Crisis-hit southern Europeans rush to learn German
BERLIN—Spaniards, Portuguese and others from countries hit hard by the debt crisis are flocking to learn German in hopes of getting jobs in Europe's biggest and strongest economy, according to data obtained by The Associated Press Tuesday.
Figures from Germany's culture and language promotion agency, the Goethe Institute, show that people in southern Europe -- where unemployment is high, particularly among the young -- are clamoring to learn German. Other official data show immigration to Germany from Spain, Greece and Portugal is up sharply.
The number of Spaniards seeking to learn German with their local branch of the Goethe Institute rose by a staggering 35 percent in 2011, to 9,000 from 6,500 the year before. Neighboring Portugal saw a 20 percent increase to 2,230 students.
The numbers still pale in comparison with those learning English, which is mandatory in both countries. Spain requires English from elementary school through high school and a nationwide university admission exam includes a section testing proficiency in it, while Portugal requires it from age six to 16.
But the rise in interest in German is significant in that it shows where jobseekers expect the best work opportunities.
The Germany economy grew a robust 3 percent last year and unemployment has dropped to its lowest level in almost two decades. Spain, by contrast, is sliding back into recession as unemployment hits new records above 20 percent.
"The prospects of getting a job in those countries are miserable, with youth unemployment of 40 to 50 percent," said Herbert Bruecker, a migration expert with Germany's Institute for Employment Research.
Many firms in Germany are searching to hire skilled professionals, but a language barrier often hinders successful recruitment.
"Employers are rather demanding when it comes to requiring German language skills," Bruecker said.
Take the example of Schwaebisch-Hall, a prosperous city of 37,000 in Baden-Wuerttemberg, a southwestern state that is home to industrial giants like carmaker Daimler AG and successful small and medium-sized businesses.
The companies need skilled workers, but supply in Germany is tight. To help, the city invited a group of journalists from Portugal, Greece, Italy and Spain to a reporting trip this year to cover the issue. The move resulted in more than 10,000 job applications pouring in from Portugal alone, "and the number keeps rising," city spokesman Robert Gruner said.
"They have sent them to every email address they could find on our website, it's incredible," he told the AP.
But the regional job office, which currently has about 2,500 vacancies listed, has found that most applicants share a common problem. "Unfortunately only about five percent have knowledge of German, which makes getting them a job here significantly more difficult," Gruner said.
Those seeking jobs have apparently realized this weakness as well, leading to the boom in numbers at language schools like the Goethe Institute, named after the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
In Italy, the agency's number of students was up by 14 percent to 4,300, followed by Greece and France with an increase of ten and eight percent respectively.
Worldwide, the number of German language students with the Goethe Institute rose by 7.5 percent to about 235,000, according to the figures.
Some 36,000 of those came to Germany to study with the Goethe Institute here. Of those coming from within the European Union, the number of Spaniards was up 43 percent on the year, while Greeks saw a 22 percent increase and Italians 17 percent.
"Most of them are young people who are taking our classes," Goethe Institute head Klaus-Dieter Lehmann said late Tuesday following the figure's official release. "Not because they want to read Goethe or (Friedrich) Schiller in their original tongue, but because they want to improve their job chances."
While German may be among the most in demand languages in the troubled 17-nation eurozone, other global languages were also gaining appeal with jobseekers.
The Confucius Institute for Chinese Studies at Lisbon University, for example, began offering language courses in 2008 with 15 students, now counts more than 300, and is turning people away for lack of teachers. Portugal's British Council branch said its student numbers are rising rapidly, but didn't immediately have specific figures.
Demand for Chinese classes at Spanish government-run languages schools was up by 50 percent in 2010 to 1,961, while applications for English classes were up by 15 percent to 8,800. German saw a 77 percent increase to 3,508
While European Union citizens are allowed to roam and work freely across the 27-nation bloc, cultural differences and the language barrier have often limited cross-border migration.
The greatest influx to Germany still comes from the EU's newest members in eastern Europe, such as Romania and Poland, but the numbers from western European countries hit by the crisis are up sharply.
In the first nine months of 2011, the net movement from Spain to Germany -- arrivals minus departures -- totaled 7,532 people, more than twice 2010's total of 3,214, according to data from Germany's Federal Statistical Office.
"That's a rather new phenomenon: If Spaniards emigrated at all, they used to go to France, not to Germany," economist Bruecker said.
"It also reflects an increased mobility of the younger generation. Migration is not only driven by high youth unemployment there, we also witness a strong increase in student migration," he added, saying that many Spaniards were now filling his classes at Bamberg University.
Net immigration from Portugal during the first nine months of 2011 rose to 2,270, from only 9 in the full year of 2010. Net arrivals from Greece rose to 7,931 from to 1,076 in 2010 -- a sevenfold increase, according to the data.
"It's probably because they are really struggling at home," said Schwaebisch-Hall spokesman Gruner.
Barry Hatton in Lisbon and Daniel Woolls in Madrid contributed reporting.
Juergen Baetz can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz