Language and Society

Foreign languages in German Schools and Kindergartens

Every pupil in Europe should not learn just one, but two foreign languages.  Photo: Julia Nichols © iStockphotoEvery pupil in Europe should not learn just one, but two foreign languages.  Photo: Julia Nichols © iStockphotoForeign languages open doors to other cultures, to interesting vocations and to the hearts of people who speak a different language. Most people learn their first foreign language at school – much too late, say experts.

Every pupil in Europe should not learn just one, but two foreign languages. The European Parliament spoke out in favour of that at the beginning of last year, stating that multilingualism is one of Europe’s great potentials, and one that should be promoted more by European governments.

Foreign language instruction in Europe and Germany

In almost all European countries, pupils start to learn their first foreign language at the age of eight or nine. In Norway, Malta and Luxembourg they start as early as six and in German-speaking parts of Belgium and Spain already at the age of three. In contrast, pupils in Great Britain only come into contact with another language at the age of eleven.

“The best thing of all would be to start learning English at kindergarten.”  Photo: Cherissa Roebuck © iStockphotoIn Germany, the age at which pupils start to learn a foreign language depends on the Federal Land in which they live. Usually, it is at the age of eight, in year three, the European average. Some Federal Länder, such as Hesse, give pupils the opportunity to encounter a foreign language in voluntary classes from year one. The leading light in terms of foreign language instruction is North-Rhine/Westphalia. There, children take English from year one. The second foreign language, usually Spanish or French, is added throughout Germany in year 7.

Learning a language at kindergarten

“The best thing of all would be to start learning English at kindergarten,” says Professor Andreas Rohde of the English Department at the University of Cologne. He studies bilingual kindergartens and with the didactics of teaching English in primary schools. In contrast to school lessons, children at kindergarten experience the new language in everyday situations, such as when they have their breakfast, play or do craft work. They learn without any inhibitions, unconsciously and incidentally, just as they have already learned their mother tongue. That is unusual in Germany. There are some 700 bilingual kindergartens, most offering English or French. A group of children is usually supervised by two teachers, one of whom speaks German and the other the foreign language. “When the children start primary school, they already understand a great deal,” says Rohde, who is currently studying German-English kindergartens.

English dominates

“Children learn best when they can use the language outside the learning situation.” Photo: Melanie Kintz © iStockphotoProfessor Hans-Jürgen Krumm, Head of German as a Foreign Language at the University of Vienna, believes that children should already learn their first foreign language at kindergarten. But it should not be English. “Children learn best when they can use the language outside the learning situation,” he says. “If nobody around them speaks English, that is a bad experience for them.” According to Krumm, the playful introduction of one or two languages that the child can use with other children of the same age would be better, for example a language of migrants or the language of a neighbouring country. “Children should experience multilingualism at kindergarten and get enthusiastic about language,” says Krumm, who occupies himself a great deal with the didactics of foreign languages. “In the pop and internet age, you can start learning English at the age of eight or ten, when pupils need the language.” Krumm regards the fact that English is becoming the increasingly dominant foreign language that is taught throughout Europe as a barrier to the aim of multilingualism. “Countries that used to be paradigms of multilingualism, such as Norway, Finland and the Eastern European countries are now focusing more on English,” he says.

A poor knowledge of English

In spite of having intensive English lessons, German pupils have a relatively poor command of the language. Krumm sees one reason for this as being that the training of language teachers is too theoretical. “While there are nice ideas for lively classes, they are not common in practice,” he says and also criticises the fact that pupils lack contact with the foreign language. “They simply don’t need it in their everyday life.” That is different in Holland or the Scandinavian countries, where the inhabitants speak very good English. There, films and television programmes are shown in the original version with subtitles, rather than being dubbed, the usual practice in Germany. “That is an important factor for multilingualism,” says Krumm. “Watching television there is language immersion.”

Children learn without any inhibitions.  Photo: fatihhoca © iStockphotoAndreas Rohde believes that language can be learnt most efficiently not in class but in everyday situations. Bilingual kindergartens offer an opportunity to do so, as do school subjects taught through the medium of foreign languages. “In some German schools, one or two subjects, such as sport or art, are taught in English,” he says. That replaces language lessons. “Such forms are becoming more significant, but they are not used everywhere.” In most cases, they are the result of parent initiatives.

Katja Hanke
is a linguist and freelance journalist.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2010

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