Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | April 28, 2016

New Language Requirement for 1 Million: German

New Language Requirement for 1 Million: German

By J. Douglas Guy

Imagine a situation where a million people unexpectedly arrive in your homeland in a short period of time.  Authorities would have to scurry to provide food, temporary shelter and other accommodations while trying to figure out more permanent solutions to this emergency.  While dealing with that crisis, authorities predict another million will be on the way shortly.  This is the situation that faced Germany as 2015 drew to a close.

As the violence in Syria and Iraq escalated mid-2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and others ran for their lives from the area.  This has created the greatest mass migration of human refugees since the end of World War II, all of them aiming to escape the violent threats of the Islamic State or Syrian President Assad for the safety and prosperity of the European Union (EU).  For the vast majority of them the goal was getting to Germany.  In response to Germany’s horrific treatment of minorities under the Nazi regime, the Basic Law, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, guarantees asylum to anyone who can demonstrate persecution in their homeland.  This guarantee, combined with Germany’s status as the strongest economy in the EU, a 5% unemployment rate and its status as the dominant force in EU politics, made it the go-to destination for these migrants.   But getting there was no easy task.  Refugees needed to trek overland to Turkey, go by sea to Greece in dangerous watercraft, and then hike overland across the Balkans to the borders of the German-speaking north.  In Serbia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary and elsewhere they were frequently met with hostility and barbed-wire fences.  As fall descended on Europe and the weather turned, the situation got more critical and life-threatening.  At this very significant point German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany was prepared to permanently take in 800,000 refugees and encouraged other members of the EU to do the same.  In actuality the number of refugees that reached Germany by year’s end grew to 1.1 million, the vast majority of them arriving in the last five months of the year.  The urgency of this humanitarian crisis helped create “Willkommenskultur” in Germany: the magnanimous effort of Germans to greet trainloads of migrants with food, flowers and clothing and make them feel welcome, to volunteer to teach them the basics of German, to help convert school gymnasiums into temporary living quarters for thousands.  Once winter set in, thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees were stranded at the Turkish and Greek borders, living in the open under harsh conditions and unable to move to their ultimate goal in the north.

Suddenly Germany faces the task of housing and feeding its new residents. Many refugees are highly educated professionals who bring welcome skills to the German job market, but very few of them speak German. They urgently need to learn German, and the migrants need to adjust to a completely new set of cultural norms, foods, standards and practices. Modern Germany considers itself a multicultural nation.  Nearly 20% of Germany’s residents have foreign backgrounds, the largest of these groups being two million Turkish immigrants. Turks were not treated well when they first arrived in the 1960’s and 1970’s but they now form the base of Germany’s modern multicultural society, along with foreign workers from Italy, Greece, Poland, the Balkan nations and elsewhere.  First generation Turkish immigrants performed menial labor or took factory jobs and were forced to learn German on their own. They were Germany’s first direct contact with Islam. More recent generations have become Turkish Germans with better language skills and more upward mobility.  Syrian and Iraqi refugees don’t have 50 years for that to happen: they need schooling in the German language, they need to develop competencies to be ready for school and the workplace and they need it now.

Unfortunately, the pressure of simply processing hundreds of thousands of newcomers has overwhelmed the government.  Years of neglect has left Germany unprepared for this urgent need for teachers of German for Foreigners, a subject area that secondary teachers couldn’t even get certified in. They just won’t have enough teachers for over 1 million new students.  Well-meaning citizens volunteer locally and teach small groups the rudiments of German, but the government as yet has no plan to address this issue.

With the arrival of 2016, the mood of citizens across the European continent turned decidedly more hostile toward Middle Eastern migrants.  Murderous attacks by IS sympathizers at a soccer stadium and concert hall in Paris and the bombings at the Brussels airport and subway reinforced people’s worst fears about migrant Muslims seeking refuge. Other EU member nations refused to follow Germany’s example and accept large numbers of refugees; some refused to accept any at all.  In Germany growing anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in a new anti-immigrant party, Alternative für Deutschland,that racked up surprising successes in early 2016 state elections, scoring percentages between 12% and 35% that rival Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.  To stem the continuing tide of migrants and the mounting anger of citizens, the EU has negotiated with Turkey to cover the expenses of housing migrants in Turkey as long as they are kept there and not allowed to cross the border to the north.

Unless conditions in the Middle East improve radically, Germany can plan on two new minority groups for good:  Syrian Germans and Iraqi Germans.  And unless they are to remain a permanent underclass, Germany is going to have to teach them German.


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