As language courses for migrants and refugees move online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, how does Germany respond to experiences of waiting and uncertainty? They tell newcomers to be patient.
What Happens when Language-Integration Courses Go Online?
Alte Heimat, Neue Heimat – Old Home, New Home: that’s the title of chapter seven of the online German language course for refugees and migrants. In March 2020, Germany closed its educational institutions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The school closures, also meant the temporary suspension of all in-person language-integration courses for the roughly 200,000 refugees and migrants currently enrolled in the integration programme across the country. Many courses have now moved online, and the German government has invested heavily in developing a centralized e-learning platform, the “VHS-Lernportal”, which should serve as a bridge between in-person classes. As of early May, schools in some German states have slowly begun reopening, integration courses are set to resume cautiously over the next few months.
Recent studies in linguistic anthropology and related fields have shown that language requirements can turn into significant economic, legal, and sociocultural barriers for migrants and refugees in practice
Though in-person education is slowly starting again, I wondered how the months of online learning had affected participants of the language-integration programme: What happens when the state-funded language courses, mandatory for most new migrants and refugees, goes online?
I am a linguistic anthropologist and have been studying Germany’s language and integration policies and programmes for five years. As a linguistic anthropologist, I am particularly interested in understanding how national and institutional decisions about language use affect different groups of people: What are the socio-cultural underpinnings of these decisions, and how does this decision-making contribute to societal notions of belonging? How does Germany’s decision to require newcomers to learn German affect their social and spatial mobility?
At first blush, one might think that these programmes are reasonable and practical: speaking a country’s dominant language can foster interaction with local communities, help build social networks and contribute to individual agency, and is thus, in many ways, desirable. In fact, many countries around the world, and particularly in Europe, maintain similar language policies for migrants; the idea being that a newcomer’s knowledge of the dominant language will ensure their timely incorporation in the national economy.
Many countries also use language proficiency requirements as a prerequisite for citizenship and permanent residency. While it certainly is desirable for members of a given community to be able to communicate, the question is what happens when a desirable outcome becomes a requirement for participation and for access to important rights and benefits (Carens 2013).
- Setting language requirements for newcomers runs the risk of suggesting that national communities are bound together by a unified and culturally inherited national language—a view that scholars have called ‘ideologies of monolingualism’ (Blackledge 2000; Gramling 2009; 2016). The trouble with this view, of course, is that it is not an accurate reflection of Europe in its increasingly multicultural and linguistically superdiverse contemporary form.
- More perniciously, building immigration policy around an implicit commitment to dominant national language(s) may privilege some ways of speaking—and thereby also some speakers—above others. Although language requirements appear practical and common sense, and thus seem relatively innocuous, they place the onus on newcomers to adapt linguistically—and their failure to do so is often interpreted as an inability or unwillingness to participate, resulting in a linguistic penalty which disproportionately affects minority language speakers and members of vulnerable communities (Piller 2016; Roberts 2013).
- As recent studies in linguistic anthropology and related fields have shown, and as my own research demonstrates as well, language requirements can turn into significant economic, legal, and sociocultural barriers for migrants and refugees in practice, often prolonging or even hindering their access to the labour market, to social participation, and, importantly, to their sense of agency and inclusion (Del Percio 2018; Khan 2019; Smith-Khan 2016).
Compared to other European countries, Germany places a strong emphasis on the importance for newcomers to learn German. Most notably, Germany’s required level of language competency is higher than it is in most other countries: before being allowed to enter the labour market, to access higher education, and to apply for citizenship and permanent residency, newcomers must achieve a ‘B1’ level of German, which stands for ‘intermediate’ in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
It has also invested heavily in state-wide language-integration programmes since the early 2000’s, which most refugees and migrants are required to take. “What can we expect from foreigners who live here permanently? We can expect that they want to live here with us. They should learn German and take part in civil society in all its diversity. They should not want to live as though they were not here” (FAZ 2006). As former Interior Minister Schäuble made clear in a 2006 interview, a newcomer’s ability to speak German is considered a key marker of their willingness to integrate into German civil society and to belong to Germany.
