Visiting a Berlin elementary school where German isn’t always spoken
It’s the first week back at school at Christian Morgenstern elementary school in Berlin’s western district of Spandau. A colorful garland hangs from the ceiling of class 1A: “Congratulations on starting school!”
Below it, some 20 wide-eyed first-year students listen to their teacher. Some of the 6-year-olds are raptly attentive; others seem more interested in their new pencil cases proudly showcased on their desks. Freshly made name tags sit in front of each child: Mehmet, Shakira, Ameena, Roy. Absent are the traditionally German-sounding Florians, Stefans and Anjas.
The school itself is named after German poet and translator Christian Morgenstern. It teaches some 570 children, aged six to 12, across six grades. Students come from 42 different nations, including Turkey, Bulgaria, Syria, Greece and Nigeria. In grade one, more than 80% of the kids are the children of migrants, and many of them start their primary education with little to no German-language skills.
Call for better German proficiency
For Christian Morgenstern, the start of the school year has coincided with a national debate about whether those 6-year-olds who lack German-language proficiency should be held back from starting grade one.
The debate was spurred by remarks that Carsten Linnemann, a high-ranking member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), made to the German regional newspaper Rheinische Post in early August. The politician called for tougher matriculation language requirements, saying, “A child who barely speaks and understands German has no place yet in an elementary school,” and should instead receive additional preschool instruction.
Linnemann’s comments prompted a backlash from German media, as well as from fellow members of the conservative CDU. But a poll published on Wednesday by Insa polling institute showed that not all Germans are on the same page.
The poll, which surveyed 2,060 citizens, found that 50.2% agreed with Linnemann’s statement while 32.1% disagreed. When respondents were sorted for political affiliation, some 60.1% of CDU supporters backed Linnemann. The highest amount of support came from fans of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, with 85.9%.
The issue has also divided language pedagogues. Some support more rigorous language prerequisites and testing before a child can start elementary school. Others have highlighted the importance of integrating children in German schools as soon as possible in order to boost language abilities.
‘No blanket measures’
Christian Morgenstern head teacher and principal Karina Jehniche says she’s a strong advocate of preparing children better before they start school, but is against blanket measures.
“Like in any school, the development of each child is different. Many of the children here have only ever been exposed to their native language,” Jehniche said.
Others may have at least attended a German preschool, known as a “Kita,” before starting elementary school. But due to a shortage of Kita places in several major cities, elementary schools cannot count on children having had this language exposure.
At Christian Morgenstern, each first-year class of around 20 children is appointed two teachers and one assistant. Among the instructors are Polish, Arabic and Turkish-speakers, and some of them know firsthand what it’s like to go to school while learning German as a second language.
Children are encouraged to speak only German, both in the classroom and during recess, and those who struggle receive extra language lessons, though finding time to offer such lessons remains a challenge. “The more we can address children’s individual needs, the better,” Jehniche said.
In the classroom, everything takes significantly longer than in your average lesson. During a simple exercise to help the children learn each other’s names, it becomes immediately clear which students have been exposed to more German.
Some of the children are understandably shy in their new environment, but others struggle to even begin pronouncing the words of the game. The teachers repeat gestures to help the children understand the task.
Getting to know you: Simple name-learning games can be a challenge for first grade students who come from different language backgrounds
The young children remain patient and tolerant of their classmates, with some of the better German speakers offering to help.
“I can help you say it, if you want,” says one tiny girl to a classmate who is slowly sinking lower into her chair. The entire class joins in with support.
Another boy, who according to his teachers did not attend German daycare, grins with pride after managing to say the rhyme in German — and just seconds after a bout of panic brought him close to tears.
‘A question of mindset’
The start of the school year can also be tough in the upper grades, as sometimes children come back from vacation having spoken next to no German, which can lead to huge setbacks.
And the varied level of German-language skills doesn’t just pose a problem for teachers in the classroom; communication with the children’s parents can also be challenging.
Jehniche explains that the school holds special evenings to find out the expectations of parents and also to let them know what the school expects from them. Teaching staff encourage non-German-speaking parents to enroll in a German course.
“Syrian children, for example, seem to pick up German quite quickly, and we often find that their parents are also learning German,” Jehniche said.
After the United States, Germany is one of the most popular migration destinations in the world. Jehniche believes this trend should be embraced.
“These people aren’t going anywhere,” she said of immigrants to Germany. “And how we move forward is a question of mindset.”
“The fact that so many children like here begin school with little to no German shouldn’t be seen as something negative,” she added. “This should be seen as an opportunity. What we nurture here is a very open-minded environment.”