Learn The Language, The Only Real Path For Immigrant Integration

Refugees who are allowed to stay in Germany must attend an integration course. But many of them fail the language test. Why is that?

Language courses with migrants in Roedermark, Germany
Language courses with migrants in Roedermark, Germany
Hannah Beitzer

BERLIN — There are beautiful moments in the life of a language teacher. Going to the market with their class, cooking together and sharing the new vocabulary that comes with it. And there are the difficult moments as well, says Lena Kettler, who has taught integration courses for refugees in Berlin: For example when the topic in the textbook is housing, and the participants have to describe where they live. "I know that they have lost their homes, and are living in a refugee shelter."

People like Kettler have great expectations for Germany. Despite the change since Angela Merkel's "we can do it" slogan in the summer of 2015, language remains the real key to integration. Classes designed to give refugees this opportunity are not lacking. They range from friendly language cafés to the official integration courses of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees for migrants who have good chances to stay.

The courses include 600 hours of language classes and 100 hours of "orientation," including lessons about the German legal system, history, culture and values. At the end, there is a language test. However, there are doubts about the success of these courses. Not even half of the participants who make it to the final test achieve the desired language level B1, which is the basis for simple jobs. Why is that? And what does that mean for the broader national integration project? Here's a look from multiple points of view:

The Adult Education director

At the Volkshochschule Berlin Mitte, an adult education center, 8,000 people learn German each year in various courses, with 60 government-funded integration courses running at the same time. Director Michael Weiss says expectations are always high, but "change with the political situation."

The mission in 2015 was to open classes to as many people as possible. This succeeded, although in some places the quality of classes took a hit. New teachers appeared, even driving schools started offering lessons. Teachers were in short supply and were trained hastily. Teachers, who had previously taught mainly academics from southern Europe, now met a new, heterogeneous student body, comprised of Syrian linguists as well as people who had never attended school.

The course material is not much help, because it often does not correspond to reality.

"After New Year's Eve in Cologne, there was also the expectation that the courses should convey our values," says Weiss, referring to the sexual assaults by non-Germans that made headlines for months. The Germans do not even agree on what their values ​​are. And the course material is not much help, because it often does not correspond to reality. "Someone named Mustafa is never a German in the textbooks." Of course, there have been German Mustafas for a long time. "Showing how diverse society is would be a good starting point for integration," says Weiss. "Instead, the value debate often revolves around what you can and can not do here."

The teacher

Lena Kettler taught integration courses in 2016, followed by lecturers for the courses. She is using a fake name, but wants to speak openly: "Many teachers hardly dare to deviate from the textbook, work chapter by chapter." But she is convinced: A trip to the market could sometimes bring more, just because the students then use the language in everyday life. "Many of my students barely had any contact with Germans."

But of course there is a reason why many lecturers prefer to avoid such experiences. Because at the end of the course is the final test — and it doesn't always fit into everyday life.

Walking along the Berlin Wall — Photo: Luc van Loon

The linguist

The written tests are particularly difficult for people who have learned to read and write in Germany, reports linguist Christoph Schroeder from the University of Potsdam. "It's not just about the pure mastery of writing," but to find your way around in another world of experience. "For most of us it is normal to create worlds through writing and to move in them."

For people who have never held a pen, it is not. "This is shown, for example, in the following question: Bananas grow where it is hot. In England it is cool. Do bananas grow there?" For people who are used to writing, the answer is clear," says Schroeder, and it doesn't matter whether you know something about England or not.

The language classes are not sufficiently geared to this audience.

Unlike people who have had no access to written material previously, "There is a greater likelihood that they will answer: I do not know, I've never been to England." The language classes are not sufficiently geared to this audience. "It's always said: Language is the key to integration," he says. "It should actually be: Integration is the key to language."

The migration researcher

Jochen Oltmer, migration researcher at the University of Osnabrück, says that integration amounts to "networking between those who come and those who are already there." As important as language is, a 600-hour language course is not networking, because the other person is missing. This can be translated to the 100 units of field research: The principle of "men and women are equal" is something other than experiencing in exchange with others what it means. Taking an integration course doesn't make you automatically integrated. Germany is best learned through everyday life.

The refugees

As important as the courses are, real life is crucial to integration. In the clothing store of Moabit Hilft, a Berlin refugee organization, Iranian-born Maryam guides visitors through the rooms. The young woman, whose name was changed at her request, speaks in an accented, fluent German: "Just go over here, please." Her integration course has just begun, although she came to Germany in 2015. At the time, she was pregnant with her second child. After the birth, she attended a literacy and a language course. Although she was in school for nine years in Iran, she first had to learn the Latin alphabet. She is still missing some steps to obtain the B1 language certificate. Why does she still speak German so well? "I am a Christian and have found many German friends in the parish," she says. "I'm not that good at writing yet."

Real life is crucial to integration.

She has one goal in mind: "I was a housewife in Iran, but here I want to become a nurse, or a pharmacist" — both occupations for which level B1 is insufficient. So Maryam still has some courses ahead of her. If you believe the experts, then the course is set for her successful integration, without a certificate. Because she has a goal in mind; because she feels she is succeeding in her community, in her volunteer work. And because she can use what she learns in the language course in her daily life. And much of what she will hear in the orientation course will already sound familiar to her, from the everyday life she leads in Germany.

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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics


French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.


Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.


• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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