New debate on kids not speaking German at home

Across Germany, one in five kids speaks no German in the home. Another debate on how to support language learning has ensued.

Language support in the daycare centre 
Language support in the daycare centre imago images / Panthermedia

Berlin-Around one in five children in Germany speaks no German at home. This emerged in the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs' response to a question from the FDP parliamentary group in the Bundestag.

Of the 3.2 million kids in Germany’s Kitas roughly 675,000 speak no German in the home, or 21.4 per cent. The portion of children from non-German speaking families has been rising. In 2017, 18.7 per cent fell under the category.

In response to the new statistics, the FDP are calling for an expansion of the federal "Language-Kitas" programme. "The rising share of children from families in which German is not spoken calls for the best possible language support," said Katja Suding, deputy leader of the parliamentary group.

In Berlin, the rate of non-German-speaking households is higher, with more than every third kid having "non-German origins." About 17 per cent of four-year-olds require additional language support, but a quarter of those actually speak German in the home.

Criticism erupted on social media this weekend over the way many German media outlets framed the news as a problem. Language and child development experts largely agree that it is best for children’s speech development if their parents speak their mother tongue to them.

The perceived division into "good" and "bad" languages has come under fire. A child speaking English or French at home isn’t considered problematic, but Arabic or Turkish is. "These headlines really make me angry," tweeted Berlin journalist Aida Baghernejad. "Multilingualism is a valuable resource, not a deficiency – my parents, for example, deliberately chose to speak to me exclusively in their native language. That was enough to graduate from high school in German and English, go to university in three countries and work as a journalist."

In fact, experts say that colloquial language spoken at home shouldn't be a problem at all if the kids then learn German outside the home. In Berlin, the state makes sure this happens - at least in theory - through the language support kids get at kindergarten and the language learning diary that educators keep for each child.

But there are doubts whether these instruments work as intended: a quality commission convened by Senator for Education Sandra Scheeres (SPD) a year ago, for example, considered the language learning diary to be too time-consuming and not particularly beneficial. Commission head Olaf Köller recommended replacing it with standardised short language tests at the end of last year. However, the findings of the committee still haven’t been officially published.

A related issue is the enforcement of the Berlin rule that children with insufficient German language skills are obliged to attend day-care for at least 18 months before starting primary school. However, the youth welfare offices are overburdened with the task of tracking cases.

For families who are willing to enrol their children in language support programmes - even if they have not previously attended day-care - the notorious lack of Kita spots becomes a problem. Berlin’s school administration has therefore been offering special language support groups for these children for several years.