German for Beginners

Refugees arrive in Germany

Refugees, mainly from Afghanistan, arrive in Bavaria. (Photo by Falk Heller/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

MUNICH — Spende, reads the sign leaning against a tent outside Munich’s main train station. Donations. Items needed for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been pouring into Germany in recent months. Germany, the final destination — the refugees hope — of long, arduous, often heartbreaking journeys from Afghanistan, Somalia and, in greatest numbers, Syria.

Bottled water
Baby formula (liquid)

The list goes on. What it doesn’t include but might is Deutschlehrer (German teacher). Munich and, more particularly, the small Bavarian villages where many of the refugees are being sent lack the human resources to facilitate what politicians left, right, and center agree is a linchpin to any refugee policy: integration. A big part of which is learning German.

Munich’s residents are quickly ticking off what’s on the list; just a few days after Hungary began letting refugees through to Germany and Austria this summer, the city’s police had to ask people to stop bringing toys, umbrellas, and blankets for the refugees: They had more than enough. Whether what the teachers represent will be as forthcoming — a “Welcome to Germany” sign that won’t be furled up again after a few months — remains to be seen. Several politicians, including Minister-President Horst Seehofer of Bavaria, are gambling on a backlash, and even if Angela Merkel sticks to her stance that all refugees are welcome, she is careful to distinguish between “economic migrants” from the Balkans (not welcome) and people from still-war-torn lands.

Whether learning German is a priority for the refugees is another question. A young Bangladeshi I met on his way to the visa-processing offices was hoping to change his asylum status from Italian to German because he’d heard he could get by with English here — an impossibility in Milan. And he’s right, to some extent. The Technische Universität München, for example, is opening its classrooms to refugees whose studies at home were interrupted, and as many of those classes are in English as in German.

But for most jobs, at least some command of the language is necessary. Moreover, language classes might start to provide what these families and young men and old men need most: a path back to a more normal existence than what they’ve experienced over the past months and even years. A psychiatrist told The Washington Post recently, “I don’t think that all these Syrian children need trauma counseling. The social institutions that protect family, restore school and normality, are the most important things for mental health.”

Are Germans comfortable sharing these social institutions, potentially for the long term? Despite millions of Turks moving here since the 1960s, as well as waves of migrants (often with German ancestry) coming from the former Soviet Union, Germany has not come around easily to the idea that it might be a country of immigrants. And yet attitudes are changing, particularly among the young. The teen heartthrob of the moment is Elyas M’Barek, an Austrian actor raised in Munich whose father’s family comes from Tunisia. And where 20 years ago, “Kanak Sprak,” or Turkish-inflected, error-laden German, was a target of jokes and derision among native German speakers, it’s now considered cool in certain (non-Turkish) crowds.

The faltering German of the refugees might not fall into the same category, but it may prove just as healthy for Germans to hear as for refugees to learn — reminding the citizens here of their better selves, and helping them embrace the changing nature of their country, a land increasingly comfortable opening its doors to huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

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