View from here - Speaking up over use of native tongue

12th November 2010 at 00:00
Government efforts to move away from a multicultural society in Germany have been halted at the school gates, says Frances Mechan-Schmidt

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 failed to learn 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.

Earlier 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 integration of immigrant pupils since schools were often the only place where they were 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.

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. There around four million Muslims in the country.

But despite the seeming hostility, the German government has approved plans to establish and fund Islamic theology courses at four universities, starting next autumn, with the aim of training up to 500 imams. The imams 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 they need qualified teachers for their 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.

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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