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Integrating the German Way

A Peek Inside the Country’s Language and Culture Program for Immigrants

When I moved from upstate New York to Germany, I found my husband’s country is serious about “Ausländers” becoming proficient in “Deutsch.” I am currently taking my government-approved “Integrationskurs” so I can remain in the country.

My fellow Ausländers hail from eight different countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Turkey, Tunisia, Rumania, and Russia. Our ages range from 19 to 55. Our only common language is fledgling German, making conversation limited. The cultural exchange, from recipes to stories of home, has been an eye-opening education.

Germany’s Bundesamt for Migration and Flüchtlinge (Federal Office for Immigration and Asylum) made 600 hours of German language lessons mandatory for all immigrants in 2004. In 2006 they tacked on an additional 30 hours of mandatory education in German history, culture, politics, and law.

The path to the 630-hourIntegrations-kurs is lined with the bureaucratic red tape so familiar to anyone trying to settle in this country. After a complicated application process, the ground rules of which are freely interpreted by the local Landkreis Ausländerbehörde (county immigration office), you are lucky to receive an “Aufenhaltserlaubnis” (time-limited permission to stay).

Technically, you have the length of your Aufenhaltserlaubnis, in my case three years, to take an Intergrationskurs. You will be strongly encouraged to attend the next available course in order to speed your process of integration into German life and culture. The urgency stems from cultural clashes between immigrants and Germans in Berlin and other large German cities. At sharp issue is the wearing of the traditional Muslim headscarf in public schools. Another tense topic is immigrant families who run businesses in Germany, yet isolate themselves by speaking only their native language and socializing only within their immigrant communities.

The Integrationskurs is Germany’s way of building knowledge and respect for the German language and culture, while at the same time encouraging immigrants to interact with their German neighbors. Your local Auslanderbehorde will provide you with a list of approved Integrationskurs sites in your area. My course is taught by the Deutsche Angestellten-Akademie (DAA) in Borna, Landkreis Leipziger Land.

The course is a big time commitment: five hours per day, five days per week, for six months. It used to be 8 hours per day, but Germany, which pays for most of the class participants to attend, has twice reduced the classroom hours. Payment is based on the family’s financial status. For example, my husband has an income but I have none, so we pay one euro per hour and Germany pays one euro per hour. A fellow classmate who is unemployed, but has a working husband and one child, pays one-quarter of the course fee. Another woman who has her own business pays the full 2 euros per hour. Many immigrants, who enter Germany with no language skills and no job, have the entire course cost underwritten by the German government.

While it is not required, the goal is to pass The European Language Certificate Exam (TELC) to get Certificate B1: communication and competence in the German language. About half of our class plan to take the test, because the B1 is highly desirable if you are to work in Germany.

Our two teachers have their hands full trying to drag us through the nominative, accusative and dative cases, not to mention three text books, in six months’ time. It is really not surprising that we sometimes say things like, “I go strolling with my auto,” or order 500 pounds of apples at the market. On the up side, I am starting to speak German. But communication, even within the class, is tenuous.

Constructing a German sentence is like climbing out onto a tree branch. It’s risky. The further you wriggle out—ordering the words and conjugating the verbs and making sure all the word endings match up—the closer you are to the fall. Suddenly the word you intended to use vanishes from memory, leaving you dangling mid-sentence. It really is enough to make one silent when conversation is not required. People tend to find a way to talk to each other, even if it is with “hands and feet” and lots of laughter.

I would suggest that anyone relocating to Germany sign up for www.german-way.com. You can post and read other posts of people going through the same bureaucratic problems. Then you begin to realize just how differently the local Auslanderbehordes interpret the German law.

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