Language Minority Education Policy: Turkish Immigrant Pupils in Germany

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Language Minority Education Policy:

Turkish Immigrant Pupils in Germany

Anne Crutchfield


As an exchange student in Tübingen, Germany from 2001-2002 I observed an obvious segregation between Germans and Turks in the community that I belonged to. The Turkish people that I came into contact with seemed to be torn between two cultures and exposed to two sets of prejudices at the same time. Later, as a teacher in Germany from 2004-2006, it became even more apparent to me that the Turkish population was very much disadvantaged in society. My experiences prompted me to investigate the link between language policy and the integration of Turkish minority group members into German society.

In this paper I will survey the historical and political circumstances that have contributed to Turkish and, in particular, language minority (LM) students being socially and educationally underserved in Germany. I will also assess the impact of current language policies and classroom practices on LM students. Finally, I will advocate for recognition within the German school system of the language and educational rights of LM students, the promotion of curriculum that encourages linguistic and cultural diversity, German as a second language (GSL) instruction and bilingual education initiatives grounded in theory and research, and increased collaboration between German schools and the Turkish community.

Linguistic diversity in Germany

The official language in Germany is Standard German, sometimes referred to as High German or Hochdeutsch. Unlike in the United States, where there is no official language policy, Standard German is by law the medium of spoken and written communication is virtually all public sectors of society.

Considering Germany’s official language policy, it might come as a surprise that the majority of native German speakers grow up speaking a regional or local dialect at home and in the community and are first formally exposed to Standard German once they enter primary school and are taught to write. Throughout the country there are 16 dialects that exist in spoken form only. For the most part, they are not mutually intelligible and many could be considered languages in their own right.

In addition to an official language and 16 dialects, Germany is also home to numerous minority and immigrant languages. Seven percent of the 82 million people that make up Germany’s population speak a language other than German as their first language (L1); the most widely spoken minority language being Turkish, with 1.8 million speakers (Statistisches Bundesamt Deutschland, 2006).1 In order to understand how Turkish has come to represent the largest population of minority language speakers in Germany, it is necessary to consider the historical and political circumstances behind Turkish immigration movements to Germany.

Turkish immigration to Germany

After World War II Germany was destroyed; the country lay in shambles and had to be completely rebuilt. Moreover, a large percent of Germany’s eligible workforce had been killed. This created a high demand or laborers, so the Germans recruited migrant workers from, primarily, Southern Europe and Turkey to come to Germany as guestworkers. The term guestworker is intended to denote a person who temporarily immigrates to a foreign country to work and earn money with the understanding that once the work is finished and the demand for outside labor is no longer needed the guestworker will leave and return to his homeland. When huge waves of migrant guestworkers came to Germany from the 1950s to the 1970s, most Germans did not imagine that half a century later, these men and their families would still be in Germany, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren deeply rooted in German society.

In any case, the Turkish men who came to Germany and rebuilt the country were very much a part of the German Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle” (Henderson, 2002). This so-called miracle refers to the substantial turnaround that the German economy underwent as a result of “a currency reform, the elimination of price controls, and the reduction of marginal tax rates” (Henderson, 2002, p. 1) carried out in 1948 and in 1949. Henderson explains:

“At the time, observers [of the post-war economic condition] thought that Germany would have to be the biggest client of the U.S. welfare state. Yet twenty years later its economy was envied by most of the world” (Henderson, 2002, p. 1).

In 1990 the economic situation in Germany changed drastically when East and West Germany reunited to become the Federal Republic of Germany. The reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall marked a major turning point in the history of Germany both politically and economically. The former Soviet occupied East Germany was impoverished after 45 years of communism and the economically prosperous West German government took on the responsibility of bringing the East out from behind the “iron curtain” and back up to Western standards. This created a severe financial strain on the country.

