Czechs sets language tests for foreigners

The Czech Republic is to introduce language tests for migrants. Under the new rules launched last week foreigners applying for permanent residence or Czech citizenship will have to pass a compulsory exam. Neighouring Austria also recently introduced a language rule for migrants. So why does the Czech Republic suddenly find it necessary?

Minister for Human Rights and Minorities Džamila Stehlíková
Under changes to the Czech Republic’s foreigners law, those who apply for Czech citizenship or permanent residence will from next year first have to overcome the hurdle of an examination in the Czech language based on a Europe-wide testing system. Speaking at its launch on Thursday morning, Minister for Human Rights and Minorities Džamila Stehlíková explained the thinking behind the new system:

“Without language integration a migrant or foreigner cannot integrate into Czech social, cultural and working life. In the UK for instance they combine multiculturalism with a demand for a basic standard of English. By contrast, Germany for a long time underestimated the importance of the German language in integration – and the result is the segregation of some social groups, because of a lack of language communication.”

Minister Stehlikova, herself an immigrant from Kazakhstan, denied the language tests could be a kind of deterrent, aimed at keeping the number of foreigners in the Czech Republic down:

“To apply for permit residence you have to have been living here for at least five years. The A2 exam would be easy for anybody who has lived in the Czech Republic for five years, if they have not avoided regular social contact. People should be able to get by without an interpreter in every day situations – going to the doctor’s, looking for a job and other activities.”

It is not yet been decided whether applicants will have to sit the A2 test referred to by Džamila Stehlíková, or the easier A1. Vladislav Gunter of the Centre for the Integration of Foreigners says the latter might not be of great practical benefit:

“Nobody really knows how it’s going to work. But it seems this exam won’t be so hard to pass. Moreover, from my point of view there is a big risk that it’s going to end up like only a formality.”

Czech is of course a Slavic language and many of those applying for permanent residence come from other Slavic countries to the east. Will they have an advantage when the exam system comes in? Marie Hadkova of the University of Jan Evangelista Purkyne in Usti nad Labem was a member of the team which devised the tests.

“Or course they would be a bit easier [for Slavs], but it doesn’t only depend on the level of the exam, it would determine the length of studying…People from Slavic countries should study for a shorter time, of course, while it would be more difficult for people from other countries, which means more lessons.”

Meanwhile, the Centre for Integrations Vladislav Gunter says when it comes to learning Czech, Slavic origins are not always the advantage they may appear to be.

“I know several people from Russia, Ukraine who have terrible problems with Czech, not with understanding but with speaking, because it’s so similar that they have no motivation or they think it’s good enough, and they speak really bad Czech. And I know many Vietnamese, many Africans, Arab people, who speak really nice Czech. Because they took good courses they learned it very well and very quickly.”

Wherever applicants for citizenship or permanent residence are from, they will have to sit Czech language exams from January 2009. The Ministry of the Interior expects around 30,000 foreigners a year will sit the test.