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Germany’s first Mandarin immersion school struggles to get state approval

June 18, 2013

Website shotBy Elizabeth Weise

Germany’s first Mandarin immersion program is still struggling to get the German educational establishment to recognize Chinese as language in which academic studies can be taught. The school, which launched in the fall of 2011, has been forced to settle for offering a Chinese language class to its students three times a week, rather than the immersion they had hoped for, said parent Jianqiu Wang.

The German Ministry of Education allows immersion schools in which core academic subjects are taught in the school’s target language, but only for European languages and in special cases Turkish. These include French, English, Spanish, Italian and Russian. Programs that want to teach in Chinese and Arabic have been proposed but not yet authorized, said Wang.

“It is frustrating. If you don’t have the status then all the subjects must be taught in German.”

The school is called the Deutsch-Chinesischen Grundschule (German-Chinese Elementary School). It was founded in September of 2011 at Planetarium Elementary School in Berlin.

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. So far the school hasn’t been able to get that permission. Instead they’re making do with a program that has an “emphasis” on Chinese, Wang says. Students get three hours of Mandarin instruction per week. The school currently has three classes of 30 students for now, one of five-year-olds, one of six-year-olds and one of seven-year-olds.

The country’s educational establishment only recently began offering a teaching certificate in Chinese. Prior to that it was presumed that Chinese was only taught as a foreign language, at the high school or university level. “So we still have a way to go,” Wang said.

One concern has been the Abitur. That’s the exam all German students who want to attend University take at the end of high school. Scores on the Abitur determine whether one can attend university and which one. The exam is given in German and the state educational ministries are concerned that students taught in a non-European language would be at a disadvantage.

In Germany each state controls its educational organization and requirements. So far Berlin is the only state even considering allowing Chinese to be used as a language of instruction.


Lots of immersion, no Chinese

The parents who’ve sent their children to the school have embraced Chinese, far more than the German government. When the school’s director, Günter Urban, held a meeting of all the school’s parents just before the school opened, he explained that only six children had enrolled in the Mandarin program strand. 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 hour-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 Wang, who helped start the new school.

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, Russian, Polish or Greek. The one exception is Turkish, used because of German’s large Turkish immigrant population

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 all of Germany, for that matter. There were Saturday Chinese schools but nothing that was immersion 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, 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.

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.”

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 uses 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.

“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.

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.

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

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.














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