Multilingualism: Treasure or Burden? Probably Both.

Conflict over remedial German classes in schools continues, as politicians, experts and teachers debate how best to support children with poor language skills.

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: Do children need to learn German before tackling other subjects like math, or do they pick up German on the side while solving equations? 

With the start of the 2018/2019 school year, the government, then a ÖVP/FPÖ coalition, implemented a novel scheme to promote German language acquisition of immigrant students. Entering pupils and all those recently-migrated have to take a standardized language testupon entering the Austrian education system. Based on their performance, they attend either a standard remedial course at 6 hours a week, or an intensive one at 15 hours for primary and 20 for secondary school children.

A “partially inclusive, age-adapted and temporary solution,” said Education Minister Heinz Faßmann of the scheme. Designed to improve the German language skills of so-called “extraordinary students” (außerordentliche Schüler) andthus rapidly – after two years, at the latest – qualify them to take part in the regular school program.

Opposition parties spoke of a “PR move”, lacking scientific evidence. Experts advocated for more school autonomy in language support. Critics have also warned of negative effects on students, losing a school year and being segregated from peers. Others point to overstrained teachers, already stretched to capacity.

“They are from Ukraine, Syria, Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria, Ghana, Hungary and the Czech Republic, aged between ten and fifteen,” two Viennese teachers describe their experiences in Der Standard. Students are “isolated” and a bit “locked up”. No excursions, sport, or handicrafts are scheduled during classes, they criticize. Longing to quickly leave these “non-classes” behind, students are extremely pressurized in exam situations. “Many children burst into tears after test results.” 

Interpreting the Numbers

Nevertheless, Susanne Raab, Federal Minister of Integration, feels reassured by the latest numbers, published in June: Less than half (48%) of “extraordinary students” still needed additional German courses after one year, while a third graduated into regular schooling.  In her judgment, these results verify the program’s effectiveness.

“Only 16% need to stay longer than one year in [the full] remedial German classes, which demonstrates that the classes don’t foster enduring segregation,” Raab said in an interview with Die Presse. Federal Minister Faßmann too defended the scheme, pointing out that “immersive instruction” often fails, as children with a German mother tongue are outnumbered in some parts of Austria.

Running parallel with regular schooling, the classes focus intensively on language-learning. Other experts, such as the Austrian Society for Educational Research and Development (ÖFEB), favor ongoing, “language-sensible” subject teaching that works best when students are taught side by side with peers in a regular school environment. Remedial classes hold students apart from “interactions and social encounters with German speaking schoolmates,” wrote the ÖFEB in a November 2019 statement.

Viennese speech therapist and German teacher Ali Dönmez follows a similar line of argument. His recently started petition – postulating “Let children learn jointly” – has gained more than 10,400 supporters by the end of October. It urges the government to abandon the current model, as it segregates students instead of supporting them. “They are causing stress and stigmatizing children and families,” he told Der Standard in a mid-October interview. He calls for inclusive, systematic language promotion. Playful approaches, smaller classes and joint learning experiences, contends Dönmez, trigger an intrinsic learning motivation.

In contrast to Raab, Dönmez doesn’t deem the recently published numbers a success. “The fact that only 32,2%” of students succeeding after a year “conversely means, that seven out of ten didn’t accomplish the changeover from extraordinary to ordinary status,” he told Der Standard. “That’s no success to me.” Dönmez’s comments referred to the results after the first year only, leaving out the additional 35% who had largely integrated by the end of the second year – as required under Austrian law to stay with a child’s original class – while still needing, and receiving, some supplementary language support.  

Confronted with the speech therapist’s critique, Raab adheres to the government’s position: “It makes sense to learn German before tackling Algebra, History or Biology,” she told Die Presse. “Especially in metropolitan areas.”

Rising Share of Multicultural Children

In June, she also attracted criticism after voicing concerns about clusters of children using languages other than German in conversation outside of class. 

“Integration becomes difficult, whenever parallel societies are emerging and interaction with the Austrian society is missing,” she said in an interview with the Kronen Zeitung: Multilingualism might be a “resource”, but lacking German skills, is a “burden” for integration. Raab turned to the latest numbers from the government’s integration report showing that the share of pupils in Austria who used a language other than German in everyday conversation soared from roughly 18% in 2010 to 26% today. In Vienna, it’s 52%.

Critics accused her of resorting to populist ideas by equating migration backgroundand educational needs. “Multilingualism is a treasure,” said Vienna’s Education Councillor Jürgen Czernohorsky (SPÖ) who recently co-sponsored a parliamentary campaign aimed at abandoning the current model of remedial classes.Instead, Viennese politicians call for more autonomy for the schools, as well as support for native-language teaching. This year’s education budget earmarks special funding for school sites in socially deprived areas. The majority of those so-called “Brennpunktschulen” is in Vienna. 

Despite fierce discussions, most agree on the need to “de-ideologize” the debate. Failing this, they say, it will be the children who suffer.

Verena Mayer
After falling in love with the city on an Interrail trip over 10 years ago, Verena is finally living in Vienna. She’s an editorial intern at Metropole and about to finish her master's degree in journalism at Deutsche Journalistenschule in Munich. Her favorite topics include food, culture & people.

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