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Opinion: Education is the Key to Integration

Verica Spasovska (sp)
January 25, 2006

News of a Berlin school banning its students from speaking languages other than German on school grounds has migrant groups up in arms. Deutsche Welle's Verica Spasovska says the measure will promote integration.

German only, not just in class but outside it tooImage: dpa

A Berlin high school, where 90 percent of students are of non-German origin, embarked on a bold experiment a year ago by ordering students to not just speak German during lessons, but also on school grounds during recess, and during school trips and other events.

Until a few days ago, the whole affair was wrapped in silence. But then the first media reports on the Herbert-Hoover high school, followed by an entire avalanche of articles, has suddenly found politicians of the former communist party, the PDS, the opposition Greens and representatives of Turkish migrant organizations up in arms against the regulation.

Enforcing German by means of a decree is an intrusion by the state into the personal development of an individual, say opponents of the measure.

Self-imposed code of behavior

It's indeed difficult to imagine how the language ban will be implemented. How will the teachers check whether students are really speaking German during recess? With a ubiquitous microphone that will record everything that the students are saying everywhere? How will violations be penalized? With an entry in the class register?

Muslime in Deutschland Frau in Deutschuntericht p178
Politicians are divided over the language measure in the Berlin schoolImage: AP

The key question is whether you can successfully promote integration with such measures. And the answer is in the affirmative. And the Berlin school with its students who come from 10 nations are showing how it can be done.

For starters, we're not talking about a directive that has been imposed dictatorially by the school's headmaster against the wishes of the students and parents. Rather, it's self-imposed, and is supported by a majority of students and parents.

Education the key

The reason why they've accepted this code of behavior is because both students and parents have realized that it helps the kids if they speak good German when it comes to looking for traineeships and eventually jobs. They've realized that education is the key to integration.

Straßenszene in Berlin Kreuzberg mit Thumbnail
Berlin's Kreuzberg district is home to a huge immigrant populationImage: dpa

It's a view that is in no way obvious given that many migrant families have a low level of education. And those who value the school education of their kids move away from districts which are home to a large migrant population and in turn lower education standards.

Even in the aforementioned Berlin school, teachers don't punish students who violate the language measure, rather they just admonish them. It's apparent that you can't force integration with bans. The German ban on school grounds can't replace the important role of the teachers.

That's why the concept of the Herbert-Hoover school also lies in offering more German lessons than other schools. It's undoubtedly also the reason why the school has received more student registrations than any other Berlin school in the neighborhood.

Starting to learn early

The controversial language measure in the Herbert-Hoover school is an attempt to remedy a glaring deficit in the German education system. Ever since the first PISA study on education standards was published five years ago, we're aware that the social background of people in Germany -- more than in any other European countries -- determines how well kids do at school.

Where, if not at school, should children from immigrant backgrounds learn German? Particularly those children who come from economically-impoverished backgrounds and homes where only the mother tongue is spoken, can often only speak colloquial German.

Szene aus dem Unterricht der Klasse 1a der Grundschule am Hollerbusch in Berlin Ganztagsschule Kinder Erziehung
Starting early with a language is importantImage: dpa

Of course it would be better if in future fostering a language began even before children went to school. That's what the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is planning.

There all children, not just of immigrant background, will in future be tested for their language abilities two years before they go to school in order to identify deficits and to rectify them.

Measure not discriminatory

This measure isn't discriminatory, just as the banning of languages other than German on school grounds isn't either.

Rather, it amounts to misguided consideration on our part if we fail to actively emphasize the importance of learning German. Only those who have a good command of German can participate in social life in Germany.

This fact shouldn't just be impressed upon migrants, but should also be recognized by German states, which often tend to save money in the wrong places.

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