Immersion in induction classes

In special classes, refugee children learn German until they are able to keep up in normal lessons. The immersion method is used, so that they fully absorb the language


At first glance, it looks like a typical year 1 classroom: hanging on the wall are the letters of the alphabet with animal pictures to match, as well as the days of the week and a list of monitors (collection monitor, chair monitor, table wiper, etc.) – in short, everything you would expect to find. At second glance, however, you might start noticing the odd difference: the most important school items – rubbers, pencils, pencil sharpeners – are also hanging on the wall next to brightly coloured name cards. Then there are the days of the week and the large, brightly coloured posters, right next to the blackboard, showing how to conjugate German auxiliary verbs. And the children who scurry into this classroom of the beautiful old Simmern-Mittelschule in Munich at just be-fore eight in the morning are not your typical year 1 students. The girls and boys, who are aged between ten and twelve, come from Nigeria, Albania, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Croatia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Greece. What they all have in common is that they either speak no German or not enough German to attend a regular school. Therefore, they are all members of the preparatory class, known in Germany as Ü5.

Not only do they all speak different first languages, but they also have a wide range of intellectual abilities and educational backgrounds. Some of them have never attended a school before, some have only been to Koranic school. Some of them can’t add and subtract, whereas others are ready to work out square roots. Be that as it may, they are all more or less year 1 students, at least in the German school system. At the front of the class stands Julie Schulz, a young teacher with long dark hair and a heavy cold who starts the day with a guessing game. She names things familiar to the children, who have to hold up a card with the right picture. Pen, hat, head ... but almost nobody knows the word ‘trousers’, except the winner, Lazar from Serbia. ‘Another go?’ asks Julie Schulz. ‘Yeeeees’ shout the children. The second round is won by Adna from Somalia, who wears a large headscarf and talks in a barely audible voice. Nevertheless, she correctly identifies the word ‘hand’. Nic from Nigeria keeps trying to cheat, but his 18 classmates give him a strict reprimand. So it seems that the children have learned to tell the teacher after just 30 days of German lessons.

But how can you teach German to children whose own language you don’t even speak? Scientists point to the immersion method, i.e. plunging completely into a new language. The first thing Julie Schulz says is ‘with empathy’, But a large helping of teaching methodology comes in handy, too. As a teacher, she uses a lot of picture cards, repetitions and hand gestures. When saying ‘I’, she places her hand on her chest. When asking the children to think, she puts her finger on her forehead. ‘My sister is deaf, so I know how to handle situations where someone doesn’t understand me,’ explains the 31-year-old teacher. Although she doesn’t have a specific qualification to teach German as a foreign language, she has attended three training courses on the subject. Following her teacher training in Bavaria, she was thrown straight into the deep end. ‘I didn’t even know what a preparatory class was’, she explains, looking back on her early days at the Simmern-Schule a year ago. But she soon discovered her calling. ‘Working with these classes is tremendously rewarding,’ she says. ‘Here, the students are so inquisitive and eager to learn. I also feel that I can really improve their lives with my work and make a lasting difference.’ And that’s probably an accurate description. After all, students have a special relationship with their first teacher in a foreign language. At Simmern-Schule, the teachers stay with their preparatory classes for two years. Schulz’s boss, Angelika Thuri-Weiß, tells of former students who still pay the school a visit from time to time. Just recently, a pianist (and former refugee child from Bulgaria) called up to invite his year 1 teacher to a concert. ‘I owe everything to Mr Grießer’, he said to the head of school on the phone. Success stories like these keep up morale at Simmern-Schule, as they motivate parents, children and teachers in equal measure. Take Fahima from Afghanistan, for instance, who came to Germany on her own at 17 and who now studies business. Or Renas from Iraq, who also came to Munich on his own aged 16. Having trained as a dental nurse and dental technician, he is now attending a vocational college to obtain his Abitur. He then wants to go on and study dentistry. Katja, Mihailo, Ema, Nicolina and their classmates still have a long way to go. In this classroom, they form a microcosm of global politics. Some of their families have relocated to Germany from other EU countries, but there are also the kinds of stories you see on the news. Dara from Syria, for example, crossed the Mediterranean on a boat with her family. Mohammed from Iraq fled to Germany aged 10 – alone and without his parents. They are now all gazing intently at Julie Schulz, who is miming verbs. The children then have to form whole sentences with the verbs, which they can do surprisingly well after just six weeks of German lessons. ‘I play good guitar’, hazards Nic. ‘My dog dances’, says Dara. ‘I throw a tomato’, offers Lazar. The teacher gives praise, corrects the children and laughs with them about funny sentences. The boys and girls seem to always have their hands up. But they are also totally normal ten- to twelve-year-olds who mess about, wind each other up and fool around as soon as Julie Schulz turns her back.

