Easy Lesson: The Integration Course

Easy Lesson: The Integration Course

First, what is the meaning of Integration ? Well here is a definition from the World Wide Web with a few examples...

Integration occurs when separate people or things are brought together, like the integration of students from all of the district's elementary schools at the new middle school, or the integration of snowboarding on all ski slopes 

So using the word repeatedly is to imply that you are merging with Germany, her people and her ways and that needs to be done expeditiously upon your arrival. While this can be done without guidance it may be helpful to attend an Integration Course. This is supposed to be a government mandated curriculum for all newcomers to properly integrate together. The course focuses on language, society & culture and lastly history. This is a long course and instruction is immersion style taught entirely in German.

The Course ...

Integration is a 600 hour instructor led classroom starter pack to the German language and Germany. There is also an 100 hour additional course that reflects on the laws and social constructs called Leben in Deutschland. Typically the courses are held for three to four hours, three to five days a week. They are held in a lot of different places like a VHS (a public vocational school), sprach school (a language school) or a local community learning center or through a private instructor (if accessible to you). You will choose where you want to attend and the schedule that best fits your needs. I personally chose a night schooling option from 17:00/5pm to 20:15/8:15pm which included a fifteen minute pause Monday through Friday.

Do You Have To Take It?

I think that is everyones biggest question. No one wants to know anything about how to take it only how to avoid it. The realistic answer is no you do not have to do anything you do not want to do. There are alternatives to sitting in a classroom for the better part of the year. However, there is no clear cut way to avoid it. Germany likes to say one is "obligated" to attend an integration course. This is sort of a take it or leave it approach to doing what they suggest you should do. My husband likes to say I was never explicitly told I had to attend. I didn't quite gather that in the stern voices in multiple places insisting I fulfill this "obligation". But I guess you can come to your own conclusion about the course not being required or avoidable based on your own interactions. If you can easily demonstrate that you speak German and are informed as well as invested in German culture no one will ask that you take this course. For me I found it very hard to be on time just to be told to wait. Or to be told to enter whatever office then be told to leave if I failed to knock before entering. I think these are all indicators one doesn't quite know how it works around here. And it doesn't help that people living on a U.S. base in Bavaria or someone skirting immigration for a decade never had to take the course. You get preconceived notions about the entire lead up and it will show.

FYI: If you stumble across words in conversations or don't seem to get why Germany is Germany someone may say you MUST attend Integration!

I get it, we are all adults here and some of us have lives i.e. z.B. spouses, children, school, jobs etc. But the way immigration works is that you jump through whatever bureaucratic hoops that are given to you. So the course is another one of these hoops and there are no finite rule about going, not going, protesting, complaining and anything else. My one recommendation is that if you are told to attend you do so immediately. When you waste time trying to find a way out you will get varied responses which heighten fear and anxiety. I was told the course is just for "true immigrants"... refugees, migrants and or asylum seekers. I felt like it was an ettiequte class on how to behave in a country where everyone expects you to act a certain way but cannot explain why. I believed a mailed invitation was my punishment for me being me, being American, marrying one of theirs and being and acting totally out of place. What I failed to realize my German husband was doing everything for me and it showed. I had never once demonstrated myself that I knew the language or much of anything about immigrating. So maybe if you can pretend to speak enough of the language to not get into whatever category my file was placed in, you can avoid having to complete the course. Just know there is NO rule* around being required to do it, choosing to do it or not do it. *Seriously, all the jazz about being married to a speaker of your native language, or possessing an accepted Bachelor's degree, or being able to provide for oneself is utter horseshit. If they insist, you must go. And in most cases they will incentivize you in some way for committing.

What does it entail?

