At the fall parents’ evening at my son’s preschool, the teachers told the parents about an emerging concern: the children were speaking too much German amongst themselves. The preschool director reminded the parents to be konsequent about making sure the kids heard enough English at home, and to actively encourage our kids to speak English. This news especially troubled the parents of the older children: their kids would soon be taking English language tests to get into international schools; this was not a good time for sagging English skills.
My son attends a German-English bilingual preschool/daycare (Kinderladen) that is part of the Berlin public daycare system. The concept of his preschool (and several others like it around Berlin) is that the children come from families where at least one parent is an English native speaker and speaks English to the child at home. At preschool, too, the children learn both German and English. When I tell Germans about my son’s preschool, their reactions range from approval to envy. My son is universally seen to be gaining an advantage in life through this bilingual early education, and not one person has ever suggested that his early exposure to English will impair his ability to learn German or to succeed in German society.
At the same time that my son’s preschool was fretting about too much German and not enough English, a very different linguistic controversy was raging just a few blocks away at the Lenau Grundschule, a school long dogged by a reputation as one of Berlin’s worst elementary schools. The school has a very high Ausländeranteil – percentage of students from immigrant families – and the school director, as part of a recent push to improve the school’s reputation, had been trying to attract more white German children. The horrible part is that she had done so by promising the white parents racially segregated classrooms, so that the white children’s academic performance wouldn’t be dragged down by the “foreign” children whose parents spoke Turkish or Arabic at home. In this year’s first grade class the white kids were grouped in one classroom and the “foreign” kids in another. Whereas at my son’s preschool, the foreign parents’ native language is seen as a precious commodity that should be actively cultivated, at the Lenau Grundschule it is seen as a sort of contaminant; too much contact with it would drag the white kids down.
To many Germans I speak to, the notion of mentioning German-English preschoolers in connection with Turkish-German and Arabic-German elementary schoolers is laughably bizarre. They draw a sharp distinction between “international people” like me and my son and “foreigners” like the children of the Lenau Grundschule. I have often been corrected for referring to myself as foreign. “No, no, no,” people laugh with ach-wie-niedlich condescension, “foreigners aren’t people like you.” This distinction between international people and foreigners is not straight-up racism; several different prejudices converge in it, with some combination of whiteness, a rich country of origin, and a language useful in international business comprising the high-status category international, whereas darker skin, a poorer country of origin, and Islam cluster in the low-status foreigner category. To be international is to be regarded as above the German language; why would you waste your time learning German, the international person hears, when your own language is so much more useful and important? To be foreign is to be regarded as beneath the German language, your non-German native language an inherent societal problem: what is wrong with you foreigners that you won’t just speak German already?
Neither category really presents a clear path to becoming German, in the way the category immigrant in English-speaking countries does. Both international and foreign remain forever outside, but the one is respected for its cultural otherness, and the other derided for it. In light of which it makes perfect sense that a person perceived as foreign might wish to be perceived as international instead. So I was very interested that one of the recurring themes among the reader comments in the German newspaper stories on the Lenau Grundschule controversy was the complaint that well-educated Turkish and Arabic parents in Germany are teaching their preschool-aged children English. The reader commenters seemed to find this a Frechheit. I think it frankly makes perfect sense: if the only choices the country where you live offers you are high-status foreignness (as embodied in the English language) or low status foreignness, who wouldn’t choose high-status foreignness?