By Emma Mitchell •
Updated: 11 Nov 2023 • 12:18
As reported in EWN, German newspaper BILD printed a 50-point manifesto for immigrants wishing to settle in the country that included making it mandatory to learn the language. Are BILD right and, if so, should the same happen in Spain?
Immigration is a hot topic across the European Union with the most visible, divisive edge being the illegal migrants and asylum seekers whose daily attempts at crossing from the North African coast to the safety of mainland Europe in dinghies create both media headlines and political rhetoric.
BILD, a populist right-wing tabloid, has fueled the general near-hysteria about immigration with its manifesto that is, at its heart, a thinly disguised list of racist insinuations about Muslim immigrants dressed up as a defence of German liberal values.
The German paper has tapped into an unspoken assumption that many Europeans hold but is incredibly uncomfortable to confront in the cold light of reason. That assumption is that immigrants are dark-skinned people who alight in European countries from the African continent or the Middle East with few belongings, little to no financial wherewithal and no ability to speak the native language. People who then become a ‘burden on the state’, don’t share our values, fail to integrate and, the gut feeling is, become a ‘problem’.
The reality is that immigrants are us; people who were not born in the country we now call home but have chosen to gain temporary or permanent residency and settle down. We are a wide range of nationalities and religions and have diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Some of us are affluent some are financially struggling, some of us are highly educated professionals and some are less educated manual workers. Some of us emigrated to have a better retirement and some did so to have a better working or family life.
For our host country, whatever ‘type’ of immigrant we are, the main priority is that we integrate well into society at large and the local communities we settle in. Only by integrating can we contribute positively to our new home countries.
It is to that end, integration, that a growing number of European countries are incorporating a requirement for passing a language test into their criteria for various types of residency visas.
The Council of Europe, which facilitates a framework for language learning, say:
“This is a phenomenon which has arisen since the year 2000. As a requirement for integration, language has become a key component of immigration and integration policies.”
Most EU countries already require proof of integration, usually in the form of passing exams in the native language and cultural knowledge, as part of the requirement for full citizenship but not for temporary or permanent residency. It’s worth highlighting the difference between residency and citizenship as the two are often confused.
A residency visa allows a third-country national (i.e. non-EU) migrant to stay legally in a country for the duration of the visa issued; after 5 years on temporary residency visas in Spain, a permanent residency permit can be applied for. Residency, even permanent residency, can be revoked at any time and does not allow the holder to vote or stand for public office.
Citizenship gives the person the same full rights as a native citizen of the country; a passport, the right to vote and stand for office, the passing on of citizenship to one’s children and, importantly, citizenship cannot be revoked.
The Council of Europe sets an international standard for describing language ability via its Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) to ensure that language tests for migrants in EU countries are standardised. Out of the EU countries that require migrants to speak the language to gain, or retain, residency, the bar is set fairly low and certainly very attainable for any migrant prepared to put in a little effort.
Germany, for instance, despite the reactionary stirring of BILD, already requires migrants wanting to obtain permanent residency to achieve a B1 level, which is classified by CEFR:
“Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.”
Austria also demands B1 level language certification to apply for permanent residence after 5 years and, although no longer in the EU, the United Kingdom requires B1 for migrants wishing to obtain ‘indefinite leave to remain’.
Switzerland requires the A2 level for permanent residency (although migrants from a number of European countries are exempt from this), as does Italy and Portugal and Sweden passed laws in May 2023 that A2 will be required from 2027. Denmark requires A1 and A2 in cases of family reunification. CEFR defines the A2 level certification as:
“Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.”
France is currently planning to make language tests compulsory for certain types of long-term residency but has nothing formal in place at the moment. In Norway, depending on the type of residency being applied for and the country the migrant comes from, applicants are required to complete between 250-550 hours of Norwegian language tuition and a social studies course.
In the Netherlands, migrants from the EU, EEA, Australia, Canada, the UK, US and Switzerland are not required to meet any language requirements, but migrants from other countries do need to demonstrate skills in Dutch.
Currently, in Spain, there is only an A2 level requirement for migrants wishing to obtain citizenship after 10 years in the country. This makes Spain one of the more lenient EU countries on the language criteria for citizenship.
