Even the keenest advocates of immigration agree that speaking the language helps migrants integrate. But they argue that the focus should be on helping them do so, not on overly ambitious targets many can never achieve. Many of Europe’s migrants today arrive with psychological problems born of fleeing war and catastrophe. Others work so hard that they struggle to find the time and energy for classes. Some are barely literate; answering fairly sophisticated written questions means first learning to read and write. When immigrants are told they must meet a highly demanding standard, many stop trying, say language teachers and researchers. They may then remain isolated in their ethnic communities, the only ones that will accept them.
Ricky van Oers, a Dutch scholar affiliated to the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, explains the effects of raising the bar in her home country. Once, knowledge of the language was assessed in an informal conversation with a local official. When in 2003 written tests were introduced, successful applications fell by half. Since 2007 classes in Dutch have been left to a mix of state and poorly regulated private schools. Reaching the necessary level is estimated to cost 3,600 euros ($4,380) on average, generally paid by the immigrant. Today, new arrivals have three years to reach that standard—one admittedly more modest than in Denmark—or face being fined up to 1,250 euros and being barred from permanent residency and citizenship until the test is passed.
Countries that introduce language tests for citizenship should make sure teaching is of a good quality (the students themselves are in a poor position to spot a dodgy operator). They should learn from Germany, which subsidises lessons so generously that they are practically free. Help people attend by ensuring child care if they need it. Provide incentives such as assistance with work placements. Presented with a feasible goal that can be reached with better skills, newcomers will work harder than when ordered to scale a distant peak that they can scarcely see.