Italy makes immigrants speak Italian
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 12:01 AM
FLORENCE, Italy -- Svetlana Cojochru feels insulted.
The Moldovan has lived here seven years as a nanny to Italian kids and caregiver to the elderly, but in order to stay she's had to prove her language skills by writing a postcard to an imaginary friend and answering a fictional job ad.
"I feel like a guest," said Cojochru. She had just emerged from Beato Angelico middle school where she took a language test to comply with a new law requiring basic Italian proficiency for permanent residency permits following five years of legal residence.
Italy is the latest Western European country turning the screws on an expanding immigrant population by demanding language skills in exchange for work permits, or in some cases, citizenship. While enacted last year in the name of integration, these requirements also reflect anxiety that foreigners might dilute fiercely-prized national identity or even, especially in Britain's case, pose terror risks.
Some immigrant advocates worry that as harsh economic times make it harder for natives to keep jobs, such measures will become more a vehicle for intolerance than integration. Others say it's only natural that newcomers learn the language of their host nation, seeing it as a condition to ensure they can contribute to society.
So far, Italy is only giving a gentle turn to the screw. Cojochru and other test-takers described the exam as easy. No oral skills were tested.
In Austria, terms are tougher. There, where native speakers have been sometimes known to scold immigrant parents for not speaking proper German to their children, foreigners from outside the European Union need to prove they speak basic German within five years of receiving their first residency permit. Failure to do so can bring fines and jeopardize their right to stay.
The government argues that foreigners who master German can better integrate and help foster understanding across cultures. But, like in Italy, critics say it's a just a pretext for erecting barriers.
"The German language is increasingly being used as a marginalization tool," said Alev Korun, a Turkish-born member of the opposition Greens party who immigrated to Austria when she was 19.
Austria's Cabinet approved new rules requiring most immigrants to have elementary German skills before they even enter the country. They're part of a plan to create a new "red-white-red card" - the colors of the Austrian flag - for a work permit for qualified non-EU citizens aimed at filling gaps left by an aging work force. The legislation now goes to parliament for consideration.
Critics say requiring people to speak basic German before they set foot in Austria would be an unreasonable barrier for people from poor, rural areas who can't afford or access German classes.
"I think this is a very clear form of discrimination of certain type of immigrants," said Barbara Liegl, head of the Austrian anti-racism organization ZARA. "I see massive disadvantages for specific groups."