Analysing the effects of language requirements
Given that Germany is among the OECD countries that receive some of highest numbers of permanent immigrants per year (OECD 2019), and given that between 2015 and 2017 Germany granted asylum to over 1 million displaced people, it is crucial that we understand how newcomers experience and negotiate Germany’s language integration policies and how these may be affecting their access to economy and society more broadly.
In 2017 and 2018, I observed and participated in three state-funded language integration courses for adult refugees and migrants in Berlin, following my informants’ experiences and perspectives throughout the programme. What I found was that while language integration policies and programmes promise a route into full participation in the German Zivilgesellschaft (civil society), they often fail to live up to that promise to some extent.
The strict requirements along with opaque and complicated bureaucratic procedures have the effect of confining newcomers to prolonged spaces of transition: between physically arriving in Germany on the one hand, and achieving a meaningful sense of agency and participation on the other. Many of my informants reported a feeling of uncertainty about the requirements placed on them: a tension between hope in eventual progress, but also acute experiences of stalling, powerlessness and urgency.
There are strong reasons to subject the rapid move to online learning technologies—particularly in language education for newcomers — to critical scrutiny.
Instead of offering a feasible, timely, and inclusive path to self-sufficiency, the process of ‘integrating’ instead became an institutionally-imposed period of waiting. Taken this way, integration can mean a complete restructuring of a newcomer’s relationship with and control over time. Many of my informants spoke to me about experiences of restless waiting, alienation and boredom as they tried to negotiate long course hours, pressing personal matters and the complexity of German bureaucratic institutions.
When courses went online in March, I wondered how the move to e-learning during the pandemic plays in to these experiences of waiting. Are they being exacerbated or is e-learning, perhaps, making things faster and easier?
The current global shift to online learning has sparked optimism around technological innovations that make access to learning easier, faster and more equitable. There is particular optimism within the German government that expanding education programmes through digital technologies might aid future learning: The development of the VHS-Lernportal, the only, as yet, officially authorized learning platform for language-integration courses, has already motivated policy makers to expand the use of digital tools for adult German-language tuition in future course designs. Advocates of an online learning approach can point to the fact that digital learning tools respond to a range of learning abilities and preferences, are accessible to a broad range of users and are particularly beneficial for audio-visual learning. What is more, following a report by Germany’s Ministry of the Interior, digital learning tools like course-book apps are time-efficient as they are accessible for on-the-go learning (BMI 2020: 5).
While these aspects may well lend some support to the wave of optimism about the positive potential of online learning, there are nevertheless strong reasons to subject the rapid move to online learning technologies—particularly in language education for newcomers — to critical scrutiny. Indeed, this move raises important concerns over who has access to online education, who benefits, and how existing social inequalities and digital divides may be exacerbated. As a recent study by researchers at Hamburg University shows, using online education platforms and video communication applications for learning and communication, especially in multilingual contexts, is particularly challenging for newcomer language learners (Barakos and Plöger 2020). It also requires some degree of digital and tech literacy. It demands access to compatible devices (laptops, smartphones), software and reliable Wifi access. It also requires time: time to devote to learning.
I was curious about how the VHS-Lernportal worked, so, in early May, I registered for an account and started taking the intermediate-level B1 Deutschkurs.
I was familiar with chapters like Alte Heimat, Neue Heimat from the course books we worked through in the integration classrooms I observed during my fieldwork; the theme often being getting used to the customs of your new home. Grammar lessons were structured around the narratives of new and existing migrant communities. The aim of these chapters is to teach language learners how to talk about their migration experiences, about unfamiliar mannerisms and codes of conduct they observed in Germany, and about how those observations compare to their own cultural and behavioural norms. They directly address the experience of getting settled in Germany for the first time, with such headings as “Ein Neuer Start” (a new start).
Protagonists in these textbook narratives are frequently members of the German-Turkish diaspora, whose parents came to Germany in the 1960’s and 1970’s on guest-worker contracts, and who – according to the narrative – struggled initially due to their lack of German language skills. Luckily, the story would go, their parents learned German eventually and life became a lot easier; they began expanding their social networks, were able to manage administrative tasks independently, and enrol in continuing education. Germany has an historically large German-Turkish diaspora, however most new migrants are not currently from Turkey.
