Why more and more Southeast Asians want to learn German

By DW   January 10, 2024 | 10:04 pm PT
Why more and more Southeast Asians want to learn German
Students study with a foreign teacher at the Tran Dai Nghia High School for Gifted Students in HCMC, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Le Nam
Across Southeast Asia, interest in German is on the rise as the German government taps increasing numbers of the region's skilled workers to tackle the country's severe labor shortages.

Enthusiasm for learning German has skyrocketed in Vietnam, especially after social life in the country got back to normal following the Covid-19 pandemic, says Arik Jahn, head of the language department at the Goethe-Institut in Ho Chi Minh City.

The number of German-language exams being taken at the economic hub's Goethe-Institut has increased by more than 150% since 2019, and the number could soon triple.

Across Southeast Asia, interest in the German language is on the rise as the German government taps increasing numbers of the region's qualified workers to fix its labor shortages in certain sectors.

By one estimate, Germany needs about 150,000 more nurses and, under a new scheme, has pushed for greater recruitment from Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

An estimated 14,000 people in Vietnam are learning German, as well as 15,000 in Malaysia and more than 17,000 in Thailand, according to a spokesperson for Germany's Federal Foreign Office.

"Supporting the learning and teaching of the German language abroad has long been a priority of Germany's foreign policy in the field of culture and education," the spokesperson told DW.

"By promoting learning German, language students get to know more about Germany, its people and culture, but we also provide access to the opportunities of the biggest economy in Europe with excellent universities and cutting-edge scientific and academic networks."

Filling gaps in the labor market

Last August, Singapore's Education Ministry piloted a scheme for 120 students from 21 secondary schools to learn French or German as a third language, part of a government partnership with the Alliance Française de Singapour and Goethe-Institut Singapore. More than 1,500 students applied for the pilot run of the scheme.

The ministry has said it will increase the number of places for students in the 2024 enrollment and include higher-level modules.

The main reason why Southeast Asians want to learn German appears to be for job prospects.

"This surge [in interest] is fueled by Germany's new Immigration Act for Skilled Workers," said Jahn of the Goethe-Institut Ho Chi Minh City, referring to the legislation passed by Berlin in November 2023 that lowered entrance barriers for skilled migrants from outside the European Union.

Some of these changes removed or downgraded German language requirements, although longer-stay visas require an advanced language certificate.

Germany's Labor Minister Hubertus Heil said in early 2023 that the country will lack around 7 million workers by 2035 "if we don't do something" to boost migration rates.

"People see that their chances to enter the German labor market are higher than ever and that having a good German knowledge is key to a long-term perspective in the country," Jahn said.

Correlation between German language and migration

German-speaking Austria is also heavily recruiting nurses and other caregiving professionals from Asia, especially from the Philippines. As part of a government-sponsored scheme, the Austrian state will pay these Filipino nurses to study German once they arrive in the country, with the expectation that they will work there for several years.

Vietnamese media have reported since last year that many migrant workers have left jobs in Japan for better-paying posts in Germany, including in vegetable picking and other low-skilled jobs.

A working paper by Matthias Huber and Silke Uebelmesser published in October 2023 investigated the activity of German language institutes across 69 countries between 1977 and 2014, finding there to be a positive correlation between the number of Goethe-Instituts in a country and migration from that country to Germany.

In other words, the more access the people of another country have to German-language education, the more they are likely to migrate to Germany for work.

Not just about employment in Germany

But an interest in German isn't only about getting a job.

"The majority of students are interested in furthering their studies at German universities," said Rudi Herrmann of the Malaysian-German Society, located in Penang, a state with a rich history of relations with Germany dating back centuries.

Others are interested in Germany's job training scheme allowing non-EU students to work and train in German companies as apprentices, Herman added.

"A few students just wanted to learn another language as personal interest."

In September, the German Academic Exchange Service, known by its German initials DAAD, reported that more than 370,000 international exchange students attended German universities in the last winter semester, a new record for the country and putting it third in the global rankings.

Notably, an OECD study found Germany and Canada were the best globally at retaining international students after their studies ended, with more than 60% of students who obtained a study visa in 2015 still present in Germany in 2020.

German language learning 'is changing'

"Many educational programs and institutions in Indonesia have German literature departments, and on some campuses, there are even German clubs created by students themselves," said Vicky Atika Larasati of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Jakarta.

Jahn, from the Goethe-Institut in Ho Chi Minh City, said that how Southeast Asians learn German is changing. In the past, they would almost exclusively learn German to get a basic language certificate required for a working visa to Germany, he pointed out.

"Now, more and more seem to realize that the higher their language level, the higher their chances to not only go to Germany but to be successful in Germany," he added.

"In the future," he went on, Southeast Asian students "will not learn to get their German certificate. They will learn to reach the highest proficiency possible in German before their departure... And talking to our partners in Germany shows us that this is time well invested and will be appreciated by future employers."

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