As result of the reunification, German’s economy crashed, leading to serious unemployment problems. The unemployment rate was close to 25% in the former East and about 12% overall at its worst, in 2003 (Federal Statistics Office Germany, 2007). With the number of available positions sinking rapidly, Germans and immigrants found themselves competing for the same jobs; jobs that would likely be considered substandard or blue-collar jobs by many Germans. This gave rise to animosity and discrimination between Germans and Turks, eventually developing into racism and xenophobia on both sides.

This process of anti-immigrant sentiment evolving out of a country’s economic instability has been observed in other contexts (Dicker, 2000) in which a nation’s working class feels threatened by a minority group. The tendency in such cases is for an increasingly negative perspective of foreigners to develop as well as movements that promote language restrictionism.

Although one might expect that the Germans would show more tolerance and acceptance toward minorities, considering the country’s history of genocide and extreme forms of xenophobia, this isn’t necessarily the case. It could, however, be argued that Germany’s Nazi past does feed into the negative discourses about Turkish people in Germany. Many Germans feel that the government, having already paid billions of euros in reparations to the Jews, expresses too much regret and apology for the past, and that this is actually preventing German people from moving away from its xenophobic mentality. They feel that as long as the government continues to subordinate to the Israeli Jews, Germans will continue to be confronted with shame and remorse over something that most of them (i.e. those who were not alive at the time) had no involvement in. In the meantime, German taxpayer’s money goes toward funding the Israeli-Arab conflict. Even though most Germans deeply disagree with the ideology of this war, they cannot openly undermine Jewish involvement in it in any way. Therefore, unable to adequately deal with Germany’s Nazi past and move on as a nation, German society seems to project its anger and frustration over the situation onto other foreigners and minority groups. In a sense, the Turks end up as the scapegoats in this regrettable situation, which might help to explain why today there are nearly two million Turks living in Germany yet no real attempt to integrate them into society.

Turkish integration

When the results of the first Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released in 2000, the blow to Germany was colossal. The PISA study measures the reading, math and science literacies of 15-year olds in industrialized nations around the world. In this international comparison, Germany achieved a score in the bottom third in each area tested. Most alarming for “the land of poets and thinkers” were the exposed deficits in reading: one in five eight-grade students (22.6%) demonstrated only elementary-level reading abilities (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2007). This prompted German officials, educators and parents to look for answers to the question: Why are German pupils’ test scores so low? The undisputed explanation was that the immigrant pupils and their insufficient language proficiencies were dragging the test scores down. This assertion ignited sentiments about a major social issue in Germany: Turkish integration into society.

The three-tiered German school system

The place where many Turkish immigrant children’s initial contact with the German language takes place is in the German school system. At the age of six, all children in Germany go to primary school, which typically includes grades one through four. After primary school there are three distinctive educational paths. Fourth grade students must take a qualifying exam, which, at the tender age of ten, determines whether they will attend a low-track, middle-track, or university-track secondary school. Each school offers a different course of study leading to an entirely different educational goal. See Figure 1:

Figure 1: Three-tiered German school system and educational paths

The low track entails a five- or six-year, quasi-academic, general education leading to vocational training. The middle track involves a six-year, intermediate academic education leading to technical or specialized training. And the university-track requires a nine-year, highly academic education that prepares pupils for university studies (Führ, 1997).

Exceptions to this cut and dried categorization of primary school students are possible, such as the so-called “orientation phase” in grades five and six that allows students to switch schools in the seventh grade, as well as the “alternative education path” of attending remedial evening classes in order to move up to a higher school. However, the German system is considerably rigid, so once a path has been determined, it is more the exception than the rule that a student changes to a school of higher level. The German school system dates back to the 19th century, when its function was to sort out potential scholars and begin university preparation as soon as possible (Führ, 1997). Its underlying purpose was also to ensure that society’s upper class could maintain a dominant role in the social class system. In fact, the latter objective is still carried out today.

