6th Issue, January 2010

Multilingualism: Opportunity for Economic Success and Integration?

Vietnamese immigrants in the Czech Republic face a major stumbling block in their integration in the Czech society: their language. Almost every second of them speaks Vietnamese only. Little is done to change this situation. Another group of immigrants, Subsaharan Africans in Germany, face another difficulty: they struggle to find an adequate employment and their multilingualism is mostly worthless in Germany.

Many Vietnamese migrants speak exclusively Vietnamese, even if they have been living in the country for several years, which has three main reasons: first, there are very few and not very effective language courses on offer in Vietnam. Second, the Czech and the Vietnamese language are so different in vocabulary and structure that it is very hard for adults to learn the other language. Third, the Vietnamese do not have many opportunities to meet Czech-speaking people, due to their work situation.


Hard work, little talking
The Vietnamese often own shops and work long hours there, even on weekends, and they also live often quite far away from their workplace, which leaves little time for social activities. Furthermore, working in the shops does not require sophisticated language skills in Czech. In some cases, the Vietnamese work near border crossing points and there they use German even more often than Czech.

Interviews with the Vietnamese suggest that language is the main stumbling block to social integration. However, the government does not offer sufficient language courses for the Vietnamese.

On the other hand, young children who arrived to the Czech Republic during their early school age or were born in the Czech Republic have full access to the Czech compulsory education system and are proficient in the Czech language, in some cases more than in their mother tongue.

Hundreds of them continue their education in Czech grammar schools and colleges. The latter have also some, often good command of foreign languages offered by the Czech school curricula: English and German, French or Spanish. Few have graduated from colleges so far. There employability in the Czech Republic or internationally remains to be assessed.


Multilingualism is no asset
The other researched migrant community, Subsaharan African migrants in Germany, have a better command of their host countrys language. However, apart from German, their language skills (usually one or more indigenous African languages and the official language inherited from their colonial masters) seem to be almost useless to them. Knowledge of colonial languages such as French, English or Portuguese is only relevant for the highly educated Africans who are employed, for instance, by international firms or globally operating aid organisations in Germany.

For all the others, finding an employment which is adequate to their education or training undergone in their respective countries of origin or/and in Germany seems to be very difficult, more difficult than for other migrant communities. Many of them do not feel welcome in Germany. When among themselves, Black Africans often quote with a bitter smile the three W-standard questions they are asked by the Germans: Where are you from? What are you doing here? When are you going back?.


Unfavourable school system
The interviewed migrants consider German language skills to be vital for social integration and economic success, especially when it comes to their children. However, migrants children often have difficulties with the German school system: the pupils or students are released at lunch-time with a heavy load of homework to be done against the next day.

In such a school system, doing homework is much more important for educational advancement and success than in a whole-day school system. Thus migrant children with parents who are unfamiliar with such a school system and sufficiently competent in the German language to render them assistance when doing homework clearly are at a disadvantage as compared to their German class-mates.


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