Nevertheless, the German-Turkish diaspora was often referenced in course textbooks as an example of migrants to Germany, pre-language-integration measures. I was used to seeing these very explicit narratives about the relationship between language and belonging; often instrumentalizing the perceived failure of historical migrant communities to integrate in order to incentivise newcomers to learn German quickly: “Gutes Deutsch, gute Arbeit. Schlechtes Deutsch, schlechte Arbeit. Türsteher.” – “good German, good job. Bad German, bad job. Bouncer.”, Paul, one of the language instructors I worked with used to tell the class.
The part of the story that was always missing in these chapters was an explicit acknowledgement of how long these processes take and how messy the lines between speaking German and feeling included really were. Now, as I was working my way through the chapter in the online course book, I was surprised to find new content that I had not encountered during fieldwork. New subchapters explicitly focused on newcomer experiences with administrative and bureaucratic institutions, acknowledging the opacity and uncertainty of institutional processes and the time spent waiting for appointments and important documents. Yet, here again, the onus is placed on the newcomer to negotiate these bureaucratic hurdles, rather than offering more clarity
Chapter seven, exercise nine: “Hier muss man Geduld haben” (here, you need patience)—Scenario 1: “Geduld, bitte!” (patience, please!): A young man, referred to as Herr Ortega (Mr Ortega), waits in at a counselling centre for professional recognition. He is a trained nurse and is in the process of having his foreign vocational qualifications officially recognized so that he can enrol in vocational re-training and eventually continue his career. The exercise calls for filling in the blanks to a dialogue transcript between Mr Ortega and an office employee who is consulting him on the professional recognition procedure. Buttons to the left of the transcript, play the dialogue audio in full. The scenario begins with Mr Ortega’s voice: “Wow, I am pretty nervous. What questions will they ask me? Will they ask me if I have been learning German for a while? Will they want to know what my specialization is in nursing? How much longer is this going to take?”, he wonders. The office employee arrives, apologizing for keeping him waiting for so long. “Yeah, I have been waiting for two-and-a-half hours…” Mr Ortega replies, irritated. “I know,” says the office employee, “here, you need to have patience”.
What was usually absent in course books, is now rendered visible through Mr Ortega’s inner dialogue at the outset of the exercise: the anxiety of dealing with bureaucratic institutions, the confusion around what is expected of you as a newcomer and the time spent waiting. Waiting is thus framed as an essential activity (Kwon 2015) for newcomers to Germany, demonstrated, most visibly through the green, glowing clock in the waiting room behind Mr Ortega. In lieu of any solution to this state of uncertainty, however, the newcomer is asked to be patient. This raises an important set of anthropological, and indeed political, questions: why are online course book chapters about newcomers’ first encounters in Germany teaching migrants and refugees to be patient? Why is patience the answer to negotiating the complex bureaucracy of German institutions? Why should their waiting entail patience?
Germany Means Waiting, Waiting, Waiting
I called one of my informants, Anisah to find out how she and her family were experiencing the shift to online courses. Anisah and her young daughter, Sofia, were granted asylum in Germany in 2016 after having fled Syria. Germany’s family reunification policy, enabled her husband, Halim, to join them a year later. Like most newcomers to Germany, Anisah and Halim are required to take language integration courses, and have been doing so for several years. It was in one of these classes that I first met Halim, shortly after which I began visiting him and his family in their home for lunch or at the local playground where their children liked to use the swings. Halim had studied computer science in Syria and Dubai and had a successful 12-year career working in IT prior to his arrival in Germany. He has since been working towards continuing his carrier in the field, which requires advanced German language skills (C1). He also needs additional vocational re-training, which has recently begun at University. Anisah has been taking German courses intermittently for the last three years, but her studies were interrupted while she was expecting their son, Yusef, and while the family was searching for a spot in a primary school for their daughter.
Anisah and Halim spoke to me often about their frustration over the pace of their progress; wishing they could learn German faster and more efficiently, in order to finally begin working again. During our visits, they would tell me about some bureaucratic issue they were dealing with; something that had gone wrong, a qualification that was missing or a certificate they were still waiting for. “We are always waiting for something”, Halim would often say. Anisah had been struggling for a while to find a language course that was accommodating to the time constraints of parents with young children. There are only a handful of language course providers in Berlin that offer day care. Shortly before the pandemic, Anisah had finally found a course designed for young parents. It had flexible hours, provided day care in the building and the class focussed on topics that specifically affected young parents like her. The in-person course closed a few weeks later, along with Sofia’s primary school, along with Halim’s vocational training course—leaving Anisah, Halim, and their children waiting at home again.
