German Absurdity: The Integration Course

German Absurdity: The Integration Course

A Disclaimer ... this is my experience and my opinions mixed with a factual tidbit or two so do not get up in arms about Germany being the best country in the world and me being obtuse 

If you are looking for tips around the Integration course this has been discussed in great detail in my Easy Lessons Series so if you want information around how to enroll, expectations etc please go hier. This is about the absurdity an integration course is to begin with. I will go over the pain points, downfalls and loopholes in extreme negative detail for those who care. First, let us get into the definition so one can understand why it all so paradoxical. When it comes to the definition of integration ... merging people to do the same common thing (typically a good thing) ...

I guess the meaning is different in Germany

Remember a time not too long ago where the United States, South Africa and Germany were segregated? And remember when integration was a thing for all said nations to ensure everyone had equal rights and access to the freedoms allowed by their governances? Well, all of the above societies still have to grapple with racism, classism and xenophobia. However, in the United States and South Africa overt oppression is more or less a thing of the past. Race relations are still iffy. There are the subtle undertones of what used to be which sometimes makes basic things a poor experience like shopping in a higher end store, dining in a particular restaurant, living in or visiting a specific neighborhood or seeking an academic or professional placement. There can also be incidents of socio economic disparity, violence, gross malpractice and or injustice. But overall people can take these situations day by day and know they can at least try to live in an integrated way. But in Germany the immigrant and native man is not equal. The integration of the two is the exact opposite of the definition. When an immigrant is "obliged" to enroll in an integration course there is no joining of others who may need or want to align with the experience. No. There is a definite separation of them against the others and we are made to adapt not merge. I know ... slippery slope ... but imagine if those immigrating to Germany were given skills around language, education and working in Deutschland but Germans attended the mandated integration course instead? They could learn how to adapt to people migrating here, how to manage the influx of people, to prepare for language creolization and create safe & equal spaces for all. But no, it is the other way around. Germans don't have to do anything. In fact, they expect Ausländers to integrate and compete (in citizenship, values, education, employment etc) from day one of our arrival starting with the language.

About the language...

In the States, an immigrant can request a speaker of their native language in most every situation. If I am seeking asylum an interpreter is provided. If I am trying to enroll in social services forms are provided in my mother tongue even in dialects like French Creole. If I call most any customer service number I am given options to prompt for another language. If I interact with people who do not speak my language in an academic or professional setting most people are inclined to find someone to help me who does. Germany doesn't do this despite most Germans having a rigorous schooling on the English language.  Most of the entire higher ed community teaches, lectures, publishes and researches in English. Also there are a plethora of English speaking and or branded companies in Germany further confusing this aspect. Most businesses have English names and monikers only to be ran and operated by Germans who refuse to speak English. Have you ever ordered a sammie at a German Subway location? Mein Gott! By the time you get over the metric system/"footlong" conversation almost every method of ordering and customizing is done in Denglish. Okay not to go off on a tangent but my point is there are zero accommodations for English speakers in Germany. It is daunting to manage the basics (setting up a doctors appointment, making a reservation in a restaurant, talking with a stylist in a salon) when you cannot communicate and in trying to learn to communicate you deal with the same nonsense. This dynamic alone stops integration in its tracks. In looking for a course to join I couldn't even communicate my needs to a language school. I was actually met with opposition trying to learn how to speak that language whilst stating my requirement to be enrolled at said institutions. I cannot even count the amount of schools I called who simply hung up on me.

