Story

Mother Tongue First, German Second

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Aysegül Bas views views bilingual learning as the best option for children of non-German background. Image by Austin Davis. Germany, 2015.

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Mothers in the Neukölln borough of Berlin are part of a group called the Stadtteilmütter. They act as a bridge between schools and the borough's many immigrant families. Image by Austin Davis. Germany, 2015.

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Ayse Demir, a member of the Stadtteilmütter, sees it as a disadvantage to speak exclusively German with her children. Image by Austin Davis. Germany, 2015.

BERLIN, Germany—A group of mothers from the borough of Neukölln, calling themselves "the Stadtteilmütter," meet every day in a large conference room inside a small office located within the neighborhood’s main administrative building. Their initiative began eleven years ago with the goal of combating educational disparities within Neukölln, where two-thirds of children are of immigrant background, and one in two display language deficits in everyday speech.

These women, many of whom are Turkish, others Arabic or Albanian, act as a bridge between newly settled families and school instructors—working to increase cultural understanding between both parties for the benefit of the students involved. In a way, they are like social workers. But above all else, they are mothers.

Their hopes for their children are simple: to be successful, whether that means studying at university, or completing a traineeship as a means to a career. All are adamant that their children, and the families whom they represent, not lose sight of their cultural heritage, or their native language, an occurrence they feel happens all too often within the German education system.

Ayse Damir acknowledges that her command of the German language isn’t the best. So she sees it as a disadvantage to speak exclusively German with her children, fearing that they will pick up on her mistakes. “If I speak perfect Turkish, then I should only speak Turkish with my children, because my German is worse. I have to pay attention to that,” she said.

Jamina Remmo, on the other hand, was born in Berlin and regrets not speaking Arabic with her children at home. She sent all of her children but one to kindergarten very early, and they all came home speaking only German. “My children don’t speak any Arabic, only my oldest daughter. All of the others can understand, but they don’t speak it. And that’s my mistake. I spoke Arabic to them when they were little, but then they’d always come home from kindergarten and answer in German,” she said. “So I just switched to speaking German.”

Much of the Stadtteilmütter’s work is to convince parents to enroll their children in German kindergartens; kindergarten is thought to be a crucial turning point in language learning, especially for those who don’t speak German at home. Currently, around 92 percent of students in Neukölln between the ages of 3 and 6 are enrolled in kindergarten.

Regardless, speech deficits remain high in Neukölln: double the city-average. The mothers view this as a result of how second language learning is perceived in Germany, and how this perception demotivates their students.

“There are still schoolyards where it’s forbidden to speak Turkish,” said Maria Macher, project leader of the Stadtteilmütter. “The German language and the German culture are important, but the skills that the children already possess and bring with them to school just aren’t placed at the same level as German. That naturally demotivates the kids,” she said.

Aysegül Bas grew up in Berlin after having immigrated when she was four. Without a doubt, she views bilingual learning as the best option for children of non-German background. “My daughter speaks perfect German, and perfect Turkish,” she said.

Bas established rules with her daughter upon enrolling her in kindergarten, namely that home is for Turkish, and school is for German. Implementing this separation provided the necessary support for both languages to thrive simultaneously. Her daughter can read and write in both languages. “I’m very proud of that,” she says.

Many experts view second language learning like two poles of a battery: second language learning occurs more quickly when the first language is re-enforced. Open support of the first language affirms its legitimacy and, in turn, encourages students to learn a second language.

There are myriad Turkish-German kindergartens for parents to choose from in Berlin; however, the city only has one Turkish primary school and one Turkish secondary school, both located on the same campus. Both of Maria Macher’s daughters attend these schools, not only because of the progressive teaching technique, but also because it has quelled her fears that they may be discriminated against based on their Turkish heritage.

“I knew that at these schools, the teachers have oriented themselves to a concept, and they know how to work with many kids from immigrant households,” she said. “My daughter won’t get a stamp that says: ‘You can’t because you’re Turkish.’”