There may be a lot of mystery as to what the course actually entails, how much it costs and exactly when it will start or end. I believe all the vagueness is purposeful. If you knew exactly what you were getting into you may decline to attend. But I assure you the Integration course can be a good thing. You may fall into many different categories of time spent in Germany, academic skills, language proficiency and ability to attend a course. Germany really isn't going to provide you any accommodation. They will offer a test before enrollment to place you for the course. You could be told that you don't need the course at all after cooperating with this process. You could also be told that you must attend all 600 hours or maybe just half. If you are seeking information about the duration of the course and details around the conclusion of it ... course administrators and instructors can never provide that. They are looking for so many individuals with the proper paperwork to attend the course to test to their appropriate levels. This process will estimate how long the entire roster of enrolled students will actually take to complete all 700 hours. So I went from place to place inquiring and got nowhere fast. The place I decided to attend was the first to actually explain why they had to be so vague.

How Much Is it?

When presented with whatever forms pertaining to signing up for integration, there will be some info around cost. That cost will be specific to you! Your residency, familial status and household income determines the cost. In my case, my husband made decent money so we were required to pay for the course in full. We were offered an incentive that if I completed and passed the 100 hour portion we may be reimbursed just for that portion. Each month or at the completion of every 100 hours I was invoiced for that time and we chose to pay that manually every month via bank transfer.  Some attendees may be given a voucher by the Amt or a JobCenter and it will explain your financial obligation if any. Some job seekers can attend for free as the JobCenter will sponsor the costs as long as you are actively seeking work. Some lower income attendees like those seeking asylum may have their resources provided gratis only if they actively attend, complete and pass the course. So for those paying out of pocket there is less stress about participation or performance. However, the facility and or instructor may have a lot of students and occasionally accuse you of not taking the opportunity seriously. Regardless of who is paying what everyone will be getting is the same exact learning experience. And everyone there including the instructors are completely unaware of who is attending at cost or for free. I wouldn't take any demands to be on time or to participate personally. I also wouldn't assert that you can avoid being punctual or applying yourself just because you are paying.

So now that you are aware of the why's and how's ... this is how it went for me...

I was attending the VHS for language courses on my own. I attended three full courses. I learned a lot but retained absolutely nothing. I had no conversational skills. I had no grammatical proficiency. I could ask for food or sort a purchase and that was about it. In the midst of taking these courses I was told by the Ausländerbehörde that I MUST attend the language courses to continue my residency in Germany. My husband and I were shocked by this request. However, it was pasted in my passport like a legal requirement. Every interaction we had going forward with affirmed my need to complete each level language course. Of course it was at our expense and every completion was met with yet another request. Eventually, it was asked that I take the integration course. I was already attending the local VHS for A1, A1.1 and A2 so I sought advice there.

I first went to the registration office where I went all three times for my Deutsch course but they directed me to a different floor. When I went to that floor I witnessed hundreds of people waiting for information and many of them appeared to be exhausted and confused. There was no one to greet us or inform us of the process. Every ten minutes or so someone would exit an office promptly locking their door. If and when someone was called the person would demand our vouchers and passports with no introduction or explanation. It was very much like the experience at the Ausländerbehörde and very troubling to witness. I was very disappointed with this reception and could not believe the stark contrast in treatment especially after attending for nearly a year. We didn't all qualify for vouchers or understand the demand for them. We were treated like beggars and I decided that day I would no longer attend the VHS.

I had been given a list of potential places to attend at the Amt (my VHS was on that list) but after that experience I called some of the other ones listed. I found a place nearby that offered me to come in for an assessment test and I was only a few days out of completing A2 so I felt very confidant. The place wasn't the most aesthetically pleasing but the people entering and working there were all pleasant to me. The administrators appeared to be busy serving their students. The person working with me was kind. He began our meeting by asking if I could read and write.Yes, he asked me this. When I appeared to be shocked he explained why he asked. Again, he was kind but it was inferred that integration seekers couldn't read or write. He elaborated stating that most Middle Eastern students only knew the Arabic alphabet so they would essentially have to learn a new alphabet, then how to read and write auf Deutsch just to begin the course. In that moment it occurred to me I was complaining about nothing. And surprisingly I tested at an A2 level. The test was complex but he told me to stop where I couldn't understand and I did as told. After this exchange he requested my voucher, letter or whatever I had from immigration to take the integration course. And once I provided that he explained why all of the above had happened.

