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"My parents just had other problems and worries, first to settle down here and to get a foothold. That was connected with many difficulties. That is, they had actually only one appeal to us. To wit: Learn the language now as soon as possible, because otherwise we’re a bit lost here."
The appeal of the parents arrived. Within a very short time, Nani and her siblings learned German and were allowed to leave the remedial classes that they had initially had to attend after school hours. Because of her talent for languages, Nani later went to a bilingual English-German high school and studied medicine. Today she works as a surgeon at a hospital in Berlin.
For the German majority society, the pretty young woman with the black hair and the open smile could be seen as a kind of "model migrant here. The Federal Ministry for Migration and Refugees in Berlin likes to advertise on its website with stories like hers. But nothing of the price the now 37-year-old paid for her success is written on her resume.
"I speak broken Farsi. This is the unhooked Farsi of a child. I actually can’t read or write properly in Persian either. As a result, we also lost our connection to the relatives quite a bit actually. Yes."
Even with her own parents, who in addition to raising their four children and working in the new country never learned German as well as Nani and her siblings, the daughter can no longer talk about everything today.
"For example, I can’t talk to them about medicine properly. About my profession. And when I really have to explain something, I take pen and paper or get my anatomy atlas and show them what I mean. So we have become creative in communicating simply by resorting to auxiliary means. But on the phone, I would want to avoid having deep conversations with them."
While Nani talks, she cradles her two-week-old daughter Lilou in her arms. Because she herself hardly speaks her former mother tongue, she cannot pass it on to her children. But she has vowed that her young family will never lack traditions. No matter what culture they come from.
"With us, it has actually been a very gradual process of integrating, or rather forgetting one’s own roots, one must actually say. We celebrated the Persian holidays in the beginning, and then it became more and more difficult to keep it up. Many holidays then fell on weekdays, which are not holidays here, and at some point the Persian holidays fell away more and more, until we only celebrated New Year’s Eve. And at some point it also became too impractical."
Instead, the parents put up a Christmas tree one day in December. Bought gifts for the children so that they were given gifts at the same time as their classmates. The traditions they themselves had once grown up with hardly played a role in the family’s life anymore. The framework that she herself often lacked, Nani wants to give her own children from the start.
"I think that’s the same for all of us, including my siblings. We have always been a little bit searching for answers and trying to find ourselves somewhere in society or in life too. Where we stand, where we want to be. Were we rather forced to think about it. Maybe it’s simply because we didn’t have the roots at home. If you always have the same traditions and procedures, I think that solidifies a child well. And this is what my parents could not manage."
Speechlessness among the generations
Parents who have done their best – raised their four children in a foreign country and sent them to university. And they actually only did what the German majority society demands of immigrants: Integrate, learn German. And best even: Think German, feel German, become German.
But do you really have to forget the language of your parents or even grandparents to be able to integrate in a new country? Giving up traditions and cutting ties – as happens so often in the German-Turkish community, contrary to all preconceptions? Berlin elementary school teacher Ilknur Geze has long observed the effects of speechlessness between family members and different generations.
"It is difficult, of course. It is sad. You know this is your grandma, and you are eleven, twelve… And if they just can’t communicate. When the grandma can’t tell what she feels or what she wants to give or can’t understand what the child wants, of course it’s sad."
Mirvat Adwan from Syria wants to do things differently. The 43-year-old journalist has been living and working in Berlin for a good ten years. Both your children were born here, go to school here, speak German without accent. Their Arabic, so it wishes the parents, should not forget them nevertheless. And if possible, they will also be able to read and write fluently one day.
"My son reads like a mouse, but only German books. And I would like so much that he also uses our library, which is at home. Tried to teach him the language at home. I had such a plan. Ok, let’s always sit at home for like 20 minutes on the weekends, etc. After two minutes: ‘Oh, Mom, I’m bored. Can we do something else?`"
That children with a migration background automatically speak their parents’ language better than German is only true up to a certain age, Adwan knows. Afterwards, however, families must consciously work to preserve the mother tongue and also develop it further.
"Because they spend more time at daycare centers and schools than at home, and most of the parents also work… You really have very little time with your children. And above all, when I do my homework with my son, I will do it in German, not in Arabic."
Concern that the children will lose their home language
Learning Arabic should be fun
Adwan puts on some Syrian cardamom coffee, then quickly makes some honey sandwiches for the children, who are now coming in the door one by one. Just four years old are the smallest.
Each child is greeted with a hug, is allowed to take his honey bread directly to the table. Top priority at Kalamon: Learning Arabic should be fun. Because with pressure, Adwan knows from her own children, nothing works.
"I also say to parents, please try to speak only Arabic so at least ten minutes a day. Try to teach it to the children without feeling, yes, they are forced to do this. And yes, the children who come to us z.B. Parents say, yes, my child can now understand more, he communicates more with aunts, that is, the environment that speaks Arabic."
And yet. Overall, there are fewer and fewer children in Berlin who are still truly fluent in Arabic, according to Adwan. Instead, she observes in many families that the parents communicate with the children in – sometimes broken – German instead of Arabic. A big mistake, as she herself knows. Adwan has a dream because of this.
"The goal is that the Arabic language is also taught in normal schools. And I think that’s not just my goal either. Many dream of getting Arabic lessons in normal schools as well."
