Integration in pieces as pupils are tongue-tied

29th October 2010 at 01:00
Germany Chancellor Merkel says attempts at a multicultural society have 'failed' but protests halt one-language plan at playground gates

Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this month denounced attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany. The idea of so-called multikulti has "utterly failed", partly because immigrants have not learned the native tongue, she claimed.

Mrs Merkel's comments are the latest intervention in a row over integration that has been simmering since the summer. Schools, inevitably, have not escaped the controversy.

This month it was proposed to make the German language compulsory in the nation's playgrounds. The idea of establishing German as a lingua franca during school breaks was part of a move by Maria Bohmer, the government's commissioner for integration, who said it would boost the assimilation of immigrant pupils since schools are often the only place where they are exposed to the language.

But the move backfired after various organisations issued a joint statement warning of the danger of ethnic languages being "stigmatised" and advocating multilingualism as the best means of promoting cultural diversity.

After two days of discussions, the education ministers representing Germany's 16 federal states agreed that banning other languages would not be feasible and would fan feelings of discrimination.

Berlin's senator for education, Jurgen Zollner, said forcing children to abandon their mother tongues and speak German at set times was "really not conducive" to integration.

The rows over multiculturalism in Germany were initially sparked by Thilo Sarrazin, whose controversial book on race and integration topped bestseller lists. Sarrazin, a former member of the country's central bank, claimed Germany's image was being tarnished by poorly educated Muslims who were unwilling to integrate.

Horst Seehofer, the state premier of Bavaria, also recently called for restrictions on immigrants to Germany "of Turkish and Arab backgrounds".

But despite the seeming hostility, the German government has taken positive steps to improve relations with Muslim groups.

It has now approved plans to establish and fund Islamic theology courses at four universities, starting next autumn, with the aim training of up to 500 imams. These will work partly in education, including providing instruction in the Koran to Muslim schoolchildren, with extra-curricular religious lessons funded by individual states.

Germany's state schools have individual religion classes for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish pupils and needs qualified teachers for its Muslim students.

Until now, imams have been mostly "imported" from Turkey, with most having little understanding of the German language and limited experience of western culture. Federal education minister Annette Schavan said the new study courses will help the country's estimated four million Muslims integrate into mainstream German society.

Muslim schoolchildren in Germany are currently twice as likely as their peers to drop out of education. It is hoped that initiatives such as training teachers - rather than imposing blanket bans on language - will begin to address that problem.

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