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Should children in Germany have to take language tests before school?

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
Should children in Germany have to take language tests before school?
Children play a colouring game at a German Kita. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Jens Büttner

Debates over obligatory German language tests before school are once again raging in Germany, with the CDU arguing that the move would improve integration. Here's what's going on.


What's happening? 

If there's a word that's defined the debate about Germany's foreign community in recent years, that word would be "integration".

Especially among those on the right or centre-right of politics, immigrants who speak German, follow what's seen as the German way of life and adhere to so-called German values are seen as the ultimate sign of successful immigration policy.

In the view of Germany's conservative CDU and CSU parties, this goes right back to the early years of childhood, when the children of migrants may face difficulties in school due to insufficient exposure to German. 

That's why, as the parties mull over their future on the opposition benches, an old idea has re-emerged: introducing mandatory language tests for children before they start school at the age of six. 

According to reports in NDR, the CDU's future manifesto is being drafted by CDU Vice President Carsten Linnemann, who is known to be a key proponent of the compulsory language test idea.

The party recently had a private meeting in Cadenabbia on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, in which CDU leader Friedrich Merz and other leadership figures in the parties discussed around 200 political theses with specialists and attempted to thrash out their future direction.

READ ALSO: Children who don't speak German 'shouldn't be allowed to start school'


A number of these ideas are likely to make it into the party's manifesto, provided they're approved by the party congress in 2024. Among them are plans to raise the pension age, cut taxes on middle earners, introduce a wealth tax, and to bring in mandatory language tests for young children before they are allowed to start school.

How would compulsory language tests work?

This would have to be worked out in more detail if the CDU are elected at the next federal election, but the main idea is that a German language test would be required before children start Grundschule, or primary school, at the age of six.

This would assess whether their current German level is good enough to succeed in the first years of school. 

German Sprach Kita

Children from international backgrounds stand next to a wheel saying "hello" in different languages. Families who don't speak German at home are less likely to find places. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa | Bodo Marks

If a child doesn't pass the test, they would likely be held back a year and would have to attend pre-school instead in order to build up their German language skills. Then, presumably, they would need to take a test again the following year to see if they are ready to start at Grundschule

One slightly tricky element of this is that the school system is primarily in the hands of the federal states. The introduction of obligatory language tests would therefore be a major intervention into schools policy and would likely face some stiff opposition from state governments - and especially those who lean centre-left. 

Why do the conservatives want children to take language tests?

This all comes back to a favourite theme of the CDU and CSU parties: integrating foreigners into German society. 

The conservatives argue that ensuring young children speak fluent German would promote the integration of children with a migrant background, and they also say the move could help children from disadvantaged backgrounds get a better educational start. 


Back in 2019, Linnemann - who is now drafting the CDU manifesto - spoke out in favour of testing children's language abilities before they start school.

"To put it in a nutshell: a child who barely speaks and understands German has no place yet in a primary school," he told the Rheinische Post at the time. 

"This is where compulsory preschool education must take effect and, if necessary, school enrolment must be postponed. This costs money, but lack of integration and inadequate education are much more expensive in the end.”

Fourth graders

A fourth-grade class in Stuttgart. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sebastian Gollnow

Linnemann also said he feared the development of "new parallel societies" in Germany if more was not done to ensure foreigners were fully integrated. 

But the sense that people with foreign backgrounds have values incompatible with the German way of life goes far beyond children's language skills: the CDU has also been a key opponent of the government's reforms to citizenship law, and particularly the plans to permit the holding of multiple nationalities.


This came to a head in a Bundestag debate on the forthcoming citizenship law, in which CDU MP Stefan Heck slammed the idea that foreigners could reconcile their previous identities with their German ones.

“You cannot share national loyalty between two countries," he said in the December debate. "The coalition's plans for dual nationality are false, dangerous and they have to be stopped." 

READ ALSO: 'Dangerous and wrong': Why German MPs are clashing over citizenship plans

What's the response to this idea? 

The idea for compulsory language tests has been fiercely rejected by left-wing politicians but also from some specialists in the education sector, who claim that the move would primarily disadvantage the children of migrants.

However, the Association of School Headmasters recently put forward a similar proposal to the one currently being looked at by the CDU, arguing that children should be brought up to speed with German before being allowed to start school.

"The task of schools is to prepare children for the future and for everyday life," associated chairwoman Gudrun Wolters-Vogeler told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung. "But teachers can't do that if they don't understand the children and vice versa."

Friedrich Merz and Carsten Linnemann

CDU leader Friedrich Merz and Vice President Carsten Linnemann at a CDU event in Berlin. Linnemann has been spearheading plans for compulsory language tests for children. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

Wolters-Vogeler also pointed to the city state of Hamburg, where children take compulsory language tests at the age of four or five and are then given language lessons before school if their German isn't up to scratch.

She said segregation due to poor language skills continues into later years at school, adding that German families were known to avoid schools that are known to have a high proportion of children with a migration background. 

Is insufficient German really such a problem for school pupils?

A number of studies have drawn a link between the linguistic competencies of parents in Germany and whether pupils do well at school.

A recent study from the Germany Economics Institute (IW) found that around a fifth of under-18s in Germany grow up in a non-German speaking household, and that these groups often face difficulties in education.

In 2022, a further IW study drew a link between the parents' German level and how likely children were to end up at a Gymnasium - the most academic of Germany's secondary school options. 


More recently, a worldwide reading study by Iglu (International Primary School Reading Survey) revealed that the language and reading skills of German primary school children are mediocre in comparison with other nations, with a good quarter of year four pupils unable to read properly.

This was partly put down the pandemic and education policy in Germany, but also to the increasing diversity of school classes in the country. 

READ ALSO: 'Alarming': How children in Germany are lagging behind on reading skills


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