Now that many of us are stuck waiting, the question is, how does the pandemic exacerbate experiences of stalling and uncertainty among those who have already been kept waiting?
As so many of us have found ourselves confined at home over the last few months, days marked by uncertainty, waiting and boredom have become all-too-familiar to us: our mobility is restricted, our offices, schools and universities are closed. And even as lockdowns and restrictions are slowly lifting in many European countries, if and when a sense of normalcy will return, is still unclear. Patience has often been invoked as virtue for us to harness as we wait out the pandemic. As my fieldwork with refugees and migrants, who were subject to Germany’s strict integration requirements, has shown, altered experiences of time are central to a newcomer’s integration encounter—as are acute experiences of waiting, confinement and boredom, even before the pandemic. Now that many of us are stuck waiting, the question is, how does the pandemic exacerbate experiences of stalling and uncertainty among those who have already been kept waiting?
The first few years of a newcomer’s life in Germany are highly structured by bureaucratic procedures, institutional and legal requirements, and constant commuting as they try to secure financial stability, accommodation, employment, vocational training and other educational opportunities. Courses are gruelling; running for five hours a day, five days a week over an initial period of seven months to a year. This means that for most students, the better part of their day is spent either sitting inside the classroom or commuting to and from it. This also means that pressing appointments at the German employment office—responsible for allocating funds to for language courses and welfare provisions—and all personal matters need to be handled outside of classroom hours. So do appointments at the immigration office. So do doctor’s visits. So does childcare. So do housing searches. Students who work informally to supplement their welfare benefits, need to schedule their shifts around class. For many, this means working late at night or very early in the morning.
The people I met during my fieldwork represented a wide range of migration experiences and legal statuses: many were refugees from Syria, Iran and Eritrea, many others had emigrated from Brazil, Ecuador, Ghana and Vietnam for economic reasons, some were in Germany on spousal visas, some were Ethnic German Resettlers from Russia, Ukraine and Poland and had a right to German citizenship, others were EU migrants who—though not required to learn German—were making use of the government subsidies applied to the integration course. Despite the diversity of individuals in the classroom, what united the class was the hope in progress: that the B1 certificate would lead to further opportunities, unlocking the ‘not-yet’ (Bloch 1986) future possibilities that linguistic integration seemed to promise. “Course work keeps us busy,” Anisah said to me “but the rest of the time, we are waiting. Germany means waiting, waiting, waiting”.
Between Urgency and Uncertainty
Despite the possibilities the integration course appeared to offer, I observed that between 45 to 60% of course participants failed the B1 exam on their first attempt. This meant they would have to resit the exam and enrol in a so-called “repeater course” (Wiederholerkurs). When I observed a repeater course, I was surprised to find that only a handful of participants passed the exam on their second try. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a large number of those who failed the exam were older and had little formal education. However, many others were refugees who had very recently arrived in Germany—which, at the time of my research, was a large portion of the class. It also included those who had experienced trauma or were dealing with mental health challenges, which, again, many were. Finally, it included a disproportionately high number women with young children like Anisah, who simply did not have as much time to devote to language learning or who had difficulty negotiating child care with the strict course hours. Young, single adults with university education did well by contrast. However, even after finishing the B1 exam, integration requirements remained unclear to my informants, and bureaucratic procedures were long and onerous. What is more, the period of externally-imposed language learning did not necessarily end with passing the B1 exam either, as universities and employers in the skilled labour market require at least higher intermediate (B2) to advanced level (C1) language competence.