One of the biggest criticisms of the German school separation process is that the bottom-tier, low-track schools become collection points for students with learning and behavioral difficulties, under-achievers, and, most disconcerting, immigrant children. Due to developing German language proficiencies, students who speak a language other than German as their first language (L1), or language minority (LM) students, are often automatically sent to low-track schools.

The misinterpretation that LM students’ linguistic deficits are indicative of low academic potential or even mental retardation is not limited to the context of Germany. Davis et al (2005), for example, reported on the civil rights violations of LM students in the United States who were disproportionately placed in special education programs.

Statistics show that in Germany, 60% of the students in the bottom-tier are LM students, only 12% of Turkish immigrant children end up in the top-tier schools, and an alarming low 3.3% of LM students who are educated in the German school system make it to the university (Young, 2006). Needless to say, this system presents a major obstacle for students from immigrant families. It establishes socially cohesive communities of Turkish-speaking children who are generally isolated from German-speaking environments. This could very well affect their acquisition of German, a clear disadvantage in a German-only school system. The short-term, quick fix decision of school choice made on their behalves in the fourth grade can pose very long-term, far-reaching consequences for Turkish immigrant children in terms of educational path, social development, future qualifications, career possibilities and potential income, as well as integration into German society. Moreover, these consequences carry over into future generations, further perpetuating inequality of opportunity.
School language policies

LM students in Germany are confronted with school language policies that disadvantage and marginalize them. First, the medium of instruction in schools is Standard German. This policy is the byproduct of highly prescriptivist attitudes toward maintaining a high standard of the German language, as well as language ideologies and “German-only myths” that, for example, the only way to succeed in society is by speaking Standard German, as opposed to German dialect or other variation of the language such as Turkish-German. Further research should be done to investigate how this Standard-German-only school language policy plays out in practice; that is, to what extent non-standardized language varieties are actually used by students, teachers, and school administrators.

A relatively new policy introduced in 2006 made English as a foreign language (EFL) instruction obligatory for all pupils starting in the first grade. This is a prime example of the effect of globalization and the English as an international language (EIL) paradigm on school foreign language learning policy. Out of 38,000 schools in Germany, about 200 schools offer bilingual education programs (Mäsch, 1993). However, the majority of these programs are German-English or German-French bilingual programs created to serve political agendas. Mäsch (1993) describes the rational behind the German Model of bilingual education that was pioneered after the Second World War in an effort to foster better relations with France. He explains that “the spirit behind [the German-French bilingual streams] was based on the desire for post-war reconciliation and better understanding via linguistic comprehension” (Mäsch, 1993, p. 303). Thus, there is a noticeable mismatch between the current language policy, which supports bilingual education for political gain, and the language needs of the country: bilingual education programs that back minority and heritage language learning and teaching.
Classroom practices and realities

By exploring how the aforementioned language policies play out in German classrooms, some prominent themes emerge. First of all, the German school system fails to acknowledge the language rights and educational rights of its LM students. The overarching attitude is that by virtue of the fact that they live in Germany, Turkish students should automatically acquire and use the language in the same way as their monolingual, native-German speaking peers. Yet, most Turkish speakers in German schools are most likely bilingual, heritage language learners, who will undoubtedly speak a different variety of the language and/or codeswitch between the two. Yet, when teachers and officials observe such forms of language use, they view it as poor or deficient.

In an attempt to deflect the responsibility for the “poor” language skills of LM students away from the schools, finger-pointing ensues. For one, parents are blamed for speaking only in Turkish with their children. There is a discourse operating that foreigners who live and work (i.e. make money) in Germany are supposed to speak German all the time, even when they share a common L1.

