German Lessons

Geoff Roberts

I started teaching a German language course in a small town near Frankfurt in February, taking over a class of 12 adult students who had been meeting for three hours a day, four times a week, for two years. First they had to learn the Latin alphabet, and many struggled with writing from left to right. Now most of them can understand a letter from the local authority. Four came to Germany from Afghanistan, three from Ethiopia, two from Bulgaria, one from Bangladesh, one from Tibet and one from Yemen. Their average age was about fifty. Some of them have lived here for more than thirty years, but weren’t allocated to a language course until 2014. German governments used to assume that ‘guest workers’ and refugees would eventually go ‘home’, and integration was a low priority.

Esmat came from Afghanistan with her husband in the early 1980s. They have four children who all went to German schools, passed their Abitur, went to university and found work. Esmat has three grandchildren, all born in Germany, but it is still theoretically possible, if unlikely, that she and her husband could be expatriated. Like her classmates, she’s applying for a settlement permit, which you can’t get until you’ve passed a language test. The courses are paid for by the Federal Department for Migration and Refugees, who supposedly make regular checks on attendance, and Esmat’s record was patchy. Her son, who speaks perfect German, would bring me the doctor’s certificates. She told me that it did her good to get out of the house for a few hours, learn some German and talk to her friends on the course. I don't know yet if she passed; I'll see if she rejoins my class in September.

As well as the ‘integration course’ (learning the language), to get a settlement permit you have to take an ‘orientation course’, studying Germany’s politics, history and legal system. Three hundred questions are discussed in a hefty textbook, which gave my students a lot of problems as it is written in prose that a German-born tenth-grader would have difficulty in understanding. Thirty questions are set on the test; you have to answer half of them correctly to pass. I was completely stumped at first on how to teach the course. Some of the questions are easy enough – ‘What is the name of the current chancellor?’ – others, less so: ‘What are the judicial, legislative and executive functions of a government?’ In the end I decided to give them ten questions and answers each day to learn by heart.

Warsa was looking for work as a cleaner. Her husband had lost his job and money was very short. Barisa, who is 22, hopes to get a place on a job training scheme, but to start a training course she needs a school certificate, which means at least two more years of study. She had only two years of school in Kunduz. Her father was killed in Afghanistan, her mother suffers from depression and her two younger brothers are trying to cope with secondary school in Frankfurt. Barisa has to look after the family, as well as deal with the authorities, her mother’s doctors and her brothers’ teachers, so she has little time to catch up on eight missing years of schooling.


  • 27 August 2016 at 3:40am
    outofdate says:
    It's very nice of you to do that. My aunt, who's 80, volunteered at the refugee place in her town in the depths of Niedersachsen, teaching a beginner's course I guess. Rather like you she decided to throw the textbook away and just teach them some useful phrases that she made them write out on index cards (though there's a danger that if you can ask the way to the Bahnhof you won't understand the reply). What are they like then, I said. Oh, she said, they're lovely people, very enthusiastic, and then of course they get sent back, which is sad.

  • 31 August 2016 at 8:31pm
    DoktorFaustus says:
    The catalogue of questions for the so-called naturalization test (Einbürgerungstest) consists not of 300 but rather of 310 questions. (There are an extra 10 that pertain solely to the Bundesland of which you are resident when applying for citizenship.) And the exam itself consist of a unique selection of 33 not 30 questions. When I sat it back in May of this year, my questions were different from those of my fellow Polish examinee. In order to pass you have to answer at least 17 correctly. Questions range from the arcane to the frankly comical.

    • 11 September 2016 at 3:43pm
      IPFreely says: @ DoktorFaustus
      The questions (apart from the regional ones) all come from the text book in which there are 300 questions. You are correct in saying that another ten come from the local area but they can safely be ignored. And yes, 17 correct answers are required. Informal attempts with German friends usually result in them getting ten or twelve right, so they would have failed. (Did you pass?)