Walter Peters is one of fifteen immigrants to Germany learning the language of their new home at Cologne's FAW training center. Peters, an ethnic German from Russia, and his Arab, Moroccan, Polish and Turkish classmates are among the first people to take part in Germany's so-called integration courses. Initial reactions to the 2,300 such classes currently underway have been positive.
"At the moment, I'm positively surprised," said Gudrun Harhoff, head of FAW's language department. "I really have the feeling that we have groups that are very motivated and can also learn. The thing that's fundamentally positive is that all immigrants can take advantage of language instruction."
Indeed, until the immigration law came into effect in January, publicly financed language courses were only available for certain people, such as ethnic Germans, foreign workers and refugees. Foreign spouses of German citizens had to pay for language lessons out of their own pockets. But now all immigrants with permanent or long-term residence may enroll in the classes. And the German authorities can oblige people whose language skills are weak to take part in the classes.
Learn German or else
"We know there are many children who don't speak German when they start school," said Erwin Schindler, who heads the integration course department at the Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees. "We know there are districts in big cities that practically have their own foreign population which doesn't speak German. And lacking linguistic skills in some cases leads to problems such as unemployment, and to social problems. Thus, it was obvious a solution had to be found to more intensively promote participation in these things."
It's up to the state immigration authorities to decide whether a person's German isn't up to scratch. If officials notice that applicants for residence permits or renewals cannot communicate in simple German, they send them to language classes. Officials at unemployment offices can also recommend foreign jobseekers and social welfare recipients for the courses, and if they refuse to take the classes their benefits will be cut.
The measures are meant to help people who haven't yet become part of German society to become more quickly integrated. According to Schindler, some people just have to be forced to do what's good for them.
"The whole integration course should be seen under the heading 'encourage and demand.' And part of encouraging is also obliging someone to participate, and part of it is also -- according to one's ability -- paying an individual contribution for the course," Schindler said.
People who take the classes pay one euro ($1.20) per hour. The fee is waived for those who can't afford it -- which includes most of the participants.
The integration courses are made up of two parts: 600 hours of language instruction and 30 hours of an orientation class. In the latter, foreigners learn about Germany's history, culture and legal system.
After her experiences working with ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union, Gudrun Harhoff from Cologne's FAW pointed out that one of the strengths of the new courses is the requirement that the participants are a heterogeneous mixture, bringing together people who speak different languages, so that German becomes their means of communication.
All in all, Harhoff has only identified one deficiency to the new system: "These three groups, refugees, asylum seekers and ethnic Germans, who benefited from employment office backing experience a reduction. It's reduced to a maximum of 600 hours of language learning, and earlier it was a good 900 hours."
In any case, at least more immigrants to Germany have a chance to improve their language skills.