I was so grateful to read Ingrid Piller’s in-depth critical post on German language politics, where she offered a profound analysis of the assumptions underlying the campaign “Ich spreche Deutsch”. The title of the campaign can easily be associated with the slogan “language is a key to integration”, which is frequently used by the German government. Needless to say that, in this context, “language” means (only) German.
As a German who is involved in language politics, I very much support the suggestion made in Ingrid Piller’s post: A change of paradigms regarding “responsibility” for the inclusion of migrants is sorely needed in Germany. German politicians have turned a blind eye to migrants’ needs for decades, particularly in the area of (language) learning and skills. The burdens and shortcomings that are a result of German immigration politics are now attributed to migrants and refugees.
It is important to clarify here that when German politicians talk about “migrants and integration” these terms basically refer to people coming from Non-European countries. Consequently, the language classes that the campaign advertises, the so-called “integration classes” (launched in 2005), are predominantly obligatory for people from postcolonial states in Asia, Latin America and Africa as well as for those from the Arab world. It is, then, unnecessary to add that integration classes do not only focus on teaching language and communication, but that they also have the aim to educate these people and to make them assimilate to German society, politics and values.
There are certainly many migrants who neither have the resources nor the pre-conditions to visit integration classes but besides this “group” of people there might also be others who, in fact, only hesitatingly learn the German language. And here I would like to make my point: I suggest that the hesitation of some migrants to learn the German language is seen, and taken seriously, as a kind of resistant agency that makes sense under the given conditions. People who resist learning the German language resist assimilation into a racist society that keeps constructing them as different and inferior and does not allow them equal opportunities. They may well understand that in order to be integrated – or better: assimilated – they have to give up their multilingual identities and values and, despite this sacrifice, still have no chance to gain equal access to social life, labour and education.
Another reason for resisting language learning was highlighted in Matilde Grünhage-Monetti’s case study intimacy learning, where an elderly worker resisted language learning at work because she feared the challenges and tasks going along with the new organisation of work.
Understanding the reasons and reservations of hesitant language learners might help German politicians a lot to improve their (language) policy towards greater social justice and inclusion.
To conclude: critical qualitative research on migrants’ attitudes towards – and experiences with – learning the German language is needed. Along with multilingual provision we need awareness raising campaigns that make the dominant ethnic German population question their own privileges and assumptions. Not least, we need an inclusive labour market and education policies which respond to the needs of refugees and migrants and which recognize and appreciate the formal and informal learning already done prior to migration as well as their multiple (m)other tongues.