My VHS debacle/Enrolling in Integration

Now that I understand how and why the course enrollment works the way it does, I see how it can be changed for the better. My experience in the VHS was unduly. I know Americans do not like to discuss how we are separating families and caging children at our borders. I would like to know why Germany refuses to admit they are forcing people to be discriminated against seeking an integration course. The course is not equal with voluntary language courses or driving school. It isn't something I can just sign up for or attend an orientation about. Now clearly some states and cities are managing this process better than in my experience. But where is the accountability in those that aren't? And why isn't it a positive, consistent experience? There is absolutely no reason why a VHS in Köln Innenstadt is shoving prospective students into crammed hallways like cattle because they are "obliged" to attend an integration course. They are being treated this way because there is a nasty stigma placed on immigrants that we deserve that level of treatment. Now regardless of nationality or ethnicity, we are human. So why is it that other humans who are seeking any other course offered at the VHS given a seamless and welcoming registration experience? Even with the inquiries around literacy and language proficiency; the conversation can be done in a pleasant way and in a normal setting. However, that particular VHS location decided to mirror the negative experience of an immigration office. I would like to say that is just a Köln issue but Ausländerbehörders are all the same all throughout Germany. The cold disposition, the rude tone, the labyrinth of closed doors and snooty clerks giving you the runaround is consistent from Bayern to Bremen. Meanwhile, I am supposed to believe that Germany is a country with nice, helpful people. Imagine the feeling of going through that only getting more of the same once invited to a course that is supposed to help you help them. Can you see the disconnect?

The Placement Test and Course Curriculum

Most students told to attend integration have already taken a language course or two. It isn't that we are brand new to Germany, her language or the culture. We have just had to balance learning and acclimating at the same time. So while there are certain things we can muster, we aren't capable of it all especially without constant engagement. Taking a placement test to gain access to engagement is really ass backwards. Granted, I am a good test taker but I am horrible at speaking German with others. I certainly could have used all 600 hours of integration but the test placed me at a higher competency level than I personally felt about my Deutsch skills. Hell, I wasn't going to argue about this. In Germany you are constantly told not to fight the system. Besides the less time I had to be there the better as I had a life outside of learning Deutsch. If I felt that way and I am being candid, try to imagine the countless others who are nervous test takers or masters of speaking but absolutely nothing else. We all sort of undermined the system in place. Many of us are educated, professionals either seeking work in Germany or sadly a trailing spouse. So when assumptions are made, efficiency is null or there is a failure to consider our learning styles ... we just comply. But deep down a lot of us are in a placed in a learning system that is way off. It is either too accelerated for us to keep up or so slow we get bored and complacent. In a perfect world, a version of the final test with a combination of A1, A2, B1 and B2 questions as well as teils so you could really see who needed what would have been better. There was zero evaluation of our speaking, reading comprehension, listening skills or writing until the last week of the course. Many of us were not even engaged until after the test.

I think if incumbent and graduate students were able to give feedback to the BAMF we would all agree to change the order of curriculum. I know if students had an official practice final test where we would demonstrate speaking, listening, reading, writing and on paper competency using the same practices as the Goethe or TELC we would place properly. After that we should have been put in similar, smaller groups to work on those results. Once we mastered the basics like A1 we should have dove right into culture & law to engage with each other auf Deutsch. Once we got to a fluid level of grammar and conversation, then all the annoying audio recordings and book passages could have began. Instead, none of us were conversational at the start of the course. We could barely form sentences until the very end of the course. As for the audio and reading, how could we ever comprehend if we didn't engage each other? Most students were reliant upon translator apps just to participate in assignments and exercises. At the beginning people were ashamed and had phones placed on their lap. By the end of the course they were so over it they were literally writing entire paragraphs directly from their phones. For those that actually applied themselves learning from engagement and repetition they were dominating class discussions. We had two teachers, one who taught from the book and another who encouraged free thought. Without the latter we all would have failed. It was never clear which instructor was "breaking the rules" as they both had completely different teaching styles and we didn't know the rules. There was no rule book. There was no syllabus. There was no calendar. We occasionally had substitutes that were all over the place as well. We had people that taught us like we were kindergarteners, another who forced us into all these ethical dialogues that we had no vocabulary for and plenty that just handed out worksheets. There was never a consistent experience across the board and it showed.