Because the requirements of the integration programmes are so unclear, and because the potential outcomes so uncertain, waiting among my informants is accompanied by a sense of urgency, a loss of certitude, typical of active waiting
This is particularly true for younger adults like Fathi. Fathi, now 23 years old, is a Syrian refugee and former chemistry student from Aleppo. In the five years since arriving in Germany, Fathi has secured apartments for himself and for his family. He has completed the B1, B2 and C1 language courses, received his German secondary school equivalency certificate as well as his permanent residency permit. He now works part-time as a caretaker at an assisted living facility for young people living with cognitive and physical disabilities. He has also been admitted to university, where he is resuming his bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Yet, despite ticking all the boxes, Fathi often described to me that he felt robbed of his Jugend (youth, or teenage-hood). He was barely 14 at the beginning of the war in Syria, and spent several years imprisoned for smuggling food and medicine into his besieged town. Now in Germany, he expected to make up for those years, and experience the things he attributed to normal teenage-hood: making friends his own age, forming romantic relationships and living without the burdens of caring for his family. He believed that if he learned German quickly, enrolled in university and found a job, he could resume a social life, which for so many years had been suspended. And yet, he was finding himself in a situation in which he felt that he wasn’t making progress, describing to me that he often felt trapped, overwhelmed and isolated: “I am doing everything they expect from me, and still, years later, my life still doesn’t feel like it has started. I don’t have friends, I don’t have a girlfriend, I don’t have security. I feel like I am at the bottom of a deep hole, and as I try to dig myself out, I am only making it deeper and wider”.
It was this combined sense of stalling and uncertainty that formed the foundation of the kind of restless waiting my informants had described to me. Recent anthropological scholarship has demonstrated that while waiting is generally associated with passivity and lack of agency, waiting can also be filled with activity (Hage 2009; Khosravi 2017). While waiting can indeed by passive, passive waiting rellies on a “general feature of confidence” in the anticipated outcome, whereby individuals are capable of biding their time until this outcome is achieved. Because the requirements of the integration programmes are so unclear, and because the potential outcomes of the programmes are so uncertain, waiting among my informants is accompanied by a sense of urgency, a loss of certitude, typical of active waiting (Bandak & Janeja 2018: 3).
Some Room for Optimism?
I began taking the online course with some degree of optimism: I realized that I could easily register for an account and enrol in a B1 language course using just my email address. While I was not allowed to join existing group courses, I could, theoretically work through the online course book in my own time and I was assigned a tutor, who would oversee my progress. My tutor, who I will call Katja, could assess my progress on the platform, read and give me comments on written exercises, and was available to me through the platform’s in-built messenger.
Though I was only afforded limited access to the platform, given that I could so simply register and enrol in an online class, I wondered if the switch to digital learning, in some ways, made access to language-integration courses faster and more equitable than in-person classes. The registration and enrolment process for in-person courses is long and complicated; many of my informants reported to waiting six months to a year for registration certificates and course allocation. According to a post by the platform’s manager, some 150,000 new participants and 10,000 instructors have signed up for the platform since it launched in mid-March, meaning the numbers are at least comparable to those of in-person courses.
Anisah told me that although the shift to the online portal was initially slow for her course, she feels that she is particularly benefitting from the added writing practice she is getting, as all online course interaction takes place through the portal’s chat and email functions. The online course book allows her to work through chapters independently, giving her more control over when and how she works. According to a report by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (bamf), student absences during the online course, will not be penalized. This presents a stark contrast to in-person courses, where attendance is strictly monitored and participants’ absences are only excused through provision of doctors’ notes. All absences, excused and unexcused, were recorded by teachers, and participants could be removed from the course if their total absence surpassed 30%. This temporary easing of attendance requirements, theoretically seems to offer participants a little more agency over how their time is managed and when they do their online course work.
Course hours are also more flexible on the online platform: set at 10 hours of instruction a week, it is up to the discretion of the teachers to set the schedule. This means class could take place for two hours a day for five days, or three hours a day for three days, leaving room for days off in between. All the while, leaving time for participants to work independently if they choose to.
While the online portal seems to offer instructors and participants a great deal more flexibility, several important questions remain. Though the reduction of class hours may mean more—and much needed—flexibility, it also means that classes will only be accomplishing about half of what they normally would. In-person courses run around 25 hours a week and even then, teachers struggled to get through all the course material. When classes re-open in person, the online hours will be added to the overall number of required hours for the course. However, because of the reduction in hours during the pandemic, students and teachers will have to make up for a lot of lost time when classes re-open in person. This will also, most likely, entail a great deal of revision to make sure everyone is at a relatively even pace. This was already a challenge before the pandemic given the range in age, mental health, educational and linguistic backgrounds, and learning (dis)abilities of the, on average, 20 participants per classroom.
