A Yugoslav kid in German elementary school

This essay is part of the series “Being an alien in Germany”. You can find the introductory essay as well as other essays concerning the subject here.

My mom took me to school on my first school day. We were waiting in front of my classroom. We were very early because my mom didn’t want to be late. She likes being on time and is more German than any German I know when it comes to being punctual. So we waited. The others hadn’t arrived yet. I was standing next to the door and couldn’t speak. My mom didn’t speak either. I wore a blue dress and black patent-leather shoes. I looked up to the windows of the hall and then I puked.

yugo kid © trashbus/Renata Britvec
yugo kid
© trashbus/Renata Britvec

We were sitting at our school desks, our parents behind us. We got to know the teacher and I liked her, although she was not what you would call a warm person. I don’t think she was the typical German elementary school teacher. But still I liked her, and I thought she liked me too. I thought it would be fun, going to school.

Then my parents told me I would have to take extra classes, just like the other Ausländerkinder, the other kids with parents from foreign countries. There were some Turkish girls and boys, and some Polish, and some Russian, and an Italian boy. No other Yugo-kid. I didn’t understand why I had to attend these special classes, because I couldn’t imagine what I had in common with the other Ausländerkids and what separated me from the Germans. There’s a lot of things you don’t understand at that age.

They told me I needed to learn German. I already spoke German. I was born in Germany and went to kindergarten since I was two years old. My nanny was German. I spoke German. But I needed to learn to speak German. Nobody talked to me or asked me if I needed the extra classes. I didn’t want to go, I felt bad about it. Why did nobody notice that my German was completely normal and that I spoke as well as any other German kid? Someone in this school or in the Ministry of Education or so had decided that Ausländerkids don’t speak German, and my parents believed them, so I had to go to school one hour early each day. I don’t like getting up early and now I had to get up even earlier.

I sat on my wooden chair. A Turkish girl struggled with the German pronunciation. I watched. I don’t remember what happened when it was my turn to speak. A couple of days later, my teacher told me I didn’t have to come back to the class. My German was fine. But I knew now that I was not like the others and that from now on, I would have to prove myself.

The thing is, there are a lot of German kids – and adults – who don’t speak proper German. Interestingly enough, xenophobes, who want to protect their mother tongue, often are not able to master their own language. Language abilities are not a question of nationality, but a question of education. Education in its full sense: How do your parents take care of you, how do they raise you. Will they teach you what you need to know and will they know when they need help because they cannot teach you? Do your parents talk to you?

If German parents do not communicate with their children, their children will not be able to communicate – and not only will they not be able to speak proper German, they will not be able to speak any other language properly. Same thing applies to parents of all other nationalities. Communication is the key factor here, and communication means dialogue. Uneducated parents who let their kids play video games all they long instead of interacting with them, let their children’s inherent potentials wither just like educated parents who spoil their children by constantly offering them everything and more than they need without them having to say a word.

Many parents in Germany are reluctant to send their kids to schools with a high percentage of foreign children. I very often hear people say: “But my kid will not learn proper German because the foreign kids only speak their languages.” It is not the responsibility of kids from other countries to teach German kids German. It is the parents’ and the teachers’ responsibility. And when parents fail, society needs to take over, especially here in Germany, where we like to think our educational system is highly developed and among the best in the world. Well, recent studies show that’s not how things are.

Supposing that foreign kids do not speak German properly because their parents come from another country without taking your time to speak to them first is racist and a severe form of discrimination which will have wide-ranging consequences. By supposing these children are not fit, teachers and parents establish a doubtful reality the German children as well as the Ausländerkids will eventually believe and carry further. Most of the children with migration backgrounds will feel excluded, not good enough. They will develop a sense of no matter what they try, they will not succeed. Some will become over-eager and high achievers, some indifferent and lazy, and some destructive. Some will adjust and be “normal”. And a lot of them will keep to themselves because they will think that they can be peers only with other kids from foreign countries. How can integration in this case succeed? Mission impossible.

There is nothing wrong with offering special language courses for children with difficulties learning German. But you cannot separate young children from each other without telling them they are different. Diversity is a good thing, exclusion is not. Why not train teachers to deal with children as children and not as German vs. migrant kids? Why not offer integrated classes in which all students can experiment with their language and learn to develop a full and beautiful vocabulary, clean grammar, and the ability to truly express themselves in no matter which situation? And why not use the various languages the children in Germany speak to teach them about different cultures and to help them develop a sense of being world citizens?

2 thoughts on “A Yugoslav kid in German elementary school

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  1. Interesting article. It’s sad to read the story because of the ignorance and ‘automatic’ placement in that German class while you didn’t need it.
    Unfortunately, these kind of things happen i think, not only with this, but also with other things/subjects. It seems to be the “system’ – unfortunately. Educational systems are always based on a certain thing and do not suit everyone. Sometimes it happens that people fail, but that doesn’t mean they are dumb or whatever – they learn, or do things on a different way. But there’s no space for ‘different’.

    In my eyes, there is nothing wrong with placing a kid between foreign kids. I don’t get exactly where this ‘anxiety’ comes from that this is a bad influence.Or that people learn the language worse. I totally agree with this – ” It is not the responsibility of kids from other countries to teach German kids German.” and – “Why not train teachers to deal with children as children and not as German vs. migrant kids?” (and the rest of this paragraph) are very good points and I agree with you.

    Actually, I see a lot of positive things in mixing cultures – learning, spending time with people from abroad and with different cultures means a wider perpective on things which I think is actually better then the usual ‘standard things’.

    But this whole ‘seperation’ thing of people in whatever way (race, native country, color, whatever) I honestly never really understood this. It touches me (in a sad way) to think about this and I can imagine that people/children feel excluded. Maybe because it comes close to what I have experienced in my life.

    I was born in a country where I mainly grew up, but I also grew up in a different country/culture. I have family from both (well actually: three countries- it’s a bit complicated) but I never felt I belonged to any of these countries or cultures. I still do not know. I learned my ‘native’ language from one of my parents, who is not a native speaker of this language. (Unfortunately, I do not speak the other languages, because my mom had to learn this language and it was so hard for her to learn me the other 2) so this is also weird and I always feel uncomfortable when I have to explain this, because a lot of people think this is weird. While I was a kid, I remember at school they always asked for the countries where your parents where born and as soon as one of them was from another country you were placed on the ‘foreigners list’. I wasn’t put in a class like you though.

    But still now, I do not know where I ‘belong’. I do not feel like a ‘native’ of my country but I do not belong in the other countries neither. How do you experience this, like nowadays? Do you still feel this ‘seperation’?


    1. Hello there, I am so sorry for letting you wait, I was just too busy and then ill with the flu … I understand what you mean. I also feel this separation and sometimes have a very strong sense of not belonging anywhere, but I am constantly trying to work this out. I think it is very important to focus on the positive side that comes with being rooted in three different countries: you’re basically more free than a person with just one home country. I have the language abilities and therefore the ability to change perspectives, if I can’t think something in German, I think and experience in Croatian, or I use English to gain some distance and express myself more freely if I feel limited in the other languages. And when I talk about languages, I always imply what’s behind: the mentality, the mind-set, the perspective, the emotionality. Maybe you can – even though you don’t speak the other languages – try and learn for yourself in which way these cultures have influenced you, how they have made you you! I certainly wish you good luck with this. It is a very dangerous, exhausting but also very rewarding endeavour!


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