Today I have the great honour to introduce a new author on my blog, Sean Miller, who taught for 15 years and now has translated for 15 on some of the intricacies of going native in Bohemia. Sean was born in the US but has a Czech citizenship and considers himself as Czech.
In this post, Sean will provide insight into the background of how foreigners can integrate into the Czech society, what exams they need to take for permanent residency and for the citizenship, and whether the Czech Republic should raise the bar from A1 to A2 for granting permanent residency.
I am well aware that this is a complex, multifaceted issue with possible controversy arising, but it is something that ought to be discussed. Sean and I are happy to answer the comments below.
Now, over to Sean:
The Czech Republic is currently discussing increasing the difficulty of the language exam for permanent residence and subsequently the language exam for citizenship.
There are a lot of component issues here that have to be explained or could be discussed and I will try to do that based on my translation of the materials for the website that explains the exams, the discussions behind that and then the ethnological studies that were originally done to discuss how this underpins the ideas of “integration”. https://trvaly-pobyt.cestina-pro-cizince.cz/index.php?p=aktuality&hl=en_US
Just for your information – the citizenship site as well http://obcanstvi.cestina-pro-cizince.cz/?p=&hl=en_US – Its language exam is level B1 (see below for more information)
So, what is integration?
some basic works on this – especially in the US on acculturation. I work from
Zdenek Uherek’s works which I have translated that concern various
nationalities immigrating to and emigrating from the CR. A key concept here is
adaptation – however adaptation as such does not mean integration. I can claim
Czechness and not be accepted as Czech by the majority society. This is common
for Czechs who left for Ukraine generations ago and returned. Their claims of
Czechness in the end meant disillusion and rejection of Czechness for a renewed
feeling of being Ukrainian. See Migration Networks and Integration Strategies
by Zdeněk Uherek and Veronika Beranská on that in greater detail. I do not want
to copy and paste 2 pages into this blog.
Integration itself is debated from two sides in the EU. Naturally, many other states fall somewhere along the scale. One idea is that of the French. Permanent residence is given to people with the hope/belief that this means they will have to integrate. They no longer have a right to an interpreter at the court and are expected to integrate in all ways – to behave as a Frenchman would. While it may be useful, it has its problems in the banlieues of Paris for instance. The other idea is that the foreigner must prove his integration to become a citizen or permanent resident. They are allowed this, because they provide language courses for newcomers and put a great deal of effort into integrating the newcomers. This has not worked perfectly either as seen by the Turkish population that feels more Turkish than German and influenced the Turkish elections for the more conservative, Islamic leader. Had they not voted, the election would have gone for the more liberal candidate.
When the Czechs began discussing which model to follow, they chose the German model. The problem was that ordinary Czechs do not want to pay to integrate foreigners. They feel that the newcomer has the burden of integrating. The other side of that coin is newcomers do not feel welcome, tend to hang out in/create their own language/cultural bubbles and not learn the language as the courses are expensive and often not geared for survival Czech but heavily grammar-based courses for philologists. This led to an agreement that the tests would be on a low level as the Czech government was unwilling to provide free courses – but did agree to free exams, under certain conditions.
What are these levels of exams? Well, that falls under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which recognizes six levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines recognizes ten different levels of proficiency: “novice”, “intermediate”, “advanced”, and “superior”, of which the first three are each subdivided into “low”, “mid”, and “high”. That means that the Czechs are only requiring Low Novice at the moment and proposing to raise the bar to Mid-Novice for Permanent Residence. That sounds pretty reasonable, but the exams do not necessarily reflect what the levels would be, because the information required for the different levels was worked out in great detail at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports and their version has some oddities – I do not mean to question its validity or utility, but some vocabulary and grammar do not strike me as particularly useful for certain levels. That is my subjective judgment, nobody asked me and they are incredibly unlikely to ask me ever 😊
The discussion also focuses around the fact that 39% fail now. This falls on the non-Slavic speakers hardest of course as the Czech language is less similar to other language groups. Vietnamese speakers have a lot of problems. I think here we have to say that Vietnamese in general do not want to give up their Vietnamese citizenship in most cases and so there is less of a desire to integrate. Stanislav Broucek has published a great deal on them as has Uherek. Since they tend to use their own small city inside a city (SAPA) and live in a crescent around the city, they have had little need to fully integrate into the majority society. However, as happened in France, the second and third generations have integrated further – that means in this case social mobility and spatial mobility. Yeah, I know I did not get into that above, but the Vietnamese are moving into the professions. The first generation had stalls, now shops, the next generation went to university here and now we see lawyers and doctors graduating from the universities here. Intermarriage is now also occurring, although not yet common – probably because of Vietnamese desires to remain Vietnamese, but I have no data to back up that feeling. It is based on Czechs and Vietnamese being good friends in schools now, hanging out together, but there not being weddings in greater numbers. Naturally, these second and third generations are not taking the exams as they went to Czech schools. That is one way to avoid the exam – to have been socialized/acculturated by Czech schools. [That is a whole other kettle of fish whether schools in any country do that job well. I am thinking of American schools at the moment where some nationalities seem unaffected by schooling and express opinions more consistent with their home environment and also seek marriages within that community.]
