German Lessons for Young Refugees
New Words for Farid

The German language is the first step toward accessing education
The German language is the first step toward accessing education | © Igor Mojzes –

The crises in the Middle East and in Europe have brought thousands of young refugees to Germany. They learn German in specially organised courses, but this also poses major challenges for the teachers.

It is a rainy winter’s day and Farid is at his desk taking the IFK course (remedial German course for international students) at the Ulrepforte Vocational College in Cologne, North Rhine-Westphalia. Whatever the 16-year-old may have experienced when fleeing from war-torn Syria to Germany, he does not say. The teenager escaped a few months ago from the completely devastated city of Aleppo. He just does not say a word, explains Anne Mehler, one of the German teachers at the Vocational College. Farid is one of 65,000 refugee children living in Germany and he sits there, with his eyes and ears wide open, along with other refugees and immigrants in a special class trying to learn German as quickly as possible so that he can become a member of German society.

The teachers need support

Even in schools, the number of refugees becomes apparent. The major challenge the teachers have to face is the refugee children’s knowledge of German – so many different levels. “A few of them speak some broken German, others not a single word. Some of them are illiterate, others are grammar school material. The children come from different cultural backgrounds that have different educational approaches, not to mention different phonologies and scripts,” explains Udo Beckmann, Chairperson of the North Rhine-Westphalia Education Association. He said that the teachers were not adequately trained for this task and needed support – from interpreters, psychologists and social workers. Experts have quite rightly demanded that more teachers should be trained in understanding the legal and social situation of the asylum seekers and in providing socio-educational assistance.

“Life in temporary accommodation hostels, in a country they are not familiar with and having to learn a new language is greatly affected by restrictions, insecurities and perspectives that are only short-term at best,” explains Helmut Kehlenbeck, who is head of the Intercultural Affairs and Immigrant Advancement Department of the city of Bremen. That was why, he said, it was an absolute must that these children and teenagers attend school right from the start to learn the language; this would then enable them to quickly transfer to a regular school class and, depending on their age, provide them with some kind of vocational orientation.

Problems when enrolling for school

Speaking the German language is the first and the most important step towards accessing education in Germany. Just how this learning of the language actually works for young refugees is not, however, always clearly organised. It is often the case that young children are simply put into normal school classes, other schools offer parallel course in German as foreign Language (Deutsch als Fremsprache: DaF). Furthermore there are also a few private initiatives, such as German lessons taught by retired teachers.

The lucky ones make it into one of the state-run language courses that are available in all the German federal states – the training given in these courses is more continuous and more professional. These special courses range from primary to upper secondary education level and are geared to refugee children of all ages. The names differ depending on which federal state: in Bavaria they speak of “Übergangsklassen” (bridging classes), in Bremen they are called “Vorkurse” (prep courses) and in North Rhine-Westphalia “Auffangklassen” (reception classes) and “Internationale Förderklassen – IFK” (remedial courses for international students). These remedial courses for international students in North Rhine-Westphalia are for young refugees who are over 16 years of age, for asylum seekers and ethnic Germans who understand and speak hardly any German – this is the age group that is most widely spread in the schools at the moment. The aim is for the young people to improve their knowledge of German and to acquire basic occupational skills. They are not evaluated with marks or grades – after one or two years half of the refugees transfer to a vocational school.

The Communal Integration Centre of the city of Cologne allocates places to about 300 pupils on one of the 15 IFK remedial courses for international students. At the beginning most of them only have a beginner’s grasp of German, meaning that they can only formulate short sentences and subordinate clauses with “weil” (because ..), says course trainer, Anne Mehler.

Out of touch with the reality of everyday life

In order to get into a regular class at a vocational school they at least need to be able to use language independently in everyday conversations and in a work situation. Many of the young people have in fact already attended a compulsory integration course with German language instruction before doing the IFK remedial course for international students. “This however is not enough to get them beyond the beginners’ level,” says Anne Mehler.

The teacher has a lot of German teaching materials and textbooks at her disposal. She has after all to satisfy the different linguistic demands of her students. “Many of the subjects dealt with in the German teaching books are completely out of touch with the reality of the refugees’ everyday life,” she says. There are no texts dealing with the living situation of the refugees, no practical tips on money or on how to address an envelope or on how to fill in a form when applying for a bank account.

This is why Ms Mehler has had to find her own materials and put them together in a course. In addition to the framework curriculum she has also compiled a self–study folder in which students can read texts about such jobs as that of a carpenter or an automotive mechatronics engineer.

“Grammar alone is boring”

Anne Mehler manages to present grammar within the framework of the refugees’ living situation. “Grammar through the back door” is what she calls it. “Is it good that school starts at half past seven in the morning?” she asks. And in no time at all a lively discussion is kicked off using subordinating clauses that use the German word for “that” – “dass”. “Grammar alone is boring,” she explains.

She does not, however, mention the traumatic circumstances in which the refugees were forced to flee. Anne Mehler is afraid that she might not be able to deal with this properly in a lesson situation. On the other hand there is good mention indeed of any encounters the refugees might have had with the police in Germany or with discrimination in their everyday lives. On the front wall of the classroom there is large white poster. At the top the words “Neue Worte” (New Words) can be read. New words the young people should learn, such as “das Formular” (the form), “das Amt” (the administrative office) or “die Behörde” (the public authority). These are words from the everyday lives of the students. After all the residential status of the majority of the students is precarious and they live in temporary accommodation.

They have to deal with the authorities quite often, for example, when applying for a residence permit, or when looking for a flat or when they have a money problem. Most of them, however, do not want to have any trouble with the authorities, they want to stay in Germany. “Many of these refugee children are very eager to achieve and become integrated,” says Helmut Kehlenbeck. They realised, he continued, that the time they spent learning in school was an opportunity to develop new perspectives on life. Nevertheless the older a refugee child starts school, the greater the challenges are – both for the students as well as for the teachers.