‘Actually, I could talk to the children all day, which is the most important thing day to day,’ says the young teacher. She has a lot of freedom in her lessons – especially in the ten hours of German a week – but also has a compulsory list of verbs that she has to work through with the kids. After all, the children shouldn’t just be ready for the playground, but also for the regular schooling they generally receive after two years. That’s why the lesson plan includes proper grammar. Why, for example, is there no ‘s’ after the ‘z’ in ‘Du tanzt’ (‘you dance’), as there usually is in the 2nd and 3rd per-son singular? Because it’s an exception, that’s why. All you can do is write it down and learn it by heart. ‘We do an incredible amount of writing. This must be the third or fourth exercise book we’ve gone through in six weeks,’ explains Julie Schulz. This would have been unthinkable in the first few days. Back then, the children would sit in a circle as the teacher kept repeating phrases such as ‘My name is ...’, ‘I come from ...’ and ‘I am ... years old’. From this point on, the children began getting to grips with the new language. Immersion, of course, doesn’t just take place in German lessons. The children also pick up the language in maths, PE and music, on the playground, at their accommodation, at the bakery or when seeing a paediatrician. This is the only way to explain the fact that they can speak and understand so much German after just six weeks.

Karen Lupu-Jacobsohn was also impressed by the excellent language skills of her students. She comes from Canada and teaches maths and art at the Phorms school in Munich. She visits a home for refugees every Friday afternoon to help the children with art projects. ‘Most of them have been here a year,’ explains 41-year-old Jacobsohn. ‘We correct each other; they help me with gram-mar, whereas I have a larger vocabulary.’ Their common language is German. Art allows her to connect with the children in a totally unique way. After a few weeks, they are now opening up more and more, recounting traumatic events and people who lay dying. ‘At the start, Mohammed was shouting all the time and lashing out all around him, because he couldn’t understand anything and was totally overwhelmed,’ recalls Julie Schulz. ‘I re-member wondering how I was ever going to cope.’ After all, the ten-year-old Iraqi boy couldn’t read or write. But things got better one day at a time. He now regularly reminds his teacher if she forgets to praise him: ‘Miss, Mohammed done well!’ He even recently proved to his teacher that the immersion method works well with regional dialects by scolding in a broad Bavarian accent a fellow student who had just disrupted a lesson.


In 2014 alone, some 100,000 children of school age came to Germany from other countries. Preparatory, induction and international classes were set up at primary and secondary schools to help them settle. As at the beginning of this academic year, for example, Bavaria had 471 such classes, Berlin had 400 and Lower Saxony and Saxony had 300 each. The foreign children not only learn the German language, but also receive education in all other subjects – apart from English. Here, the children have to catch up at regular schools, but – as in Bavaria, for example – are not graded for an entire year. People who are no longer of compulsory school age can often learn German in special vocational classes. Generally speaking, families are also unfamiliar with the school culture in Germany. What is homework? What materials do students need? Why do you have to pay a fine if you don’t send your child to school every day?

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