For a lot of people who move to Germany, completing an Integration Course is a condition of renewing their initial Residence Permit. There are probably exceptions and variations, but the majority of people – whether moving to Germany or staying here after getting out of the military – will start off with a three year Residence Permit. In order to renew that permit after that initial three years, most people have to demonstrate that they are familiar with German customs and laws, and that they are able to speak an adequate level of German.
Now, I know that, for people who come to Germany with a job offer already in hand, there are some exemptions available. The same goes for people who already have a mastery of the language. But as to whether those same people have to take the culture and law section of the course (called the Orientierungskurs / Orientation Course), that seems to vary by each state.
What I can talk to you about with certainty is my experience.
A Little Background on Me
I came to Germany without any kind of job offer. I also had limited German skills. I had lived in Germany for seven years as a child and still retained a rudimentary understanding of the basics, but that didn’t take me much farther than singing nursery rhymes or explaining where I lived. As I worked at a university back in Texas, I took advantage of that fact and audited two semesters of German just before my move. That helped me a ton, actually, but it still put me on an extremely low level in the overall scheme of things. I could string together simple sentences, conjugate common verbs, and had an understanding of the two basic cases in German, but I couldn’t carry on conversations at all and had a whole lot of trouble understanding native speakers.
Getting Registered for the Course
If you don’t already know, the people at the Ausländerbehörde informally size up your language skills when you’re there getting that inital Residence Permit taken care of. My husband was with me and did all of the talking, and it was quite clear to the woman helping us that I was absolutely not fluent in German. So, she told us that I would have to take an Integration Course and gave us some papers that had helpful information (i.e. places in the area that offered it).
Now, my understanding is that you can take the Integration Course through state or private schools, as long as they are approved by the state for that purpose. However, we opted to go through the VHS (Volkshochschule). I like to think of the VHS as the German equivalent of the US community college. It’s not quite the same, but it’s pretty close. People in the bigger cities have more options, but in our part of the Eifel, it was pretty much just the VHS. Sure, I could have driven into Trier for a course, but that just wasn’t practical for a number of reasons.
So, once we decided on the VHS, we went to their main office to get more paperwork started, and it was then that I took a placement test. It was basically a grammar test. There were no listening or speaking sections. I didn’t write anything. It was maybe 50 or so fill-in-the-blank questions. They told me not to guess on any questions I didn’t know the answer to, as the goal of the test was not to finish it but to assess which types of questions, and at which difficulty level, I already understood. I had a set amount of time, after which they immediately graded my test. I scored one point below B1.
Okay, let me back up a little bit.
Germany ranks language skills on a scale of A to C. A being the lowest – C being the highest. Each level is broken up into two sub-levels.
I like to think of Level A as the E.T. level.
A1 is E.T. in the beginning of the movie. The language is completely foreign. He can’t speak or understand a single word. He’s learning super basic words and phrases and is very difficult to understand.
A2 is E.T. in the latter parts of the movie (and a bit beyond). Here you can construct simple sentences; although, you’re still making mistakes with even the most basic things. “How are you? What is your name? I live in Prüm. I am from the United States.” This is about where you are at A2. You can understand some written and spoken German, but you need people to really speak slowly and clearly in order to understand them.
I like to think of Level B as the Balki stage. If you don’t know who Balki is, go here now.
At B1, you can have conversations and string togther fairly complex sentences, but you can only converse about daily life types of things. Your vocabulary is bigger but still quite simple, and you pronounce lots of things incorrectly. But you can understand most of what you read. You can also understand German when it is spoken to you, but only on fairly simple topics.
B2 makes a pretty decent sized leap in that you start adding much more complicated words to your vocabulary and using/understanding idioms. Basically, you start grasping a lot of the nuances of the language here and are able to read more complicated texts (like newspapers, the Bible, etc.). You also stop mispronouncing sounds and words so much, and you can understand spoken German even when the speaker has a fairly strong accent.
And, finally, we have Level C, or as I call it, the Schwarzenegger level. Although, we like to make fun of his accent, Schwarzenegger has a really strong grasp of the English language. So well, in fact, that he was able to hold political office. If you think that’s not some kind of feat for a non-native speaker, I dare you to go out there and try reading any kind of legal or political document in German. He still has an accent, but he pronounces words correctly, speaks quickly and fluidly, can understand different American accents, and can even incorporate slang.
C1 is what you need to master in order to be admitted to a university program taught in German.
C2 just means you are as fluent as a non-native speaker can be.
The Integration Course takes you through the end of B1.
So, the VHS said that I was one point away from being Balki. However, they did not test my speaking abilities at all, which are definitely my weak spot. Because of that, they said I should start the Integration Course at the A2.2 level. Yes, they break each sub-level up into two parts as well. So, you go from A1.1 to A1.2 to A2.1 to A2.2 and so on.
Unfortuately, the VHS in my area only offered one Integration Course at a time. They were just getting ready to begin at the A1.1 level in a few weeks, so I had to wait until the class got to the A2.2 level to join them. That meant waiting around for almost six months.
