan Kolat

The legislation is a contravention of EU law, says Kenan Kolat

Still controversial

In fact, Germany is skirting a pre-existing legal framework. In 2010, the EU Commission determined that countries can place requirements - such as learning the native language - on individuals. That includes spouses who later immigrate, for example. That does not imply, however, that reunions of family members can be impaired. Put simply: It is a human rights violation when a country determines not to offer a visa to spouses because they can't meet the language requirements.

As a result of the EU Commission's assessment, the Netherlands abolished a family investigation prerequisite. Even thought non-governmental organizations and opposition parties would like the same done in Germany, the federal government sees no reason to change its law.


What bothers Turkey is a single clause, according to Kenan Kolat, the head of the Turkish Community in Germany.

"There is an Association Agreement between Turkey and the EU, whereby Turkey's relationship to the EU is seen as nearly equal to EU membership," he said. "As this regulation does not apply to EU citizens, it should not apply to Turkish citizens."

It is because of this European agreement with Turkey that Austria dropped its proof of language obligation for Turks.

A basic level of German language proficiency is important for integration, according to the German authorities. Hartmut Stein from the Bonn's Immigration Office said taking an introductory language course and paying course and examination fees before coming to Germany, was "reasonable." He also added that he doubted taking such courses increased people's willingness to integrate.

Carrots instead of sticks

The proof of language proficiency also came under criticism because it is not required of all nationalities. Spouses from the EU and some other countries, including the United States, Japan, and Australia, receive residency permits without language certificates.

That said, there is room for maneuver, Stein said. He said he recently ruled in the case of a woman who had cancer and wanted to move to be with her husband in Germany. "There you don't require proof of language proficiency, as the humanitarian aspect clearly outweighs all else. That's clear. A visa would be delivered as quickly as possible. There are exceptions."

Kolat said he would like to see Germany reward those who learn German rather than punish those who do not.

"Learn German quickly and you'll be naturalized sooner," he suggested. "That's a good and timely approach to the so-called integration question."

Author: Klaus Dahmann / cd / hw
Editor: Sean Sinico

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