In Part II, Mama007 takes us through the German education system, the language approach they now take at home (hint, not OPOL) and the choices they’ve had to make when it comes to picking schools. For those of you who missed part one, click here!
Part II: Growing up bilingual in Berlin
Our four-year-old son had to pass his entering exam for elementary school last week. I mean: he is four, FOUR years old. And the German school system already has its claws on him.
And here is why: Germany is a federal state and all its sixteen federal states have their own school regulations and even their own university systems to become a teacher. Basically, there is the same school system all over Germany: after kindergarten and elementary, you are split up. If you are really clever, you get on to Secondary School (called Gymnasium) which means that you will be able to enter University afterwards, if you like. If you are not so clever, then there are two other school types that offer you the possibility to get into a profession afterwards, but you will possibly never end up at university. And this basic system has its own facets in every federal state.
This said, I have to admit that we never much cared about what awaited us and our son when the time for school would have come. There was so much to do and learn with a child that school was on low on our list. But now, this chaotic German school system is awaiting our four-year-old son, who is growing up with a bilingual German-Spanish background.
Languages at home:
We speak Spanish at home because my husband is a native speaker and I speak it fluently too, but when I am alone with my son we speak in German. His Kindergarten is German-speaking, as the alternative would have been to stay at home until he could attend the only option Spanish Kindergarten which takes kids from the age of THREE! Sorry, but we have to earn money too. We also wouldn’t change him just for the language. He has been at his nursery since his first birthday. I mean – what’s the point of changing the child, taking him from his friends and everything just so he can attend a Spanish-speaking Kindergarten? This was out of question for us. Right now, he speaks Spanish with his father when he likes to. He understands everything and his German is also just great.
Schools, Admissions and Test Prep:
On his third birthday, I was first confronted with the German school system. One of his best friends was moved to another Kindergarten because she will attend a private school for which a special private Kindergarten between age 3 and 6 is a pre-requisite. Okay, so that was that friend gone. The next year after that, I heard a lot about preparations bilingual parents from his group were giving to their children: language vacations, prolonged stays with their French/Spanish/ African relatives, special language courses for children in the respective language. And let´s be frank: we are talking about three and four-year-old kids. When I asked the parents, I was told that they did all this because they wanted their children to attend bilingual elementary schools in two or three years.
Bilingual elementary schools are a specialty of Berlin. Berlin demands that you send your child to school at age five. There are almost no exceptions to this rule. If you like, you may choose a bilingual school, there are more than twenty of them: German/ English, French, Spanish, but also Turkish, Greek or Vietnamese. The classes are held in both languages and in most schools the child leaves with a special language certificate, which makes it easier to get into a bilingual Gymnasium. The thing is: your child has to pass the test. Which test? The bilingual German/ whatever-language-you-choose-test. Obviously, we looked up if there was a German/Spanish school near our home. There was. So what test has our son to pass to get into this school? No one knows, but everybody suspects.
The other parents were sure that the test was vital, super important and had to be prepared extensively, hence all the vacations, courses and the like. But really, nobody knew what the test consisted of and the schools won’ t tell. So you are left completely alone, relying on information from other parents with children who have passed the test last year or the year before. And this information is doubtful at best because NO parent is allowed to be present at the test. Its only your child and two teachers. That’s it. That’s what we were informed.
So, as there was no information about the test, we prepared our son only a little. We talked more Spanish, we told him that his future teachers would like to get to know him but that they speak only Spanish so he had to respond in Spanish. But we did no courses and no extra vacations. We just hoped that he would do the same as at home: speak and be himself.
The Big Day: taking the test!
Last week the big moment had arrived. They took our son inside a room, he is not even five years old, and asked him questions in and Spanish about visiting a piscina. Is there no other possibility? Has it to be a nearly elitist activity as swimming? What about children whose parents don t have money to got swimming with them? Why not pick anything normal as shopping groceries or going to the park? We live in a flat; there is no pool. Nor do we know anybody who has one. We have not gone to a piscina until now because there are so many other activities: climbing, cooking, reading. But the school decided that every child interviewed had to have knowledge about swimming. I don’t get it….
When they were finished the teachers came out and told us that it was over, and the result would be available in six months and they were not allowed to tell us anything about the test and how our son had done. We phoned other parents, the French-speaking, the Spanish-speaking. Some children had failed. Some had resisted to speak to a complete stranger without their parents. Some were able to communicate but couldn´t form complete sentences with grammatically correct conjugated verbs in their second language. And were thus criticized or failed. And all of them were treated like we were: in a cold, impersonal manner. One teacher even told us that our son was “still small”. What does that mean? The federal state Berlin urges me to put my child NOW into school. Now, at age five. Which means, that he has to pass his exam at age four. Yes, he is small, but there is no real alternative and anyway: shouldn’t the teachers be prepared for small children if they teach at elementary school?
I was so upset. And felt helpless. If we want our child to attend this school we have to do all this. But we resolved to be patient and made a reservation at another elementary school. If he can´t get into this bilingual school, then they will accept him and he will go to a nice, friendly school just around our corner. And everyone there speaks: German. I wouldn´t mind that.