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Germany’s First Mandarin immersion school

October 11, 2011

Drei Kinder

By Elizabeth Weise

Germany’s first Mandarin immersion program launched last month in Berlin, and to the surprise of the founding families it’s as popular with German families as it is with Chinese.

The program, the Deutsch-Chinesischen Grundschule, was launched last month at the Planetarium Elementary School in Berlin. When the school’s director, Günter Urban, held a meeting of all the school’s parents, he explained that only six children had enrolled in the Mandarin program. He asked the other parents in Grade One (the equivalent of the U.S. Kindergarten) if they would like their children to participate in the four hours-a-week Mandarin classes.

All the German parents raised their hands.

When Herr Urban asked again “Are you sure you don’t want to think about it?” they all raised their hands a second time.

“It really surprised us,” says Jianqiu Wang, one of the parents who helped start the new school.

No Chinese Preschools

Germany is awash in immersion schools. In Berlin alone there are 17. But they are called Europaschule (European Schools) and they focus on European languages. In Berlin, students can study 50% of their day in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Turkish, Russian, Polish or Greek.

There are also many immersion preschools that offer immersion. Because of this, Wang thought for sure there would be a Mandarin preschool for her son and daughter. But when she went looking, she realized that there was not a single Chinese preschool in all of Berlin. Or in Germany for that matter. There were Saturday Chinese schools but nothing that was immersion in the way the Europaschule were.

Wang is from Shanghai but is married to a German. She speaks Mandarin, German and English fluently and her children are being brought up bilingually in both German and Mandarin. But she knew that “if they don’t learn to read and write, they’ll lose their culture.”

So she and a small group of Chinese and German parents in Berlin set out to first create a Mandarin preschool, called a Kindergarten in German. There were also two students from German-speaking families who had gone to preschool in China because their families were living there for work and had become fluent. But when they came back to Germany “they had no possibility to speak Chinese again at home or in school, so they forgot their Chinese. It was very sad,” Wang says.

Starting a parent-initiated preschool isn’t that difficult in Germany, so the families were able to create one, which now has 26 students and a “long” waiting list, says Wang. It begins, as Kindergartens do in Germany, at age 1 and continues through age 4.

But when student turn 5 they being Grundschule, or elementary school. And there was no place for them to continue Chinese. So inspired by the co-founder of a French Europaschule, the families began discussing starting a public Chinese immersion elementary school.

“People told us that it’s not possible, that Chinese is too difficult a language for German students to learn. They can learn European languages, but not Chinese,” Wang says.

The parents knew better. They reached out to the public schools and Herr Urban, the principal of the Planetarium school, located next to Berlin’s planetarium, gave them very positive answer and support.

“He was very open-minded,” she says. Perhaps as importantly, he had the flexibility to take on more students because his school did not have enough students to fill all its classrooms.

In Germany a school must get permission from the German Senate to teach content subjects such as math or science in a language other than German. Because the parents couldn’t get that permission quickly enough for this year, they instead launched a First Year (i.e. Kindergarten) class which has an “emphasis” on Chinese. Students get four hours of Mandarin instruction per week. There are 15 students in that class now.

The school has turned in its application to the Senate for next year and expect to launch a full immersion program beginning in 2012-2013. There are already 15 families who have put themselves on the waiting list to get into that class. The maximum allowed in a single class in elementary school is 26 and she expects they’ll fill up.

About 50% of the families have at least one Mandarin-speaking parent, the rest are German speakers.

“Chinese is very popular here now,” says Wang. “We just heard from the Chinese embassy that China is the second most popular place for German students to want to do an exchange program with, after the United States. That surprised us.”

Next year, if all goes well, the Planetarium school will have two traditional German classes in Kindergarten and one in Mandarin. By the time the program and worked its way up through all the grades it will be one/third Mandarin immersion, two/thirds German.

The school has benefited from San Francisco’s experience creating one of the country’s first Chinese immersion programs, the now-30-year-old Cantonese immersion program at West Portal Elementary school in San Francisco. “We’ve been talking to Jenny Lee, the teacher at West Portal, and she’s been helping us,” says Wang. The program will be using the Better Chinese books, which are used at many Mandarin immersion programs in the United States. There are no German-Mandarin textbooks for elementary schools available.

Chinese immigrants in Germany are primarily Mandarin-speaking, says Wang. The country does not have the historical connection to Cantonese that many immigrant communities in the United States have. For that reason they chose to use simplified characters, as that’s what most families in the program already read.

Like the Europaschule, math and German will be taught in German while science, social studies and Mandarin will be taught in Mandarin. Like all German schools, English classes will begin at age 7.

They are building their curriculum with the target that when their students graduate at the end of what would be our 5th grade, they will read the level of “late 3rd grade and early 4th grade students in China,” says Wang.

“The American experience has been really helpful to us, because otherwise there wouldn’t be anywhere for us to go to ask questions,” says Wang.

There’s a small bit of tension between the German and Chinese educational styles, though it’s not that big a problem, says Wang. Chinese families want higher levels of Chinese because the language is part of their culture. But German parents are against pushing kids hard to learn. They say ‘It should be fun, we don’t need too much pressure.’ But we’ll find a way to balance both,” she says.





One Comment leave one →
  1. October 18, 2011 7:06 am

    I have a 4 year old kid, and my husband is non Chinese. Recently we find that learning Chinese with the use of iphone App has help a lot. Try the resources from this website MandarinaKids, their DVDs and iphone App not just provide translation in English, but also other major foreign language like German, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese and Korean.
    My kid has lots of fun learning Chinese for the first time!

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