In addition, the Turkish culture and Islam are attacked and essentialist ideologies about German versus Turkish, Western versus Oriental traditions and ways of life are brought into play in classes with LM students. Is has been argued (Onder, 1996) that Turkish children are isolated in school and treated as outsiders because they are operating on Islamic norm-value systems. Onder writes that “Germany and German schools are not a natural environment for foreign children […] as far as their own orientation and behavior are concerned” (Onder, 1996, p. 20). At the same time, a form of “reverse essentialism” can also take place in which German teachers believe that, for example, by wearing headscarves, not eating pork, or not participating in co-ed gym classes, it’s the Turks (other) who don’t want to belong to the German (self) culture.

This discourse points toward the possibility that Turkish children are tracked into the bottom-tiered, Hauptschulen based on non-linguistic factors such as race, religion, or socioeconomic status. This is often the case with African American children in the United States who are placed in lower classes under similar circumstances (Delpit, 2003). Further research should be carried out that looks at the language actually used by children of immigrant families in Germany to see if those being held back and essentially denied academic achievement opportunities are true second language learners who lack proficiency in German, i.e. LM students, or if they are actually bilinguals and heritage language learners who speak a non-standardized variety of German and are, therefore, falsely assessed as lacking the linguistic competence necessary for academic achievement.

An extreme example of a hegemonic school language policy in Germany that received national attention came out of the Herbert Hoover low-track secondary school in a predominantly Turkish area of Berlin. In this school, where 90% of the students have immigrant parents and a mother tongue other than German, a ban on Turkish and other languages was implemented, earning them the German National Prize and $94,000 by the National German Foundation. The school’s director, Jutta Steinkamp, explained that “this ban [has been introduced] to enable our students to take part in German society through speaking and understanding the language properly,” and that “knowing the language is a precondition for successful integration” (Hessler, p. 1). The fact that when they register their children for school, parents must sign papers that forbid their children to speak their own language involves powerful notions of linguistic imperialism and the disciplining of discourses (Higgins, 2007).

Teacher education policies

The education system for teachers ignores classroom realities. Therefore, there is a huge linguistic and cultural gap between teachers and students. University students pursuing a degree in teaching are required to demonstrate fluency in English and proficiency in French and Latin. Again, there is an emphasis on scholarly, academic languages rather than languages that will be useful for communicating with, or simply relating to the high percentages of LM students that teachers will encounter in Germany’s schools.

One of the biggest problems in German classrooms is that teachers are not trained to teach German as a second language (GSL), nor are they prepared to deal with the challenges of teaching GSL students. The current policy on German education is so that LM students are in the same German classes as native speaking students; there are no so-called “pull-out” classes. And since teachers have no training in GSL teaching or cross-cultural education, the LM students are often treated as a problem and a hindrance to the native German speaking students’ learning. Turkish students then become scapegoats for the learning difficulties of German students, a process that further marginalizes them in the classroom, in the school system and in the wider society.

Proposal of reforms to existing policies

In order to move toward a more integrative and collective learning environment for all of Germany’s students, the three-tiered system of separating children into different schools should undergo extensive reformations. Although policy makers in Germany do agree that the system is unable to provide equal opportunities to underprivileged minority groups, they also concede that “education reform is an ideological minefield in Germany” (Young, 2006, p. 1). Changing the system to rectify the situation for the disadvantaged would undoubtedly be met with resistance from the advantaged groups who prosper from the current system. Nonetheless, schools with diverse student populations in which LM students’ native languages and cultures are embraced and treated as a resources rather than problems would be a huge step in the right direction in terms of learning outcomes, social development and integration into German society.

Working toward the goal of embracing diversity in German schools could be achieved by bringing students’ first language and first culture into academic contexts within the school system. For example, Davis et al (2005) used the critical participatory approach to examine issues associated with language, identity and academic development in specialized courses for Filipino and Samoan minority high school students in Hawaii:

“This exploration not only aids students in considering a possible hybrid cultural and language identity, but can also help parents and teachers value students’ ability to draw on a repertoire of cultural and linguistic knowledge for appropriate language use in particular interactional situations. Through community explorations, students begin to develop metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness about how language is structured and used that they then can transfer to understanding school communities of practice.” (p. 7)

Following a similar approach in the Turkish-German context could be a valuable and effective way to help students draw from their language and cultural backgrounds to employ counter-discourses that challenge oppressive classroom practices that treat LM students as illegitimate members of society.

