Christiane Bohrer-Martin:Goethe-Institut in Tunisia – Does German help?

The theory is that speaking more than one language increases job opportunities. But is this really true in an increa­­s­­­ingly globalised world in which English has become the language of communication? In a country like Tunisia, is it not enough to speak English, alongside Arabic as the mother tongue and French as the first foreign language? Unemployment, especially among graduates, was what triggered the Tunisian revolution of 14 January 2011. The reasons why applica­­­tions by those young people for jobs in our country were unsuccessful are mani­­fold. University education does not cor­­respond to the profiles of professionals that the job market has to offer and, measured by the number of graduates, there are too few jobs on offer altogether. Another reason that must not be underestimated is the solitariness which is typical of life in a dictatorship. Travel beyond the country’s borders was difficult and if you did travel, French-speaking countries were the preferred destination, not least for ease of communication. Some people were suspicious of foreign companies based in Tunisia, since they were controlled by “the family” – the en­­­tourage of President Ben Ali. Interest in other countries was generally limited and with it the motivation to learn foreign languages.


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This has changed significantly since 2011. Tunisians have become curious and willing to venture into uncharted territory. Germany is attractive not only for young artists and cultural operators, but particularly for representatives of technical and medical professions. This does not mean that Tunisia is threatened by a massive brain drain, however: its people are very attached to their country and want to do everything they can to guide it into a better future. Not even the flood of refugees to Lampedusa has changed this fact. Programmes that promote employ­­­ment and support ‘legal mobility’ are very popular and are welcomed by the Tunisian government too. Those who have international experience in addition to a good professional education have a clear advan­­­tage, because they usually return with a greater long-term vision and new experiences, are more open to change and bring new ideas into the country.

The Goethe-Institut offers training seminars for artists and those involved in creative arts in post-revolutionary Tunisia and helps Tunisian artists find opportun­­ities to present their work – a rarity in every area of art. In doing so, emphasis is being put on accentuating the potential of art for society. One project for exa­­m­­ple, in which in-situ art was presented over three weekends in three hill villages in the north, the centre and the south of Tunisia, was about the 23 participating artists creating their works in collaboration with the inhabitants of the hills. This is a way to show that contemporary art directly affects the inhabitants by changing how they see familiar things. In another project, Tunisian theatre technicians are trained by way of confrontation with the different theatre realities in Ger­ma­ny and Tunisia in order to gain expertise for further development in the Tunisian theatre with the opportunities available here. Reform-oriented Tunisian culture and education authorities have asked the Goethe-Institut to provide expert advice from a German point of view, on areas including methodical questions for the definition of quality standards for education in schools and developing recom­­­mendations for action on the preservation and use of the architectural heritage.

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The options for useful culture and education activities are numerous, because Tunisia’s interest in Germany is huge. This positive situation also has an influence on the courses offered in German as a foreign language, the core business of the Goethe-Institut: between 2010 and 2012, the number of course participants rose by 25 per cent.

It goes without saying that young Tuni­­sian professionals who would like to go to Germany for a while need more than just a good command of English. But German skills also give those looking for work in Tunisia a clear advantage on the labour market. This is because companies are also intensifying their international busi­ness relations, and companies from the technical sector increasingly in Germany, too. ”Über die Sprache zum Arbeitsplatz” (First the language, then a job) is a project that stems from Tunisia’s employment pact, with which Germany is helping to support the transformation process by providing extensive funding for the years 2012 and 2013. The project is being implemented in cooperation between the Goethe-Institut and the Tunisian-Ger­man Chamber of Commerce and Industry and aims to bring together job-seeking young professionals who have the additional qualification of German language skills and companies that are looking for young professionals in Tunisia. Bran­­ch­es of German companies in Tunisia or Tunisian companies that want to maintain, establish or expand their business contacts with Germany are in need of staff who not only have specialist expert­ise but also speak German.

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Of course, whether those companies are also able to pay the staff they require is an entirely different question. And it is not helpful when contracts fail because we in Germany hear that Tunisia is being classified as a country with an in­­­­crea­­­s­­ed safety risk due to un­­­­pleasant events. On 8 February 2013, the day of the funeral of left-wing politician Chokri Belaid, who had been murdered two days earlier, thousands of people followed his coffin in a long march, which was shown on Italian television, for example, with the headline “Tunisia descends into chaos”. Those who are in Tunisia themselves cannot under­­stand this. Who avoids Spain when there are protests and strikes taking place against the government’s austerity policy? Who steers clear of German cities in which Salafists have been arrested? One-sided and frightening reporting on Tunisia is fatal both for the country’s eco­­­nomy and for the tourism sector in parti­­cular. The more German-speaking Tuni­sians are able to report directly on their country and maintain personal contacts and a lively exchange with Ger­­­many, the higher the chance of conveying a differ­entiated image of Tunisia in Germany, while at the same time fostering a posi­­tive impression of Germany in Tunisia.

This impression is still characterised by admiration for the Germans’ perform­­a­nce in the field of technology. Germany is seen as a good example in the rene­­w­able energies sector, particularly since the introduction of the strategy for the transition to alternative energies. A grow­ing number of young people in Tunisia from many different specialities of ap­­­plied sciences is therefore hoping to spend time studying in Germany. As men­­­tioned above, knowledge of German is necessary for this, even if courses are increasingly held in English. Offering interested Tunisians incentives for stu­­­dy­­ing in Ger­­many would su­p­­­­port the transformation process in Tunisia. Ex­­­pe­­­­rience with previous opportunities to study in France, Belgium and Canada has shown that the professionals trained in those countries not only have better opportunities on the job market at home but also that it is they who move the coun­­try forward. If nothing else, when they hold particular positions, they con­­­tribute to reforms in their own country, including in the education system.
One can definitely say that the German language helps when it comes to im­­­proving the population’s material existence. In early 2011, France lost some of its trust­­worthiness and credibility due to its posi­­tion in relation to the revolutionary events at the end of 2010. Ger­­man language skills and the easier estab­­­lishment of contacts to Germany that this ensures therefore currently provide a promising basis for conveying liberal constitutional values in Tunisia.

GI-Tunis-bohrer0059-KopieThe author studied French language and literature, linguistics and comparative literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. She has worked for the Goethe-Institut in Bucharest, Rome, Paris and Brussels since 1978 and has led the Goethe-In­s­­titut in Tunisia since September 2011.