No one can say when a course actually begins or ends because as students enroll they have to assess them and try to start complementary groups separately. So if there are two students who need to learn the Roman alphabet and numbers they may take a while to get to a participatory level with students that test at an A1 or higher level. Let's say three weeks later other A1 students can join and all of them begin with basic vocabulary leading into A1.1. Then A2 students arrive as they are suggested and it may take sometime before the entire class is on the same level to continue A.2.2 and B1. Then as a whole class everyone participates in the final 100 hours of Leben in Deutschland. And trust me this sounds as crazy as it looks but this is the German way. Can it be optimized? Yes! But is anyone facilitating that? Nein! I was told to start four months into my courses start date. I chose to sit in a month before suggested as a guest. While I was a guest, I was not obligated to attend or participate. My contributions only began to count at the date suggested for my level of competency. And when I started as a guest the others already in the course were still only a few chapters into A1.1 which was behind schedule. There was no way to determine that we as a class would struggle with certain concepts i.e. z.B. telling time, giving directions or making plans auf Deutsch. We spent over two weeks alone on the subject of time. When the majority of the class is struggling there is no moving on until everyone understands.

We took interval tests in class but they counted for nothing. They were all considered preparatory but our mid course performance was vital to pass the course final. Nothing could  have prepared us for the final tests. First, there is the Deutsch test which is divided into sections and takes almost a half a day to complete. It is conducted in a new environment with proctors and other students from other schools. Then there is the Leben in Deutschland test which has 33 random questions from a booklet of 300 possible questions. These tests are scheduled when the State can offer them not when classes are finished and or ready. The majority of my classmates failed the Deutsch testing only passing at an A1 or A2 level.  Many of those failing students refused to complete the remaining 100 hours and were therefore at a disadvantage for the Leben in Deutschland test. However, most of us who took that test did pass with flying colors. Some of us were good test takers, others had cheated and many just fell into the trap of bad nerves. The test was NOT hard but choosing a strategy to pass IS the test. The German language is hard as is so imagine the pressure of these test results riding on your immigration status and livelihood. We had a poor woman in our class that failed three times. We also had an architect, several engineers, a professor and an archeologist fail the course. Even the people cheated failed!

My Suggestion...

I suggest you take the course but take it seriously. Do not for one second believe that you are being asked to take it as an obligation to yourself or the state. Go into the process knowing that attendance is a full commitment to participate and perform 100%. You want to be overly disciplined about learning, studying, practicing and retaining the information. You do not want to hope and pray. You do not want to get distracted or take a day off. You want to fully apply yourself and do not waiver until you see a passing score and certificates of completion. While it is tempting and encouraged to be social and make friends do not let that distract you.

If you are offered an incentive to complete the course please know that is false hope. You may not be able to job seek, work and attend as suggested. You may not be able to stay in the country the entire duration due to whatever circumstances. For me, the 100 hour portion on history & laws was to be reimbursed with completion by a certain date but my course ended two months after its suggested end. It began in May of 2018 and we concluded in June 2019. That was considered my problem. I also did not get my certificate until August which just a month shy of my residency renewal.

In Conclusion...

It has been freeing to finally understand the language, to be able to express myself and understand the German whys and ways. However, I am still nowhere near fluent. I still require a lot of assistance with things like writing letters, conversing with doctors or getting through a night out where I am the only English speaker. I do feel like all of the above is not as intimidating though. There are times where I am a bit apprehensive but once in the company of other expats and Germans I feel more apt. Without having the experience of integration and all the pain that came with I know I would have never grown the balls. I sometimes tell people I would have boarded up my windows and began to speak in tongues. So riding the wave got me to discover another side of living in Germany.  Knowing what I know it is hard talking about my experience as it differs from others and so on. One would think this program designed to make life more manageable for Ausländers would be more consistent and fruitful. I think everyone should be able to speak to a similar experience of learning and most importantly succeeding. But what I hear the most are people asking how to get out of it or complaining about how they failed. So in that respect I feel like integration at its origin is poorly managed and good at pushing outsiders further out. It is completely up to us to face the uncertainty and grow a pair to do it. What we get from it and how it propels us is totally on us.