Rather than offering an alternative to the in-person programme, it seems the online course is more so a mechanism for biding time until it is safe enough to reopen.
Ultimately, the potential ends of the online course remain unclear: Anisah told me that according to her online tutor, all final exams had temporarily been put on hold. This means that students who may be about to finish the course book have no way of receiving the German language certificate that they need in order to apply for jobs and for citizenship status. Rather than offering an alternative to the in-person programme, it seems the online course is more so a mechanism for biding time until it is safe enough to reopen.
But what is a reopening going to look like? I messaged my tutor, Katja to ask her a few questions. Though she was happy for me to stay on the platform as a participating observer, she asked me to direct my questions to the platform’s manager. I have yet to hear back from the platform manager. In the meantime, I emailed one of the teachers I worked with during fieldwork. Marianne has been working as a free-lance German language instructor for close to 15 years and is very involved in the teaching community. I asked her if she had been receiving any information on plans to reopen the integration courses. She told me that government updates were sporadic and that though it seemed that some courses would begin reopening soon, she doubted that course providers were receiving enough funds to allow for a feasible, larger-scale reopening.
The decision to re-open in-person integration courses lies with the individual federal states, provided the courses follow strict hygiene requirements, like ensuring social distancing, using larger rooms and using face masks. Marianne worried that this would be logistically difficult and costly; courses that were normally composed of 20 to 25 students, would have to be cut down in size, and students would be split across more teachers. This would require a lot more funding as more teachers would have to be hired and it would require more space, she tells me, and she doubts there will be much reopening without additional funds.
Patience, in resent ethnographic scholarship has been revisited as a form of political stance-taking; a temporal disposition invoked by communities mobilizing for change. Most notably, Appadurai (2013) has described the ‘politics of patience’ within the work of civic organizations fighting poverty in Mumbai, as the slow collaborative process involving the practice of accommodation, compromise, long-term asset building and the accumulation of small victories (2013: 161). Patience, in this context, is fundamental to democratic citizenship and participation.
Procupez (2012; 2015) similarly describes a form of collective patience invoked by community activists living temporarily in government-subsidized housing in Buenos Aires. Here, in a collective effort to organize to secure permanent housing, move away from social programmes and governmental assistance, community members engage in project-based movements, whereby patience is invoked by activists as a “collective mode of inhabiting temporality” (2015: S56), emerging only through the sense of project-based future outcomes. Instead of an “ever-present urgency” entailing a total lack of control over time, patience is possible only in the face of eventual prospect for which the activists need to prepare.
To the activists in Procupez’s study, patience emerged as a shift in their temporal disposition – a collective, political stance – in response to a relative sense of prospect. In their work, Appadurai and Procupez respectively, demonstrate the mobilizing potential of a shifted temporal stance. Patience in the context of my informants in Germany, by contrast, is an institutionally-imposed virtue. My informants never invoked patience as a necessary disposition in their experience of temporality. Instead, they spoke about experiences of anxiety, restlessness and impatience as they felt they were working towards a goal, which, in its very shape and outcome was uncertain. Patience, here, is imposed upon those who wait, by the very institutions that keep them waiting.
For all its innovation potential, the switch to e-learning in adult language education for migrants and refugees during the pandemic has rendered visible how much and how differently time matters for newcomers to Germany. As Olson (2015) argues, waiting structures time: “As it organizes the routines of our daily lives, waiting can serve—rightly or wrongly—as a measure of lawfulness or civility, and potentially as a justification for the removal or denial of rights. A worthy citizen waits appropriately or faces consequences” (2015:517). While the online course book, rightly, identifies a persistent sense of uncertainty amongst newcomers to Germany, it does not provide an answer to those kept waiting. Instead, online textbooks invoke patience as a further marker of Integrationswille – a newcomers’ ‘willingness to integrate’.
Given that integration programmes – both offline and online – have the effect of prolonging and, in some cases, hindering a newcomer’s access to work, education and a sense of belonging, we should rethink the expectations and requirements we set for migrants and refugees in Germany. Instead of telling them to be patient, we should draft policies that make their access to life in Germany faster, easier and more equitable, and in such a way that actively responds to their reported experiences.
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 Translated from German by present author
 All names have been changed to ensure my informants’ anonymity.