When I started the Orientierungskurs, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The course is required for integration (in other words, for students who need to satisfy BAMF requirements for immigration purposes). In my case, I already have a two-year German residence and work permit, but I need to complete the integration program to renew that permit.
The students in the course come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some have lived in Germany for years, while others started taking integration courses right after arriving here. Some come from relatively peaceful western democracies while others come from war-torn, oppressive, and/or “democratic” countries. Everyone should have had B1-level German skills, but in reality several of the students struggled to form complete sentences (and didn’t seem to understand all the material). Most of the students in my class were married — our requirement to take the course arising from our status as “trailing spouses” of expat workers or as newly married spouses of German citizens.
The course material is very standardized. I found a document on the BAMF website that details the Curriculum für einen bundesweiten Orientierungskurs (PDF). I found a lot of the material to be a flashback to high school — in my schools, we learned a lot of German history as it related to US history, and most of the German constitution is the same as the US constitution. The society and culture part of the course wasn’t very informative, overall, unless you wanted to learn about the school system. Of course, I come from a very German-influenced part of the US, so social norms here aren’t so foreign to me.
On the other hand, students from other parts of the world found the material much more informative, and at least now I can explain the difference between the Bundestag, Bundesrat, and Bundesversammlung. Also, I finally understand how voting works here (even though I can’t participate). The real downside, in my mind, was that the course was barely long enough to teach exactly the material being tested on the final exam, which meant that the course was really just teaching to a test rather than really focusing on our immigration/integration questions and needs. (The explanation is that they are trying to teach useful material but keep the class affordable by not making it too long. I do understand and appreciate that.)
The real joke with this course, however, is the final exam. To pass the course and receive a certificate of completion, you have to take a 25-question, multiple choice test. These questions are chosen from a pool of 250 possible questions, and each student receives a different selection of questions for the exam. To pass, you have to get just over 50% correct on the test: 13 questions out of 25.
Pretty easy, right? But in case that still sounds too difficult, they handed out a booklet with all 250 questions and an answer key. In fact, this booklet is available online: Der Test zum Orientierungskurs auf Lernkarten: Alle 250 bundeseinheitlichen Fragen (PDF). They don’t even bother changing the order of the possible answers in the exam. It took me about 2 minutes to complete the test.
I did get some clear benefits from this course:
- An opportunity to continue practicing my German
- Connections with other students at a similar stage in their integration/immigration process
- Interesting conversations with the instructors (both German and both happy to chat about any number of topics, whether related to the course material or not)
- Confirmation that certain bits of German society/politics are more to my liking than their US counterparts (especially regarding the social support system and how it relates to history and politics)
- Confidence about my ability to eventually feel at ease living here, even if I never fall in love with the German language and culture more generally
All in all, the course isn’t perfect. However, the teachers truly cared about the course, and it’s a great attempt at helping new immigrants learn about Germany. It’s certainly much better than what some other countries (*cough*US*cough*) have to offer.