Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bilingual-Education: A Berlin Wall for Turkish Children

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bilingual-Education: A Berlin Wall for Turkish Children

Article excerpt

On a Monday afternoon, Berlin schoolteacher Sabine Sulflow's third-grade class is going over the grammar homework.

"Okan, would you please explain the homework to Rustem?" she asks a small boy with glasses.

"In German?" he replies.

It is a customary question, but one that will not be asked much longer in the Nurtingen Grundschule, Germany's first school to offer bilingual classes in German and Turkish.

In a move that parallels recent policy shifts in some communities in the United States, Nurtingen's decision to abandon its bilingual curriculum has far-reaching consequences, and one that is indicative of Germany's current dilemma over immigrant education.

Bilingual education in Germany began as a grass-roots effort at Nurtingen during the early 1980s. It was designed to help the children of Turkish immigrants, who were having trouble learning to read and write in German, a language that many could barely speak. The plan was to have Turkish and German instructors teach simultaneously, with the idea that a child who has a strong grasp of his mother tongue will be able to learn a second language more easily.

With roughly equal numbers of Turkish and German children in the class, the theory went, the German children would help their Turkish classmates learn to speak German. The concept caught on, and at one point 19 schools in Berlin offered Turkish-German education on the Nurtingen model.

Germany has a 2-million strong Turkish community. But the reality of poor and predominantly Turkish neighborhoods like Nurtingen has meant that many children, like Okan, ended up in classes with no native German speakers. At Nurtingen, only 20 percent of the children speak German as a first language. And German parents, says Ms. Sulflow, don't want their children to be in a class that is almost entirely Turkish.

"You can't put two German pupils with 16 Turkish pupils," says Sulflow. "Then the German [parents] will say 'No, thank you' and seek another school."

German educators and Turkish parents alike say that bilingual- educated children finish school with poor skills in both languages and little opportunity to integrate into German society. Today, only seven Berlin elementary schools still offer some form of bilingual education.

The immersion method

Nurtingen's principal Gerd-Jurgen Busack argues that putting the students into German-only classes, with no Turkish help at all, will get them speaking and reading German sooner. "In their families, they speak only Turkish. In school they speak only Turkish. Where should the kids learn German?" he asks. "Where is the motivation to learn German?"

But Sulflow, who gets eight hours of help a week from a Turkish teacher, says that putting immigrant children into a German-only classroom creates other problems. …

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