Language & Politics

Fekter’s integration plan will shape Austria’s future

News | Dardis McNamee | February 2010

With the passage of Interior Minister Maria Fekter’s new National Integration Plan Jan. 19, language has sprung back to the fore as a political issue in Austria. And not without a fight.

If Minister Fekter, of the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP), has her way unchallenged, everyone wishing to establish residency in Austria will be required to master a functioning level of German before entering the country, taking courses and passing a competency test abroad – at their nearest Goethe Institute.

The Social Democrats have protested, saying the plan is "unworkable and vague."  In many parts of the world, a language school is hard to find, they point out.  How can anyone attend a German class if there isn’t one? Fekter seems unfazed, and with a few modifications for EU citizens, asylum seekers, relatives of Austrians and the highly skilled, seems likely to push through her plan. The social minister – of the other party – obligingly pointed out that there were 400 branches of the Goethe Institute worldwide.

What more could one ask?

Something more "in line with the constitution," suggested Chancellor Werner Fayman (SPÖ).

One country where it may be hard time to meet Fekter’s demands is the United States. According to a recent government-financed survey, foreign language study has declined sharply in the public school system in the U.S. in the last decade. And although many schools – particularly on the two coasts – continue to teach Spanish, literally thousands of schools with established programs in German, French or Russian have dropped them from the curriculum.

The culprit, of course, is money. But not, as you might think, as a result of the latest financial crisis. According to a Jan. 21 article in the International Herald Tribune/New York Times by Sam Dillon, the cuts began in 2001 in response to the No Child Left Behind program, which included onerous testing requirements for students in math and English that siphoned off resources from the foreign language programs.

How ironic.  And as Dillon pointed out, "dismal news for a nation that needs more linguists to conduct its global business and diplomacy."

Issues of language cut deep. Language gives us our tools of thought, the common idioms and conventions of grammar that form our instinctive way of looking at the world. It is a set of attitudes; it is how our experiences find form: How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?

Language is also the repository of our culture, our myths and our history, of our collective memory with all the associations that come with the way those stories are told.  When we live in a world of two or more languages, we are constantly aware of these differences. Occasionally they are captured in literature or in film. Even in translation, the sensibility of a Tolstoy or a Proust is a foreign country. When Marlene Dietrich explains, in English, the melancholy and solitary longing of the German words to "Lili Marlene" – so different from the pick-up flirtation of the English text, we know we are getting a glimpse of a different world.

Thus language is, in the deepest way, how we know who we are. If you don’t know my language, you will never know me. If you don’t know my language, or I yours, we are going to have a very difficult time coming to any understanding that matters.

This is something worth fighting for.

In Austria, however, the debate over language is heavy with subtext. It looks, among other things, like a clear effort to keep people out. Raising the language barrier tends to filter out immigrants without resources, particularly those from third-world countries with a shortage of Goethe Institutes, and it makes it nearly impossible for refugees who are not asylum seekers to enter Austria legally at all.  There would also probably be a range of secondary effects like increased racial profiling and a swell of black market labor to fill the jobs that go begging in an era of declining population. Some, like Economics Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner (ÖVP), are distracted in the short run by the current bulge in unemployment, saying it is "not exactly the best moment" for an increase in work permits for family members of immigrants.

This is very short sighted.  As Alexander Janda of the Austrian Integrations Fond makes clear, immigrants bring energy and initiative that create new economic activity.  This has been measured again and again in different countries and situations, on different continents and economic systems. In Austria, immigration from the former Yugoslavia is credited with the strong economic growth, peaking before the financial crisis at 3.4% in 2007. In the U.S. the civilian labor force grew by nearly 16 million to 141.8 million between 1990 and 2001, half of which was due to immigrants who fed the soaring economy that characterized those years. Some 80% of the increase in the male civilian labor force was made up of new immigrants, and 30 percent of the increase among women.

So we’re not just talking about words. Interior Minister Fekter’s new National Integration Plan is – no more, no less – about the future of Austria.  It’s about whether Austria will allow in the complexity of the Kaiser Franz Josef’s Vielvolkerstaat. It’s about allowing in the energy that fueled the city’s fin-de-siecle golden age, when less than half of Vienna had German as a mother tongue.

All around Vienna are posters with the voices of European culture, describing us to ourselves. In this, we should listen to Bertold Brecht:

"If we want things to stay the same, they will have to change."

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