Surviving School in Austria as a Foreigner

I’d been here a month – in a new school in a new town in a new language. How’s it going, my teacher asked? It took all the courage I had that day to bite the bullet and give my answer. “Ich habe Freunde gemacht!” I said, proud as a peacock as one of my first German sentences – which was immediately followed by a room full of laughter. Having grown up speaking English, I had translated “I made friends!” directly, with words I now knew in German, only to find out that the right expression to use was that I had gotten to know new friends and not “made” friends – which basically sounds as if I had physically built my friends out of thin air.

Vienna was the economic and cultural heart of the vast Habsburg monarchy establishing a tradition of linguistic diversity that remains today. The latest study by the Austrian Integration Fund (ÖIF) revealed that 52.5% of Vienna’s school students don’t use German outside the classroom. That’s not to say that the students don’t or can’t speak, read, and write in German.

But particularly in the last three years, the government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has focused on multilingualism in Austrian schools, in a way that has, ironically, made the academic experience even harsher for first-and second-generation immigrants. Increased testing has magnified the separation from native German-speakers and may also have enhanced prejudice. The feeling of being singled out is often devastating for kids – just as they are developing their sense of being part of a social group, they are being systematically taken from it.

Teach for Austria was founded in 2011 to help give every child access to good education. The organization’s fellows work at schools and kindergartens across the country./(C) Teach for Austria/David Blacher

Into the Deep End

Maggie Childs, publisher of Metropole, was born in New York and came to Vienna with her family at the age of 10. Engraved in her memory is her first day of school, 25 years ago. Her classmates had their notebooks out and the teacher was up in front of the classroom explaining something in German. The teacher begins to write on the board and so does everyone else in their notebooks. “I didn’t know where one word ended and the next began; it was quite devastating,” shetold me. “At the end of the class my teacher assured me that it would soon start to make sense. I didn’t believe her.”

Thus began her voyage of autodidactism with her mighty kit of a pocket dictionary and a mini notebook. Pride constantly tested while learning by her mistakes was a daily affair. Embarrassment was her greatest motivator. It helped that her brother, who was 12 at the time, was going through the same thing and having their mom as their biggest cheerleader. Her days consisted of school, a Deutsch als Fremdsprache class taught by the principal once a week after school and extra German courses at the local community college (Volkhochschule). “It didn’t feel real. It felt like the Truman Show. As if everyone else was part of some conspiracy. Everyone really spoke English and was pretending not to. It was a game to test if I could speak German,” she remembered.

After getting used to her new normal, an impossible deadline hung over her head. Students who weren’t proficient in German (außerordentliche Schüler) were given two years to catch up to the level of the class – to get a passing grade in the three core subjects of German, math and a second language (in her case French) within two years. That meant two years of her inner self constantly putting on the pressure: “Don’t stop getting better, or you are not going to make the deadline.”

(C) Teach for Austria/David Blacher

Benefits of Multilingualism

The concept of an “extraordinary student” (außerordentliche Schüler/-innen) made its debut in 1994 in the Austrian School Education Act. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the government was finally allocating resources and standard operating procedures for students who were entering a German-speaking school system for the first time. Children who spoke little to no German were given two years to catch up with their peers and pass all core subjects. If unable to pass one on account of the lack of language proficiency, they would need to repeat an academic year. In the 2019/20 academic year, 4.96% of Viennese pupils were given the außerordentliche Schüler*in status.

Policies introduced in 2019, increase the pressure – and a sense of inequality – on these pupils. With the introduction of a new, centralized language test, the MIKA-D, the “extraordinary pupils” are now evaluated once every semester. If unable to pass the preliminary test by the end of the first school year, they would already be forced to repeat the year. This increases the pressure and leaves children and families haunted by uncertainty. Another year in school also means another year out of the workforce, which is hard for a lot of people.

The implementation of the MIKA-D test has received a fierce backlash from teachers and others in the bilingual community. Its extremely mechanical nature disregards any external factors like the modified grammar of modern colloquial language that can negatively influence a pupil’s results. The distinction between social and academic language is defined by linguists as basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language (CALP). People almost always acquire BICS first, but some get caught when the distinction is not clearly addressed in language learning. The previous system was inadequate, but given their sponge-like minds, with fear and determination most children made it to the other
side. The cost of the new system, pressure and instability outweigh the benefits of the result the center-right government hopes for.

Catering to Diversity

Gregor Kainz, a teacher in a local Mittelschule, tells us that 96% of his kids come from non-German-speaking households. The task is no longer to teach your students mathematics, but to teach your students how to decode and understand the vocabulary within the word problem. Being a teacher in a Mittelschule is quite different from a Gymnasium, he says, pedagogy in a Mittelschule requires more patience, creativity and flexibility to maintain classroom dynamics. “I have to parallel teach in one classroom. Everyone starts and ends in a different place, and your job is to offer opportunities that cater to the diversity,” Kainz details.