My class had two different instructors. I think I was lucky here because I’ve heard of some courses having a different teacher almost every day. Our main instructor was a native German speaker and a very respected educator in Bitburg. He came out of retirement to teach for the VHS, and he was a wonderful teacher. I really can’t say enough good things about him. Our other teacher was from Kazakhstan. Now, she wasn’t a native German speaker, but she was fluent (obviously) and had a fairly low accent. He taught us for three days each week, and she taught us for two.
My class had 19 students altogether, including a handful of refugees. I was a little surprised by that as I thought they all took a special Integration Course tailored to them. The nationalities in my class were American (3), Kenyan (1), Turkish (1), Bulgarian (2), Polish (4), Kazakhstani (3), Syrian (2), Afghani (1), Thai (1), and Tunisian (1).
How the Class was Organized
We met Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 12:30pm. As I said, the main instructor taught us three days each week, and the other instructor for two days. He was much more lecture, and she was much more lab – which complimented the course really well. Our calendar matched the local school calendars because they figured that since we were all adults, there would most likely be people with children. So, we got all of the school holidays off. I think each sub-section lasted for a little over two weeks. So, A2.1 would go for about two weeks, and then we would work through A2.2 for two weeks, meaning that the entire level of A2 lasted a little over one month.
We didn’t take any tests at the end of each level/sub-level/stage – whatever you want to call it. But they did work through practice tests with us towards the end of the course.
These are the books we used. Other classes used different books, so there’s really no telling which ones you might use in your class. But these do seem to be fairly popular. They came with CDs that had all of the audio files on them, as well as some additional activities for each chapter.
The classes were taught 100% in German. We weren’t allowed to talk to each other in our native languages at all. If they caught us speaking anything but German, they would make us switch. A lot of it was lecture and working through the book activities together. But, they did make time every other day to have us practice speaking with partners or preparing conversations for the class. There wasn’t as much speaking as we needed, but there’s only so much you can do when your class is as big as ours was.
We had homework every night, which usually consisted of the activities in the back of the book that correlated to whatever we did in class that day. We were encouraged to do more things on our own, like watch movies in German, speak with native speakers, read German children’s books, etc.
Once we finished the B1.2 section of the course, we took the language exam and then jumped right into the Orientation Course. I think that lasted about two and a half weeks. Same setup and schedule. The Orienation Course just went over laws and culture. We learned names of some dialects, read through parts of the German constitution, learned basic facts and dates about WWII, went over major German holidays, memorized the names of the states and their capitals, etc.
And then, of course, you have the exams. There are two. One is over the language, and the other is over the Orientation Course. You don’t get your results right away. It took almost five weeks for me to get my language scores, and then it took another two or three weeks to get my Orientation Course results.
In the language exam, you are tested on your listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills. But, you aren’t taking an actual B1 test, so it’s not pass or fail. Instead, you take a test that covers A1, A2, and B1, and then you get a certificate that states which range you proved mastery of.
Here is what mine looked like –
It gives you a key on a separate page that says the maximum amount of points you could have earned for each category, and which amount of points equals which level. I scored the maximum in all three categories (although, I’m still not quite sure how that happened). Because they test you on all three levels, you could potentially score B1 on some areas and A2 or even A1 on others. But in order to “pass” the class – meaning meeting the Residence Permit conditions – you have to score B1 in Speaking and at least one other area. If you only score B1 in Speaking but nowhere else, you have to retake part of the course and the test. If you score A1 or A2 in Speaking, regardless of what you get in the other areas, you have to retake part of the course and the test.
The second test was much easier. It was 33 multiple choice questions, and they gave us all of the questions beforehand. Well, they give you around 100 questions to study but only 33 show up on the test. The wording is exactly the same. So, as long as you study them, you won’t have any problem at all with this test. I finished my test in less than 10 minutes, and there was already someone who had left a few minutes ahead of me.
And then, in true German fashion, you get a third certificate that states you completed and passed the Integration Course.
Thoughts and Tips
Expect that you will have people in the class who don’t take it seriously. I had several people in mine who treated the whole thing like a joke. They were only there because they had to be, and they had no desire whatsoever to actually learn the language. Some people were even quite rude to our instructors.
Expect culture clashes. None of ours were violent or angry or anything like that. But we had people who laughed about Jews being killed during WWII, and others who scoffed at the idea of women having equal rights or people living openly gay lifestyles. Our instructors did a really good job of putting people in their places when that happened, but it nevertheless happened.
Don’t expect to come out of the class fluent in German. You’ll be able to function on a much higher level than before, but you won’t be able to read much of the news, understand employment forms, etc. I had an American woman in my class who honestly expected to be fluent by the end of the course and was quite disappointed when she realized that wasn’t going to happen.
Know that the Integration Course will probably not take you as far as an actual B1 course. Trust me. I just started a B2 course with people who took an actual B1 course, and they are worlds ahead of me.
And finally, expect that you are most likely going to have to continue taking language courses beyond the Integration Course. It’s a great starter, but you will find that you will still be linguistically limited in a lot of areas.