Naturally, I am writing this in English and so we can assume that there is an English-speaking community as well. That has also been studied and the discussion led to ideas of an “English bubble” as seen with a “Spanish bubble” in Los Angeles. Certainly, we still have lots of anecdotal evidence of English speakers who have not learned Czech after many decades here. The Italians are also infamous in Prague for speaking with their hands and not bothering with any other languages. Where you can get by in English (Prague generally, some other parts of other towns), there is less of a need to learn the language and adapt to the milieu. Most people learn at least the rudiments, but I hear that most give up after a few months in many companies. The Czech solution is simply that if you do not succeed, you should leave. You have to show the motivation and desire to integrate. That attitude does lead to many simply leaving. Then, we have those who solve the problem by marrying a Czech and so these are where we can see people who have been here for decades and still cannot speak the language.
So, why is the government moving the goalposts? Basically, there is pressure within the Ministry of the Interior for higher standards. They would move them much further, but there are two problems. One is the EU will only agree if they do more to integrate people – say free courses for the first 6 months or at least some attempt to bring the prices down as they are very expensive in Prague. The initial immersion class for Erasmus students is cheap, but it covers very little in fact and then the semester or annual course is very expensive and Erasmus students are not going to invest that much – they are here for one year after all. Those who are here for longer may learn or try to learn, but they will use various strategies to avoid it as well – pubs or restaurants where people speak their language, a workplace where they can speak their language and so on. We even have Slovaks who still do not speak Czech here in Prague 😊 So, it is not just the Vietnamese and English/Americans.
The other problem is the Ministry of Education itself. It does not want to move too high too quickly, because it means revamping all the exams and the materials for preparation (methodology), possibly new textbooks need to be written. It is not an easy process. Moreover, the Ministry of Education gets much more direct feedback from the teachers and exam administrators about what is possible. After all, teachers want their students to succeed. The MEYS wants teachers to succeed. The Ministry of Interior wants integration, but how they define that is changing. It used to be “able to function basically in the majority society”. Now, it will be “Able to understand and use very basic personal, family and job-related language, able to understand enough to meet the needs with slow, clear speech, and able to understand and produce short, simple texts on familiar matter”. That is not what the Ministry of the Interior wants though, they would like “those who have the necessary fluency to communicate without effort with native speakers” – B1 as it is what is used by the British for a permit for an indefinite stay. That is a pretty high level for first generation immigrants who arrive as adults. English is a common second language in many places. Czech is not. Note that this is still being demanded to obtain permanent residence. The French would grant residence and then assume you are there and so you must get there, somehow. It is the German approach to force you to get there in order to obtain residence. The interesting Czech twist is not to help you and still expect success. Kafka would be proud 😊
It will be interesting to see how this goes forward, because the majority society is not interested in getting people there. They complain about those who do not integrate, but there is not a willingness to put their money into making it happen. [They want to come here! Let them pay for it!] Since they do not support integration and often make fun of foreigners in general (accents, language errors, social and racial background), there is not much positive reinforcement to learn the language or adapt for newcomers. In fact, my own daughter has been made fun of because her father was born in the US. Others because one parent is Chinese or Palestinian or Nigerian. I personally have been told many times that I will never be Czech, despite having citizenship for 8 years now. [They get kind of confused on who decides on such issues. It is an official decision by the Ministry of the Interior and not their personal decision. I have tried to teach Civics here and gave it up. The children are indoctrinated by their parents with absolute nonsense about genetics. God help us – historians were saying Czechs and Moravians were distinct genetic groups on TV just last year! https://www.ceskatelevize.cz/porady/10150778447-historie-cs/318281381940002/ ]
Generally, the children of newcomers are a different issue, because there is social pressure to be like the others in school and there is a real chance of social and spatial mobility. They are also exempt from the exam.
I welcome your comments and will try to respond to them or the issues you raise.