The BAMF is responsible for this 

The only thing Germany has looked at is the failure rate and it is really high. While most attendees will leave the course better equipped to live in Germany, most do not pass the final tests. Is anyone changing the placement test? Is anyone changing the curriculum? No and no. They have thought to increase the course duration but all that does is further strain the obligation a student may have to their families, jobs and other commitments. Students that do not want to be in a classroom or who have been forced to be there disrupt the flow of learning for others. Germany needs to evaluate the course and see that this seriously affects everyone. I do not blame regular German citizens as they really do not need to be invested in this legislature. And no one can blame students for this system because we didn't create it and we cannot participate in government. The BAMF is who is organizing this entire thing and forcing it upon Ausländers but not asking us anything about our experiences year after year. I sometimes think they are complicit hoping the course steers us back to our home countries. For people like me who married a German citizen that ins't a choice but we also shouldn't be forced to re-take this course over and over, failing each time, just to maintain residency.

The Final Test

When you test you are treated like a criminal. You are stripped of everything down to your own lucky pencil. You may have the comfort of classmates you have been studying and practicing with but that unbeknownst to students that setup can and will change. There was another set of students at my test day and we were randomly partnered with them for portions where we had to audibly answer questions and demonstrate conversational skills. We also had people fail to show up either getting lost or thinking it was at our normal school location. They took our cell phones so we couldn't tell people where we were or explain that they were technically starting the test earlier than communicated. With all of the above the stress and nerves set in. People forgot how the test was structured and they made terrible mistakes. They failed to time manage, they wrote answers in the wrong spaces and or they couldn't understand the instructions. It was never communicated how serious taking this test was. People need to know when they are told they are obligated or when they commit to taking integration how the final test can affect your employment, studies, residency and citizenship. I think a lot of people were under the impression the course was just to help them. It was an assessment on your ability to align with Germany. While the final test wasn't really that hard, the curriculum and duration to get to that test was arduous. And failure wasn't seen as an opportunity to be remediated and try again. It was you losing your job or supplemental income, your sponsorship and or your ability to stay in Germany. So many were mislead into thinking this was a gateway to a life here when in actuality it was a huge distraction and for so many a disqualifier.

The Odds...

You can fail a great portion of the test and still technically pass. The BAMF and TELC does provide information around this on their websites. If you are smart and proactive you can review the probabilities and strategize your test taking. I was no more skilled than my peers. We all had the same level of instruction and we mostly shared the same amount of time in the classroom. Of course some people had jobs or children which made them late or miss several days but we looked out for each other. We had a group chat for missed discussions and homework. We befriended people and assisted each other with notes and studying sessions. We did our best to stay invested in our instruction as well as prepare for the test. But those who did not strategize the odds of passing tested horribly.

Most of my classmates put all their effort into the sections the proctors did not scrutinize and bombed the sections that were required to pass. I was so concerned about failing I spent many a night on the internet watching videos (Goethe has plenty) and reading testimonies explaining how not to fail that test. It was imperative for me that I had a strategy and that is how I passed. 

Surely, my school practiced for the test but not until a few weeks out. We totally stopped basic instruction a month prior and it all became worksheets and games. The majority of the class had checked out by then and without literal book instruction most students thought there was nothing to show up for. We practiced the three verbal teils for a week prior to testing. After taking that test it was apparent that practice time was worthless. We were told to fill the timed discussion with descriptor words and stick to the topic at hand. But the proctors began asking us questions we could have never expected and it was humiliating to say the least. There was a guy who spoke beautiful Deutsch but missed the verbal passing score by exactly one point. He was so angry. He started zeroing in on those who seldom went to class but passed or those like me who never spoke but passed. My husband is German so there is so much more antidotal knowledge I have where I could quickly adapt to the quips and puns those proctors threw at me. My partner while totally smart just couldn't and she fell all over her words. We also had never partnered together the entire class. Her partner who spoke her native language failed to show up. She spoke Arabic as well but had pretended she didn't the whole course I believe to avoid the men in class that did. She did not speak English and I could barely console her when her partner didn't show up and we had no choice but to be together.

