German as a Second Language in Schools General promotion of linguistic skills

German as a Second Language?
German as a Second Language? | © Ich-und-Du /

As they have to attend lessons that are held in, what is for them, a second language immigrant children come up against quite a few obstacles. People from an immigrant background often have difficulty tackling this so-called “language of education” and the schools are not paying enough attention to this, says Barbara Krischer.

Ms Krischer, what changes would have to be made in the way subjects are being taught at the moment, if those pupils who have German as their second language are to benefit?

First of all it has to be made quite clear that it makes a great difference if a person is taught in his fully developed first language or in his second language. The reason being that the language of education used in lessons has different linguistic structures as those of everyday usage. There are, for example, more nominal clauses than subordinate clauses (“The cooling of the material” instead of “while the material cools”). Sometimes colloquial words become specialist terms, as is the case with the word “umkippen” (to collapse). The pupils know what is meant when somebody collapses, but when they read in their textbooks that “a lake has collapsed”, i.e. has become a polluted dead zone, they find out that the word “umkippen” can also be a specialist term that has a totally different meaning.

Basic grounding in second language acquisition and second language didactics

How can this be dealt with?

Learning difficulties stemming from the language used in lessons can be offset by the introduction of “linguistically sensitive” instruction. This focuses not only on the content of the lesson, but also on the linguistic abilities required to understand and reproduce the new material. For example, how do I present something, how do I describe an experiment or how do I formulate my arguments in a discussion during the lesson.

What effect do the challenges presented by schools that are becoming more and more multilingual have on the training of future teachers?
Basic grounding in second language acquisition for mathematics teachers. Basic grounding in second language acquisition for mathematics teachers. | © Bernhard Pixler / Only teachers who have undergone special training can meet the learning needs of  pupils who have to study in a second language. This is not an easy thing to demand from trainee teachers who are studying, for example, mathematics, chemistry or geography. They must at least have a basic grounding in second language acquisition and second language didactics.

Couldn’t the educational publishers play a constructive role in this development?

Yes, they could provide teaching and study materials that are linguistically targeted. Pupils studying in their second language cannot be taught with materials designed for monolingual classes. What is required are linguistically edited teaching materials that enable the pupils to compile an index of the words and language used in lessons to help them when they are working on specialised content.

What does that mean?

In view of the enormous number of specialised texts and terms that mainstream schools work on every school year it is now necessary for “second-language pupils” to compile glossaries in which they can look up meanings and grammatical structures. Specialised texts are often very compact, full of alternatives and references. Among other things the pupils have to be “sure” of the German article (der, die or das) and know, for example, the grammatical gender of every specialist term. If they don’t, they will not be able to recognise the next linguistic alternative (e.g. a pronoun) and they will “lose the thread”. This in turn quite often leads to them being accused of not knowing their stuff.

Increasing number of multilingual classes

That means then specialised dictionaries and definitions for every text?

Not only that. Teaching materials should also embrace methods of making the texts more accessible, with visualisations that promote a better analysis of the text, likewise exercises to practice and improve reading and writing skills. In view of the ever increasing number of multilingual classes the educational publishers might well now be in a position to fill a huge, new gap in the market!

Up to now the subject “German as a Second Language” is only available in a few federal states as part of teacher training courses. Shouldn’t all the federal states be involved?

Yes, of course, that would be what we really need. I am certain that this field of learning is gaining more and more impetus at all levels of education, be it at a pre-primary, primary or secondary level, not to mention the vocational level. Considering the speed at which the social situation in our country is changing, “German as a Second Language” really has to become an integral and permanent part of professional teacher training.

How can studying or learning can be gainfully supported?

Is the problem only restricted to young people from an immigrant background or are other pupils affected?

The concept “language training” is now being viewed as the overall objective for all subjects. The main focus is on the general promotion of linguistic skills for use in the classroom. Up to now the level of expectation has been the age-appropriate language used by a “first-language pupil” from an educated family and this was assumed as a matter of course. This “matter of course” assumption is, however, now disappearing, be it due to immigration or due to the influence of the media. The extent to which it is disappearing is something we have to reflect on didactically.

How long have you been working on this issue? And how did you hit upon it?

More than 20 years ago I had a job teaching ethnic Germans who had left their home countries and had come to Germany to integrate themselves into German society and make a life for themselves. It was then that I started to realise just how colossal the challenges were that such an undertaking entails. I was also confronted with the question of how they could improve their qualifications and job prospects when having to work in a language that was not their first language. Since then I have been fascinated by the question of how studying or learning in a language that is not your first language can be gainfully supported. In the course of time I then took on the task of improving the professional training of teachers in this field.

Barbara Krischer provides specialised didactic training for teachers who work with “second-language pupils”. She works at the FU Berlin (Free University Of Berlin) at the Centre for Teacher Training, in the German as a Second Language department.