Many first graders speak poor German
Wouldn’t it be better to expand German lessons instead, wonders whoever gets on a bus full of schoolchildren in neighborhoods like Berlin-Kreuzberg or Cologne-Chorweiler at lunchtime and listens to their conversations?? From a linguistic perspective, this is an easy question to answer:
"New findings from the sciences simply point to the fact that we have to throw out old, cherished ways of thinking when it comes to language acquisition", says linguist Heiner Bottger of the Catholic University of Eichstatt-Ingolstadt.
"This also means, for example, that you have to learn as much German as possible in Germany, speak German, in the families and in the schools and in the environment, so that you can really acquire German. That is not so. The calculation that more German lessons, for example, would also lead to better German grades at school, has meanwhile been proven absurd by the scientific community."
Instead, the recipe for learning German as well as possible is to have as well-developed a mother tongue as possible.
"If a mother tongue is not properly promoted, including speaking, reading, listening, etc., then it just doesn’t build up properly. So this happens whenever the process of acquiring the mother tongue is broken off early, including through migration or when it is neglected because parents don’t talk to their children or even learning a second language, z.B. German in Germany, is forced upon them. Then it comes to the fact that a mother tongue cannot be promoted properly. That is fatal. Because the reference model of the mother tongue is missing."
With a promoted mother tongue to success
Conversely, this means: If the mother tongue is well supported – and if possible until the age of four or five – a child can easily learn German or any language for that matter. Accent-free and playful. even if it has never been in contact with it at home before.
This is how it was with Elif Senel, for example. radio and television presenter from Cologne.
"I am very grateful to my parents that we only spoke Turkish at home."
"Many people are surprised that I only learned German in kindergarten. They find that very astonishing. Because I think they assume that a mother tongue that is not German is a problem. And rather brings with it a starting problem. And the opposite is indeed the case according to my experience."
Until she was four years old, Elif’s world was almost exclusively Turkish. Parents spoke Turkish to each other and to her – as did relatives on the phone or voices on the radio.
"I think on the one hand it was a conscious decision, because it was important to them to keep contact with Turkey, because it was clear to them that language means a piece of culture and identity. And I think it was also simply the language in which they felt most comfortable and in which they could express what they wanted to express."
A picture book language acquisition for scientists like Heiner Bottger. Elif learned German without any difficulties, finished elementary school and after that one of the best high schools in Cologne – without her parents ever having the idea to speak German with her instead of Turkish, as many people think is right until today.
"This is also partly passed on to the pediatricians. This is also passed on in the Kitas. There, where evenly not so far advanced trainings to have taken place. And from there it is still given to the families. That is certainly a problem."
Bilingualism is not a hurdle
Controversial concept of double "half-language"
In Germany, multilingualism is often seen as a flaw
Children growing up bilingually have a learning advantage
Bilingual kindergartens and schools are the exception
But despite such pleas and despite successful examples all over Europe: In Germany, bilingual kindergartens and schools are the great exception. Especially when it is not about English-German or French-German education, but about Turkish or even Arabic education. In Berlin, a city of almost 200.000 residents of Turkish origin, just four public elementary schools offer bilingual education in German and Turkish.
One of them is the Rixdorfer Elementary School in Neukolln. A, if you will, hotspot school with 90 percent students of non-German origin. Children who are enrolled in the so-called ZwErz classes for bilingual education here receive five hours of Turkish per week in the first through third grades in addition to their regular classes.
"After that there are seven additional co-op lessons. That’s how subject lessons are, for example, Sachkunde. There are two teachers and the teacher who is responsible for German, she does her lessons in German and in between the same topic is told again in Turkish, not as a translation, but as a support."
Ilknur Geze is one of the native Turkish-speaking teachers at Rixdorf Elementary School. What may be a hot spot school for outsiders is a showcase model for the 48-year-old – whose own children are now at university. Her eyes light up when she talks about everyday school life in the so-called ZwErz area, the many projects and AGs, the astonishing success stories of individual students, the cooperation in the German-Turkish teaching staff.
"I am 72 years old. All the guest workers were new then, too, and it was simple: You are a Turk! One withdraws, one always thinks, it is worth nothing, and thereby the children remain also under itself and thereby they can make no development. And if there are two or three people who are on the wrong track, they take the others with them."
This is exactly what the Rixdorf elementary school wants to avoid from the first grade on. Every culture and every language that a child brings to school should be valued equally.
"There are children who speak their mother tongue very well, and when they start school, although they are also very hardworking, they think that because the German language is not enough, they think… If a child does not understand something, it should not be because of the language. It should simply come naturally, they should simply develop, they should learn, they should simply be satisfied with themselves, they should not feel excluded."
At the beginning of the week on a cold Monday morning the children of the first class sing their morning song. One, two, three – Bir, iki, uc is what they say there. And good morning, Gunaydin.
In the following circle of chairs they are allowed to tell what they have experienced during the weekend. Whether in Turkish or in German, it doesn’t matter for now. The main thing is that every child contributes a few sentences. Jonathan dressed up as a Star Wars fighter, Atakan celebrated his birthday, Zeynep went to the mosque.
"The children who have a better command of their mother tongue and who have less to do with the German language come into a class like this and because there is appreciation, they are more self-confident. Because they then also see something positive, they also have fun, and they also learn. And you can’t say that somehow a German language is more valuable than a Turkish language. The main thing is that the children have a language that they can properly, and we support it. And by the end of sixth grade, children can speak both languages well. In writing and verbally."
Mental well-being has an impact on performance
Author: Luise Sammann
Technology: Inge Gorgner
Direction: Stefanie Lazai
Editorial: Carsten Burtke