The resentment I felt during the last 100 hours was thick. People were so upset. You never really know anyones story even in that time span. Some people come there and they just do the work. You rarely get any insight on their personal lives, their struggles or sacrifices. I can guarantee the guy who failed by one point did not re-attend or at least not immediately after because doing the course all over again would have been at a greater expense. If it was free the first time, now he had to pay. It may have been 600 hours away from his family, but now it is 1200 hours total. And we had proof of failure in our classroom the entire time. I believe she also failed ... for the third time. The success stories are few and where are they anyway? What testimonials and guarantees do we have as we rarely encounter people in C1 or C2? It is also pretty rare that we meet people that have endured the course, stayed in Germany and are successful. I meet people who are surviving. I meet more people who were not required to take the course. The people who integrated by doing, hired interpreters to manage immigration, country hopped or learned Deutsch in an app before moving abroad. For me personally, attending five nights a week took a toll on my marriage. I barely saw my husband. He was gone in the morning. I was gone every evening. We had no weeknight meals together unless it was a holiday. I had homework even on weekends. The month prior to the test I was everywhere but home trying to prepare myself for it. Sometimes the curriculum and instruction was demeaning. I had always felt like instructors treated Americans either like royalty or shit. In terms of integration it was the latter as we were constantly overlooked, insulted or accused of being arrogant. I didn't speak the majority of the course because I was tired of being judged. There were also controversial topics about religion, family structures, ethnicity and politics. The Holocaust portion of history was pretty dark. Muslim students endured learning through Ramadan as other students ate around them. We had women that refused to sit near men. Students who had learning disabilities or anxiety that couldn't focus. And we were all forced to participate regardless of our sentiments or sensitivities. The class size always ebbed and flowed as guests would appear then drop out or a long time student would be told their participation levels were too low to continue. Some people regardless of whatever they were told didn't understand what they were told anyways so they kept coming only to find out their attendance wasn't being counted. And Germans being Germans felt like it was the students problem not theirs. This was a constant. Students angry because they showed up on Rosenmontag and the school was closed. Students assuming class ended at a specific time and leaving before dismissal. Students showing up everyday over an hour late claiming traffic ... everyday. Some students were destined for failure and no one informed them until they were over 400 hours in. And I had to put up with this, be disciplined, apply myself, actively participate and pass? No wonder so many of us failed and were so disgruntled by the news ... you felt unsafe and uncertain to the very end.

Is this how we integrate people into society? 

The Problems
  • There is no explanation around the course and pros & cons of commitment and completion
  • Courses are required to be completed in a discretionary and discriminatory way
  • Immigration doesn't have any alliance for transparency, accountability or feedback
  • Students are being met with a lot of xenophobia seeking information at institutions 
  • There is no definite start and end time because proficiency cannot be calculated
  • The curriculum and required books are outdated at least for the first 600 hours 
  • Tests for levels are held as the state requests not when the students are ready or finished

The Solutions
  • An entrance interview with clear explanation of the process
  • Integration specific facilities that can accommodate class rosters divided by proficiency
  • Development of a course syllabus and calendar that functions like other educational programs
  • A curriculum that starts out with vocabulary, sentence structure and dialogue first 
  • Official practice tests that measure true proficiency throughout the course
  • A final test that is fair considering the new curriculum 
  • An exit interview for open feedback with national changes annually 

If I can come up with this for a blog imagine if the BAMF asked the 45% of students who failed last year. And this number from 2019 is up from 2018 where 87% failed. I mean all of these numbers are flawed because there is no data on who actively participated to test. So many students voluntarily drop out of the course or are deported mid way through. I cannot speak for the people in my course and I do not think anyone was involuntarily sent back home. However, plenty of people just gave up. Of course, they only did that after Germany battered and bruised them with her silly course. There are solutions to integration's many, many problems but if the BAMF doesn't want to hear them... Ein Pech. So here we are so many years into this system with people still asking .. What is integration? Wouldn't you like to know?!