Exposure is key when picking up a new language. The majority of his students come from the large Turkish community in Vienna, where many second-generation children still struggle with the language. Growing up in Turkish communities, they never need to fully immerse. German, for them, has become merely a language of the classroom, which has negative associations for a child.

“When a school is not dominated by one racial community, the average level of German among immigrants is much higher,” he explains. There, “they need the language as a common denominator.”

So it becomes important to disassociate German from its role as an academic language and to become involved in German- speaking leisure activities. Initiatives like Vienna Hobby Lobby offer free recreational activities, from kickboxing to songwriting, encouraging social interaction outside their mother tongue communities. Though not a total solution to academic success, these programs provide an essential first step to recognizing German as an everyday language, building their capacity for their basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS).

Community Is Key

Teach for Austria fellows are currently active at 62 schools and 24 kindergartens in 3 Austrian federal states./(C) Teach for Austria/David Blacher

Over the years, Vienna has seen thousands of success stories of growing up in the Austrian school system with German as a second language. Mariela Apostolova began learning German at 14 so she could attend a special music high school. “Though there were times of tears and moments I felt like giving up, I would do it all over again,” she tells me. Her greatest motivation was her desire to graduate with her class, her favorite times the hundred concerts she was able to sing at over the four years.

“The adrenaline and anxiousness that we all felt before every concert is a feeling I wish I could relive,” she says. “The feeling of being in it together, even if it meant suffering through music theory together.”

“Music brought them all together,” says Hofrat Markus Blauensteiner, director of the school at the time. With a fair share of international students, he was amazed how fast the children were able to pick up the language. Blauensteiner talks about the importance of teamwork in community development, especially in schools that have a special focus – say, sports or music.

There, the ethnic communities never hindered the children’s language development, because they all had to work together with their peers and teachers to do what they loved – which was to make music.

Of Doubts & Triumphs

Everyone who has gone through the Austrian school system as an immigrant has a story of resilience. Besides the academic pressure and the seemingly insurmountable amounts of information, there are other, hidden battles. Olga Yurkevich who has spent her entire life in the Viennese school system vividly remembers her first day of school where her teacher casually expressed doubt in her chances to excel in a Gymnasium. Determined to prove her wrong, by the third year (7th grade), she was top of her class.

At graduation, the teacher told Olga that she was one of her favorite students. Olga never knew if she remembered those first sharp words. As an immigrant, one is tested not only on your academic abilities, but by the preconceived notions based on your cultural background.

Immersing oneself into a new culture at such an early age is not easy. Amid the political clichés and prejudice about your people, first-generation immigrants are then expected to disassociate themselves from their culture at home and to identify themselves with a new culture. This can lead to an identity crisis, especially around the age of adolescence. When confronted with polarizing expectations, it can be hard for them to find their footing. It is important that throughout this process these teens feel heard and supported, especially when they feel like no one understands. This experience will influence the people they become, parents being aware and supportive is essential in this process. “The girls look for affirmation as an individual who adopts both cultures,” says governess Petra Knoll.

Over the years, the high school boarding house for girls, the Bundesschülerinnenheim in Grinzing, has seen many come and go. There have been exchange students, girls who come from the countryside for high school, girls who are Austrian by birth but grew up abroad and everything in between.

Knoll speaks about acceptance and a sense of belonging as the make-or-break factor. “We can’t force them to integrate. They need to do that on their own. But they need to feel accepted. When they feel accepted at home, they generally do better at school,” she explains.

Most of us who have survived the Austrian school system wouldn’t trade the roller-coaster ride for anything else. There is a common understanding among “extraordinary pupils,” almost like being in combat together – we’ve all been through the same battles.

A Roller-Coaster Ride

The countless number of “I can’t do this,” the “Why me’s?” and the never ending private German lessons gave us more than a high school diploma. It taught us resilience, and how to use a fountain pen. And a global “superpower” language.

That being said, a two-, now one-year deadline to master a language is insane. Nobody can simply “pick up” German, the language has to be acquired at great effort. Research shows that most people need about four years to find solid footing in a language and seven to reach native-like fluency. If there was one tip I could give, I would suggest using German whenever you can. As a native English speaker, I never felt misunderstood, as there was always someone somewhere who could speak English, and I definitely took advantage of that. But in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t.

Another tip: Never neglect your pre-move leisure activities! No matter how busy you are, sign up for a class and expose yourself to the language beyond school or work. It is a testament to something that I still live in Vienna. There still may not be the category for “third-country nationals with a German-language diploma” on our university website, but we can’t help but love this city. Not to mention, the wonderful friends – living, or built out of thin air – that we’ve made along the way.