Should Spain follow the moves of other EU countries and make A2 or B1 language tests part of the criteria for residency? Currently, almost 17.5 per cent of Spain’s population is made up of migrants from other countries. Although a high number of migrants come from Spanish-speaking South American countries, a higher percentage come from countries where Spanish is not spoken.
One only needs to read articles about property purchase trends by foreign nationals in Spain to see that migrants of a particular nationality tend to flock to particular areas and form enclaves. When migrants of a single nationality form enclaves they are less likely to integrate with local Spanish communities, engage with Spanish culture and traditions and, dare I say it, learn Spanish to any degree past asking for a glass of vino and a tapa.
It is understandable; the average age of European and US migrants to Spain is over 50, an age where most of us find learning languages more challenging. And if one cannot speak the language, it can be tempting to simply socialise with people we can communicate with because it’s easier and less intimidating. English tends to be the shared language amongst migrants, but Spain is notable for having one of the lowest levels of English language skills in Europe amongst its native citizens, with only 28 per cent of Spaniards speaking the language.
Integration is absolutely necessary for any migrant who wishes to stay in Spain permanently, not just because life is so much easier, but also because it demonstrates a basic respect for our adopted nation. Perhaps the Spanish government need to go from the ‘nudge’ position into a ‘push’ position and make CEFR certification in Spanish a mandatory part of residency attainment and renewal.
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Emma landed in journalism after nearly 30 years as an executive in the Internet industry. She lives in Bédar and her interests include raising one eyebrow, reckless thinking and talking to people randomly. If you have a great human interest story you can contact her on email@example.com
“…the gut feeling is, become a ‘problem’.” I believe there should be a legal pathway made available for immigration by all worthy people. The key word here is LEGAL. It’s more than a ‘gut feeling’, as there will surely be problems if you allow just anyone into the country without having proper immigration policies in place.
Learning a new language takes a lifetime of commitment to achieve a “native” level, but anyone can, and should learn the basics of the dominant language in the area where they live. Aging, unless it includes some kind of dementia, is not a scientific reason for a lack of ability. Everyone talks about children being “sponges” who can easily absorb a new language, but that isn’t really scientific either, it is a misunderstanding.
Just listen to how adults talk to children! Basic phrases and simple words repeated over and over again. The child’s mind is growing, neural pathways are still forming. As they’re surrounded by adults who speak to them constantly, adding actions of caring, feeding, positive and negative reinforcement, it is unsurprising that children learn to speak the language of the adults around them. Try using advanced words and grammar with a 12 year old and see what happens – they won’t understand, unless they have had experience, which is why secondary and tertiary education are required to gain mastery of any subject, let alone a new language.
Adulthood brings with it so many responsibilities; family, work, social and legal obligations, all of which eat into the 24 hours in each day. Gravitating towards the path of least resistance is pure human nature, and why we have survived as a species. It isn’t realistic to expect residents, who have few rights but many obligations, to master a second language.
We also must consider that very many residents spend tens of thousands of their money in Spain every year. Local council taxes, IVA, income tax, interest on bank loans and mortgages, the insurance these loans require… … … the list of their personal investment in this country, they now call home, is seemingly endless (not forgetting the whole industry formed by professionals who offer language interpretation services at a price!), and so Spain could shoot itself in the foot by demanding a language certificate.
Killing the goose that laid the golden egg, is not a great idea!
Add on top of that, that many expats have grown up with immigration in their home towns, where strange people bring their own languages, food, religions and culture, which they are legally supported with. In some cities, English is now a second or third language, and its “natives” in the minority. To ask more of expats in Spain than those who now legally reside in the UK would be rubbing salt in the wounds.
Go to any city in the USA and you will find Irish institutions, a French Quarter, Little Italy and a China Town… … humans are humans the world over, and will always gravitate to where they feel comfortable and understood; even safe.
And will the Andaluz be required to learn Castellano, which many Andaluz speakers refuse to respond to?
Were Spain to change their citizenship and passport rules to be more favourable than 10 years, where folk who retire to Spain would be nearing their demise, with instead for example, 2 years with a condition of learning the language to a certain level, would greatly incentivise applicants; with a carrot of a Spanish Passport dangling out in front. Of course over the Brexit period, a missed opportunity for Spain.
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