Language learning for migrant children in Germany: separate or inclusive?

German schools currently receive newly immigrated children without knowledge of the local language in so-called ‘Vorbereitungsklassen’, ‘Sprachlernklassen’ or most commonly ‘Willkommensklassen’ – Welcome Classes. The basic idea is to group newly arrived children together to allow them to learn the German language in a supportive and non-competitive environment for up to one year before they join the regular school system in the grade appropriate to their age.

There is no reliable data of how many children across Germany currently attend Welcome Classes. This is because children and adolescents of school-going age who have recently arrived in Germany without knowledge of the local language are often forced to remain mobile. Every child below the age of 18 years has the right to one year’s worth of language learning, regardless of his or her residency status, before entering a regular class. But during the process of applying for asylum, for example, families may still be required by authorities to move between places. A rough estimate says that 300,000 children joined Welcome Classes in 2016.

Created first in 2011, Welcome Classes have become part of almost all regular primary and secondary schools to give the high number of refugee children that arrived in 2015 and 2016 access to the education system. The classes’ set-up is different in each individual school however, as the decentralised German education system leaves implementation largely to the sixteen separate federal state governments.

A study into current approaches to language instruction of newcomers across the country identified 15 different models. They are distinguished along several dimensions, namely their focus on language acquisition vs. subject matter learning, the segregation vs. inclusion in regular classes, and the time and modality of transferring over into regular classes (phasing vs. fixed cut-off). This means that some schools have created Welcome Classes that are completely separate from regular classes and teach exclusively in German, while others try as much as possible to include new immigrants in subject matter classes with the regular students from the start and give them supporting German language classes at the same time. Between these two, there are various combinations of segregated or inclusive approaches with different ways to eventually transfer children into regular schooling.

In Berlin (one of the 16 federal states of Germany), most schools have Welcome Classes that clearly separate students who have grown up in Germany from newly arrived ones. A recent sociological study criticises the way Berlin primary schools organised this segregation. The authors point out that Welcome Class teachers are paid less and often work on temporary contracts despite bearing heavy responsibilities, e.g. they initially had to draft their own curriculum and come up with aptitude tests that determine the students’ transfer to regular classes. Concerning children’s interaction, the study found that Welcome Class students are prevented from practicing their new language because they rarely spend time with German-speaking kids. On top of this, they are seen as a distinct group by the rest. In this environment, everyday scheduling conflicts over facilities can create negative perceptions of Welcome Classes as “out groups”. Hence the authors of this study strongly suggest a turn to inclusive schooling, which they say will benefit language acquisition and social integration.

However, inclusion in education has an increasingly bad name in Germany. Just ten days ago, the state election in another part of the country , North Rhine-Westphalia, brought a painful defeat for the governing coalition. The outgoing education minister in that state was blamed for a failed inclusive schooling reform, concerning children with disabilities. Parents criticised her for granting children with disabilities the right to join regular classes without making sure that each class has a supporting teacher who helps deal with additional challenges.

Although this is of course a different type of inclusion in education, the issue shares characteristics with second-language acquisition: children require a kind of attention that is additional to regular, academic learning. Children who are just starting to learn the local language, much like those with disabilities, can be seen to be ‘slowing’ the pace of subject-matter learning. There is a danger that parents of German-raised children may see the need to ‘protect’ their learning environment ‘against’ newly immigrated children if they were to be included in regular classes on a larger scale without giving them adequate support. Naturally, mainstream parents have a vastly greater political weight, as they outnumber refugee or immigrant parents who mostly don’t have the right to vote.  Thus, while researchers recommend taking a more inclusive approach, its implementation might be more costly and more complicated than the current segregated model of language learning in Welcome Classes.

In addition, there is also the view that initial language learning for newcomers in separate classes can have its own positive effects. A colleague who worked in the field in Finland explained to me that a limited period of separate schooling can be beneficial, under the right circumstances. He pointed out that if German Welcome Classes were to be resourced appropriately, kids could learn well in a protected environment and transition over to regular classes when they are ready, avoiding stigmatisation along the way.

In the end, the success of separate language learning hinges on the intensity of support given to each child. Similarly, a greater effort in social diplomacy is critical to the success of the inclusive approach. The willingness to provide appropriate resources is key to all conceivable models of schooling. Either way, there is a need for specialised teachers whose skills include both second language instruction and an understanding of migrant children’s experience. Right now, it is up to the state governments across Germany to provide the means that enable each individual school to come up with a successful blend of separation and inclusion. This, of course, requires a willingness to take the needs of newly arrived children seriously regardless of their parents’ eligibility to vote.


Cover image by Ruper Ganzer under CC license.