Education and Language

Babylon in the Classroom: German Isn’t Easy Whether Turk, German or German Turk

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Author Akyün: “We can give the young people a chance” (Photo: private)

25 March 2014

Neukölln, Wedding and Wilhelmsburg are neighbourhoods with names known across the country. When you hear them, you think of welfare assistance and schools where more Turkish is spoken than German. Those who grow up here don’t have any chances in life, some think. Hatice Akyün disagrees.

One thing I hear very often from Germans is, “Why, you speak German well.” And my response is always, “Why, so do you!”

You see, I come from the Ruhr region, where people are first of all very frank; they don’t beat about the bush – or should I say beat around the slagheap – and secondly, they’re a few steps ahead. There was a time when the mining industry needed the help of so-called guest workers. Even if the use of the term at the time was meant to emphasize the temporary nature of our stay, there’s no other industry where the people stick together as much as belowground. Not just because they’re all Kumpel, or mates, but because they had to be able to rely on one another. And so at some point Ali and Hans would sit together at the pub. It’s as simple as that. Another thing about the term guest worker: in Turkey, they don’t put guests to work.

Pardon me, I haven’t introduced myself properly: I am Hatice Akyün, Turk, but also German, foreigner, Muslim, journalist, author, bitch; depending on your point of view. I am, so to say, a prime example of successful integration. And, no, my name does not mean, “Dew-drenched sunflower under the rising sun of the Anatolian hills.”

Prejudice on Hermannplatz

Many people think that someone like me, a commuter between cultures, has a lot to say. They’re right. I get up every morning, drink a cup of coffee and read the paper. Sometimes I even go down to the bakery and fetch some rolls. On my way there I very rarely wear a headscarf, unless of course it’s snowing, and my father does not send my two brothers Mustafa and Mehmet to spy on me from behind every hedge. I grew up in the Marxloh neighbourhood of Duisburg. If that means nothing to you, just imagine Neukölln, Moabit or Wedding in Berlin. Those who are unfamiliar don’t dare enter. The Turks are at each other’s throats there daily. If you don’t speak Turkish around Hermannplatz in Berlin-Neukölln you can’t even sign a contract with the phone company. And if you try to speak to the teenagers on the streets, you’re sure to lose your wallet in the process. Prejudices make life easier, don’t they?

Deutsch 3.0: Debates on the language and its future

When I see these teens on Hermannplatz, I think of my beloved little brother Mustafa, who zooms about in his series 3 BMW and tries to sell me mobile phones I don’t need – but I get them at a really good price because I’m his “Shivesta,” as he pronounces the German word (Schwester) for sister. He’s a genuine rogue in his mid-twenties, a macho with extremely endearing qualities and he could speak German perfectly, but refuses to do so, instead putting on his best cool young Turkish accent. I once asked him if he doesn’t sometimes seem ridiculous to himself as a walking cliché. He delivered his response in the very best German, saying, “My dear sister, do I interfere in your affairs? Now, please!” My brother is simply more successful – even with the ladies – when he uses “Kanak Sprak” (according to Wikipedia: “a German sociolect created by Turkish male youth in Germany [that] means roughly ‘Kanake-talk’, referring to the word Kanake, used originally as a racially-charged pejorative.”). He met his current girlfriend at a café where she was sitting alone reading a magazine. Mustafa saw her, walked over to her table, bowed, put on his handsomest smile and said, “You believe in love at first sight, or you want me come again?”

Idyll in the middle of Germany

My other brother, Mehmet, is more conformist and less ballsy. He just turned thirty and ten years ago opened his first computer business where he explained the new technology to Turkish customers in the language they understood: Turkish. Today, he has three busy shops and is the prototype of a successful Turk. If asked about his Turkish traits, he will emphasize his ambition, his constant industriousness and his invariable punctuality. I could never rely on him for traits like courage, pride and defense of honour, which are what I consider Turkish traits. Quite the opposite, when my first boyfriend broke up with me, I went to my brother and ordered him, “Give that idiot a good talking to and fix things for me! He humiliated your sister! You’re Turkish!” He gazed at me warily and said, “Don’t you think you ought to have a talk with him yourself?” It’s really not easy to please a German – not to mention a Turk.

It is certainly wrong to dig the trenches deeper or live in neatly separated worlds. We all live in the same city. Do you think we want it that way? That Neukölln is practically only Turkish and you can hardly learn German in school or on the streets? In the seventies back in Marxloh things were different. Coal miners like my father lived on our street. They were Turks, Poles and Italians, but most of them were German Kumpel whose children we played with on the streets, who went in and out of our houses and who ultimately taught me German. It was our idyll in the middle of Germany. We were curious about one another and once you had proven yourself a good friend it didn’t matter where your parents came from. Duisburg-Marxloh was a working class neighbourhood just like Berlin-Neukölln; today it is just an ethnic neighbourhood.

I think something ought to be done about it. To me, a culturally diverse city – as Berlin likes to praise itself as being – means a mixed city where Germans live next to Turks because both feel at home in the same neighbourhood. All of the work of integration could be made so much easier if the children would play together again, if the fears would be broken down. I am speaking to Turks as well as Germans. It is not only the Germans who push the Turks into one neighbourhood; many Turks isolate themselves. No German is spoken at home and some Turkish women still don’t understand any German although they’ve lived here for thirty years.

“It’s no use”

Albert Einstein once said, “The horizon of many people is a circle with zero radius, which they call their point of view.” He may have been right, but that doesn’t mean that the radius cannot be expanded, bit by bit, stretched slowly by knowledge.

The boys and girls from Neukölln, Moabit and other neighbourhoods in German cities have knocked on doors with no positive response for too long. Frequently, the doors were not even opened to them. So, can we blame them if they barricade themselves and say, “It’s no use”? Now here they all come, politicians and industry, and expect that just because they’ve decided to become open and also accept Turks as brakes to demographic change, the news will spread like wildfire and the young people will be at their doors tomorrow. The prejudices run in both directions. Most associate a bit of identity with language.

What good is finishing school when a young person is told in the fourth grade that they won’t have any chances on the job market and that they’ll never make it out of Neukölln? It’s a lie. And just as I attempt to encourage the young people as a walking case study, others can do the same. We can all give them a future and they will not disappoint us because when a young person is given a challenge, he or she – whether Turk, German or German Turk – will do everything in their power to not disappoint their family and their employer. Hopelessness is the worst thing and if someone uses a few certificates to question whether a Turkish boy or a Turkish girl can really live up to the requirements, I ask that they remember me. My case serves as an example of how someone – in spite of growing up in Duisburg-Marxloh, only getting a lower secondary school education and with an immigration background – can learn German, love the German constitution, feel at home in Germany and live up to the demands of German publishers and editors with German articles and books.

Hatice Akyün was born in Akpinar, Anatolia in 1969. In 1972 she moved to Germany with her family and has lived here ever since. She works as a social reporter, columnist and author of books, her most recent published in 2013 and entitled Ich küss dich, Kismet – Eine Deutsche am Bosporus (Kiss Me, Kismet: A German on the Bosporus). As part of the initiative Deutsch 3.0, Hatice Akyün and the editor Rosemarie Tracy, the linguist Karl-Heinz Göttert and the Berlin school headmaster Michael Wüstenberg will discuss The multilingual classroom: how much German does a Berlin schoolchild need? (for details see in Berlin on 26 March. On 28 March at 11 PM, the ZDF television programme Aspekte will examine “The future of the German language.” You can also stream the show live on the Internet or access it later from the ZDF-Mediathek.
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