Love kept at a distance: German national Linda Wendt is fighting to establish a life in Germany with her husband. But he cannot move here without first passing a language test. A major problem — but not an isolated case. A special report by Andrea Grunau, DW
Linda Wendt and Moro Diop* are a couple. But they live their everyday lives 4,755 kilometers (2,955 miles) apart. That is the distance between Germany and Senegal. “Long-distance love is extremely hard. I miss my wife constantly — morning, noon and night,” says Moro Diop.
In 2020, Linda Wendt holidayed in Mbour, western Senegal, where Moro Diop lived. “We saw each other and fell hopelessly in love,” he said in a combined interview via Zoom.
Linda, a student, then travelled to Senegal as often as she could. She did an internship and spent her semester breaks there. In 2022, the couple married in Moro’s hometown of Mbour, celebrating with their families and many guests.
Marriage without the happy ending
A prerequisite for a visa to join a spouse in Germany is reaching a basic level of German language competency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing — called A1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Moro Diop speaks French and Wolof and has worked for years as a tradesman. In early 2022 he paused his work and spent several months at a German course run by the Goethe Institute in Senegal’s capital Dakar.
Wendt, who works and studies, paid for the language course, accommodation, learning materials, private lessons and internet connection. Both cut costs on food to make ends meet. She calculates that learning German has already cost them about €6,000 ($6,430).
Moro Diop has been studying German for 14 months, but he has failed the A1 test three times — with scores of 27, 37, and 40, his marks improve each time, but he has not yet reached the 60 points required to pass. The German exam is an extremely stressful situation for her husband, his wife reports.
His father is sick, and Diop wants to support his parents and siblings. An uncle urges him to separate from his white wife, saying she is only taking advantage of him. But he keeps studying.
High failure rate for language tests
The Goethe Institute describes the requirements of the A1 level: “In the written exam you will hear short everyday conversations, private telephone messages or public announcements on a loudspeaker and complete exercises related to these… you will fill out simple forms and write a short personal essay about an everyday situation.”
But if somebody does not live in Germany and knows nothing of everyday life there, it is not so easy for them to answer questions about it. In 2021, three-quarters of participants in Senegal failed the A1 language test at the Goethe Institute, the worst result among the 30 main countries of origin. In 2022, the failure rate was more than 50 %.
No language test means no visa
“Each year, more than 10,000 spouses have failed to pass the required language exams abroad and consequently cannot join their partners who are living in Germany.”
This is the reason the opposition Left Party gave for introducing a draft law in 2022 to enable the language test required to be completed after the spouses have arrived in Germany — the best country to learn German in.
In 2022, more than a third of the students from the 30 most important countries of origin failed their A1 test. No language test means no visa. The German Foreign Office told DW that each year for the past few years, between 8,000 and 10,000 visa applications for spouse reunification have been rejected or withdrawn.
In December, Germany’s government decided to relax the rules, but only for skilled personnel. Their spouses can come to Germany without a language test.
Gülistan Yüksel is a member of the Bundestag with Germany’s governing Social Democrats (SPD) party and campaigns for family reunification. She told parliament that the rules for spousal travel to Germany would be relaxed in the next legislative package: “For years I have received letters from people who have been forced to live apart from their husbands or wives because of the language requirement — sometimes for many years. I believe nobody here in this room would want to experience that for themselves.”
Swenja Gerhard, a lawyer and consultant for the Association of Binational Families and Partnerships confirms the plight of many couples: “Some relationships break down, and some people break down, because of it.” The association is calling for the pre-entry language test to be scrapped.
Calls for change to language requirements
Linda Wendt has written a book about her experiences; its title translates to “Between two worlds.” In the meantime, she has told her story to more than 20 federal lawmakers from the parties in Germany’s coalition government: “Both my husband and I are under enormous psychological stress because of this.” Several SPD and Green Party lawmakers have answered sharing their commiserations and promised change.
“But nothing has happened,” Wendt said, disillusioned. Recently a lawmaker wrote to her saying that the bundle of laws which includes rewriting the rules on family reunification has been postponed until the second half of 2023.
When it comes to the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), the third party in Germany’s governing coalition, only Martin Gassner-Herz from the family committee answered. He referred to the need to prevent “Forced marriages, marriages of convenience and arranged marriages” as a reason for implementing the language test.
The conservative Union parties, of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), had the same argument back in 2007 when the center-right CDU/CSU led the government under Chancellor Angela Merkel. The intention was that spouses who had moved to Germany should be able to communicate with authorities independently — without the help of their partners.
The Bundesrat, the upper house of Germany’s parliament which includes representatives from the 16 federal states, declared in 2015: Since no evidence could be found that the requirement for a language certificate before entry to Germany served to prevent forced marriages, “this regulation should be repealed.”
If Linda Wendt were a Greek or Romanian national, if she came from Brazil, El Salvador, or Korea, she could bring her to husband live with her without him passing the A1 language test.
Spouses of citizens from EU member states and selected other countries are allowed to enter Germany without having to prove their German language competency beforehand. The same applies to spouses of recognized refugees, researchers, self-employed or highly qualified people, and, most recently, skilled professionals, even if neither of them speaks German.
The disadvantage to Germans is a form of “domestic discrimination,” lawyer Swenja Gerhard said. Because administrative law deals with individual cases, every couple must fight for family reunification themselves.
“I am furious with the government,” said Wendt. “The institution of marriage is held up so highly in Germany, and then I am barred from living it.” Article 6 of the Basic Law, the German constitution, says “Marriage and family are under the special protection of the state order.” Germans cannot be required compelled to live abroad because of it.
Cases of hardship
In 2012 the judges of Germany’s Federal Administrative Court decided that a spouse’s proof of language competency should not be required before entering Germany to join their partner “if, in individual cases, efforts to acquire the language are not possible, unreasonable, or unsuccessful within a year.” Reasons for this could be illness, disability, or a lack of language learning opportunities.
The lawyer Gerhard reports that married couples often fail to prove such hardship cases.
Diop is studying intensively for his fourth language test. Even if he does not pass, he wants to apply for a visa, citing the hardship clause. The visa application office of the German embassy in Dakar, in coordination with the immigration authorities in Germany, will decide the couple’s future.
*DW uses pseudonyms in this article, to protect the protagonists’ privacy.
Anne Le Touzé contributed to this report.
This article was originally written in German.