Multilingualism and education

Almost As Many Native Tongues As Pupils – Linguistic Integration in Germany

30 percent of primary school children in Germany are of migrant origin. Copyright: Colourbox

Language is the first step towards integration. This is particularly obvious in schools, where language barriers can prove a major obstacle to success. Teachers who themselves have roots in other countries are often in a better position to understand the difficulties their students of migrant origin have. In German schools, however, there are very few such teachers – plans are now in place to change this.

“Buenas dias! Dobroje utro! Buon giorno! Iyi günler! Dzien dobry! Bună dimineaţa! Bom dia! Доброе утро! Guten Morgen!” This is roughly what it would sound like if the students of class 10g at the Wilhelm Heinrich von Riehl School in Wiesbaden were to greet their teacher in their native languages. The class is home to nine different nationalities in all, but this is by no means an isolated case in Germany. In one school in Bad Kreuznach, there is a class in which only one child of non-migrant origin is taught. “The multi-cultural model is obsolete – we need to become closer-knit!”, is how Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel put it at a congress in Linz in September 2008: “For this to be possible, one first has to learn the language of the country in which one lives.”

Second generation performing less well

Germany is a country of immigration. According to the Federal Statistical Office, some 13.5 million people of migrant origin live in Germany. The majority of them have family roots in Turkey (14.9 percent), followed by Poland (6.9 percent) and Italy (4.2 percent). One or both parents of 30 percent of all primary school pupils come from outside Germany. For many, finding their place in Germany and taking equal part in the life of German society is no easy matter.

A teacher with her pupils. Very few teachers in Germany have experience of migration themselves. Copyright: Gemeinnützige Hertie-Stiftung According to the 2006 PISA study, young people whose parents were both born abroad are often worse off in social terms. The majority attend the Hauptschule (a form of secondary school that focuses on vocational rather than academic subjects), and rarely go to the Realschule or Gymnasium, where a more academic approach is followed. Another alarming result of the PISA study is that so-called second generation young people of migrant origin perform less well in some cases than their counterparts who completed part of their schooling in their home countries before coming to Germany.

According to PISA, differences in language use and the social origin of young people with non-German parents are the two primary causes of the considerable differences in ability that are evident between students of migrant origin and their German classmates. In other words, language and income determine the future of young people in Germany.

No longer under the umbrella

Professor Christoph Schroeder of the University of Potsdam. Copyright: University of PotsdamChristoph Schroeder, Professor of German as a second language at the University of Potsdam, has studied multilingualism in many German schools and the development of varieties and language mixtures in the language spoken by young people. “Individual languages such as German or Turkish”, explains Schroeder, “are in actual fact abstractions; they can be better described as ‘bundles’ of more or less corresponding linguistic manifestations or varieties.”

Which variety is chosen depends on the communication situation: there is formal public communication, informal public communication and the private or intimate sphere of communication. In the multilingualism characterized by migration, the informal and intimate forms of language are no longer covered by the “umbrella” of the formal, written language.

Teachers of migrant origin

Schroeder notes that many children of migrant origin lack skills in standard written German. Social integration, however, demands in his view precisely the ability to feel confident when writing. “Good written language forms the basis for orientation in the verbal use of language.” Schroeder believes that one of the main problems is the way teachers approach the multilingualism of their students. “They must finally change their attitudes! Nowadays it is no longer acceptable to exclude problematic pupils of migrant origin from lessons. All subjects must face up to the challenge of finding out how German as a second language can be integrated into lesson time.” The professor himself has a daughter who is growing up bilingually, as his wife is Turkish. He welcomes the idea of getting more teachers of migrant origin into German schools.

A teacher with her pupils. Copyright: Colourbox This is exactly the approach followed by the Hertie Foundation in its scholarship programme. “Integration is a buzzword at the moment: people always take it for granted, but it does not happen as a matter of course”, says Katharina Lezius. She is responsible for the scholarship programme designed to help trainee teachers of migrant origin. “There is a great discrepancy between pupils and teachers.” Around 30 percent of primary school pupils of migrant origin, she explains, are taught by teachers of whom just one percent are of migrant origin. Teachers who have experienced immigration themselves may not always be able to overcome language barriers, but could at least develop a different understanding for pupils and act as a different role model for non-German parents, believes Lezius.

Coaching and summer camps

Other foundations too – like the Mercator Foundation, for instance, which organizes coaching for migrant children, or the Jacobs Foundation, which pays for summer camps that include German lessons – are committed to improving the integration of children of migrant origin. All these initiatives are based on the realization that learning the local language is an important step, even if only the first of many, towards integration. “You have as many lives as the languages you speak”, claims a Czech proverb. The pupils in Wiesbaden, Bad Kreuznach and elsewhere need to add a “German life” to their repertoire, without of course forgetting about their “old life” – their native language.
Henrike Holzwarth
lives in Tübingen and works as a freelance journalist.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
March 2009

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