In his study of Turkish returnees from Germany, Daller (1999) found that compared to the control group of foreign language learners of German in Turkey, bilinguals who grew up in Germany as children of Turkish immigrant families and learned German in schools demonstrated significantly higher scores for everyday language proficiency in German but not in academic language proficiency. This supports key research findings by Cummins (1984, 1991) that “migrant children reach the proficiency level of their monolingual peers in basic interpersonal communication skills quite quickly but need much more time to achieve their level in cognitive-academic language proficiency” (Daller, 1999, p. 157) and that it takes a minimum of five years time for LM students to master conversational and academic literacies. Furthermore, maintenance bilingual education programs that promote L1 literacy development alongside second language (L2) literacy development are proven to be more successful than transitional programs that aim to increase the amount of L2 instruction and decrease students’ reliance on their L1 as quickly as possible. The Ramirez Report (Ramirez et al, 1991), a longitudinal study of 2000 Spanish-dominant primary school students from low-income families in the United States, revealed that by grade six, students who participated in late-exit bilingual programs progressed faster than those who took part in English-only immersion programs or early-exit bilingual programs. Based on these findings, it is likely that LM students in Germany would benefit from Turkish-German bilingual education initiatives grounded in second language acquisition (SLA) and bilingual education research and theory. Pedagogically sound materials and methodologies that promote their L1 academic literacy and discourse knowledge development alongside L2 instruction would better serve the needs of these LM students.

Research has found that teachers who do not possess an understanding of SLA theory and practice have difficulty in pinpointing the sources of their LM students’ learning difficulties (Vaipae, 2001). Therefore, in addition to educational reforms and bilingual education initiatives, improved teacher training programs at the university level and professional development opportunities for in-service teachers focused on GSL learning and teaching would help reduce LM student stigmatization and marginalization in the classroom.

Finally, cooperation with Turkish organizations and associations would help to bridge the growing gap between German schools and the Turkish community. Herlot and Young (2005) carried out a minority language education project in Didenheim, France that entailed parental participation; that is, teachers asked their pupils’ parents to come into the classrooms and present on their languages and cultures in an effort to integrate and legitimize the pupils’ minority languages spoken at home. The project proved that collaboration among teachers and parents can be an effective way of putting the languages and cultures of LM students on the same level as the dominant language and culture of the school.

In recent years it has become increasingly popular in Germany for students to attend after school tutoring sessions offered by Nachhilfeinstituten, or “tutoring institutions.” Many of these tutoring institutions are Turkish owned and managed and cater specifically to Turkish immigrant students. This could serve as a forum for partnership between teachers from German schools and after-school tutors of Turkish LM students. By working together with a common goal of addressing the language needs and rights of Turkish immigrant children, the possibilities for improved educational opportunity for LM students seem highly attainable.

Germany’s shortcomings in integrating a continuously growing population of Turkish immigrants start desperately early in school systems that systematically disregard these and other disadvantaged children. The country’s history of immigration and the remnants of its national socialist past have had a direct affect on the disintegration of LM students not only in German-only classrooms, but also within the segregating school system and later as illegitimate members of society. Current language and teacher education policies seem to maintain inequality of opportunity for this underserved community. It is my hope that teachers, educational administrators, and parents in Germany gradually begin to improve the situation for LM students by working together toward raising the profile of minority languages and cultures, acknowledging the potential of GSL instruction and bilingual education, and, ultimately, fostering tolerance toward diverse races, religions and languages within a heterogeneous society.

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1 Followed by Italian (550,000 speakers), Greek (300,000 speakers) and Croatian (230,000 speakers).

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