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Most Refugees Will Never Learn German

Everyone agrees that integrating into German society requires learning German. So how well-prepared are the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into Germany?

According to this interview (g) with Ayman Mazyek, the head of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (which is heavily involved in helping with refugees, since it has many Arabic-speaking members), about "15-20%" of current migrants from the Middle East to Germany are urbanites with college degrees. Especially among Syrians, he notes, few migrants are illiterate -- "most have been educated at least to the 6th-grade level". In Germany, most sixth graders are twelve. Mazyek demands a 'massive expansion' in German courses, as well as mandatory integration courses teaching refugees basics of secular Western society, especially freedom of religion, acceptance of homosexuality, and coexistence with non-believers. He notes that an 'Arab-influenced' interpretation of Islam is going to become more evident in Germany.

So, in other words, 80-85% of current refugees are not urbane college graduates. Most of the Syrians are not illiterate, but that apparently doesn't hold for the Afghans and Iraqis. Most of these refugees have been educated at least to the level of German twelve-year-old, although not in German schools, mind you. 

Now, I happen to know a little something about learning German, because I did. I took classes for 3 years, eventually graduating and getting the highest score on the TestDAF. During those classes, I met hundreds of fellow adult German learners. They ran the gamut from Pakistani engineers to Japanese housewives to Albanian mechanics to Czech prostitutes to Namibian secretaries to Turkmen laborers.

One thing you notice in German as a Foreign Language classes is that at least half of the people were there because of some kind of outside pressure. Their employers wanted them to learn German, or the people at the unemployment office, or for immigration reasons. Most of these people freely confessed that they didn't want to be there. They were simply going through the motions. What they wanted was a certificate with a certain passing grade. They could then show this to some official and keep their job or benefits.

But even the ones who were motivated often simply lacked ability. They tried hard, did all the exercises, interacted with native speakers as often as possible -- and failed. Not everybody has the ability to learn a second language to fluency as an adult. Especially not German. Anyone who tells you learning German is easy is a liar or fool. German has three randomly-distributed genders, four cases, and at least eight separate ways of forming plurals.

I'd estimate that at least 60-70% of the students in the classes made very little progress while I was there. I moved through the classes fairly quickly, but I left a lot of people behind. In each new class I attended, I would find out that perhaps 30-40% of the students were taking the class for the second (or more) time. Eventually, some teacher would have mercy on them and give them a barely-passing grade. One notice quickly that students whose native alphabet was not Roman had especially huge problems.

Some of these people were, to put it bluntly, just not very bright. But many smart ones also failed to learn good conversational German. Not everybody can learn to draw, not everybody can learn to solve a quadratic equation, not everybody can write a coherent 1000-word essay in their native language. In fact, the vast majority of all humans on this earth cannot do any of those three things.

And not everybody can learn a foreign language as an adult to fluency. What they did learn was to interpret basic signs and messages, hold simple conversations, and fill out forms. That's all. They could not read a newspaper -- even a tabloid. They learned a kind of pidgin German which involved mostly stringing words together, without bothering about verb tense or adjective declination -- things that mystified them in class. In English, what they said would be something like: "I take taxi now go friend visit in city Cologne" or "Please me give two rolls and bread with seeds" or "I pay twenty and two euro and thirty and five cent for nice bottle wine." Enough to basically navigate the everyday, but not really enough to advance.

So teaching hundreds of thousands of arrivals whose native language is Arabic to speak fluent German will be impossible. The results will be determined by cognitive-linguistic ability: 10% will learn fluent German and go on to become the ethnic representatives seen on German talk shows. Another 20-30% will probably learn good-ish German, enough to have a decent career. The rest will speak pidgin or no German at all. And even getting to this result will require a massive investment of money and manpower.

Did I mention that Germany is paying the teachers who currently run integration courses for foreigners who are already here such miserable wages (g) that they are quitting in droves?