Naturalization language testing and its basis in ideologies of national identity and citizenship

Ingrid Piller*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

109 Citations (Scopus)


National belonging is a central facet of modern social identities. In Europe, nation-building often went hand in hand with linguistic nationalism. While the monarchial empires that preceded the modern nation had been multilingual polities (e.g., the Habsburg Empire), nations were founded on the ideology of “One Language, One Nation.” Nations are not only “Imagined Communities,” that is, systems of cultural representation whereby people come to imagine a shared experience of identification with an extended community, but also exclusionary historical and institutional practices to which access is restricted via citizenship. Linguistic restrictions to such access can be found in naturalization language testing, which usually takes place during the naturalization interview and tests the applicant's proficiency in a country's official and/or majority language. In this paper I examine the interrelationship of ideologies of national and linguistic identity and the ways in which they impact upon ideologies of citizenship. I describe current naturalization legislationina number of countries and the ways in which it is based on these ideologies. The paper has a special focus on Germany where naturalization legislation changed on January 1st, 2000. I describe the linguistic tests as they are stipulated by law and as they are conducted in actual practice. Finally, I turn away from the national ideologies behind these language tests to the linguistic ideologies that (mis)inform them. The data for this analysis come mainly from legal texts pertaining to naturalization, but also from newspaper accounts and interviews with naturalization candidates. I will show that the relationship between naturalization and language requirements depends on the different national ideologies that the various countries hold. The paper ends with the conclusion that most of the practices I report on are compatible neither with a contemporary understanding of citizenship nor with recent advances in linguistic research and the study of multilingualism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)259-277
Number of pages19
JournalInternational Journal of Bilingualism
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • language legislation
  • language testing
  • nation


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