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“I think I know the way!” A Closer Look at Berlin’s Bilingual Education System for Children of Turkish Origin.

Reading a map isn’t always easy - especially when one is trying to eat a kebab, figure out which way is north, and not get in the way of a group of purdah-clad women accompanying a mob of school children. It’s a busy morning in Kreuzberg and the only person who seems unfazed by the rush is a young teenager with a school bag slung across his shoulder, ambling along at his own comfortable pace. As we walk up to him to ask for directions, we suddenly realize the irony of our situation. Between the two of us we speak several languages but neither of us speaks Turkish. But we decide to ask anyway.

“Entschuldigung, weißt du wo…?”

The child smiles, responds in fluent German and points the way to the Aziz Nesin Europaschule. 

Once inside the school, the secretary wants to know what brings us to Kreuzberg and why we are interested in the school. We smile and inform her that it’s a long story. 

The Beginning 

The story begins in the late 1950’s and ‘60’s, when the German government started recruiting labor migrants from countries such as Italy, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia. This heralded Germany’s gradual but definite transformation to an immigration country. Due to the economic crisis of 1973 the German government decided to stop the recruitment of these “guest workers.” However, this action prompted the workers to bring in their families from their home countries and settle down in Germany instead of returning to their respective countries. Such family reunifications for these workers continue to this day. The change that took place in society in the last forty years has been so significant that foreigners (which do not include German citizens of foreign origin) constitute almost 9 percent of Germany’s current population. In several parts of the country, the linguistically homogenous society that was Germany is no more.

Many of these low qualified migrant workers lost their jobs following the deindustrialization that took place in Berlin after the reunification. Since 1990 the unemployment rate of foreigners tripled and is currently at a staggering 40 percent. 

Turks in Berlin

An estimated 180,000 ethnic Turks live in Berlin, making the city one of the largest Turkish cities in the world. A multicultural society brings about diversity in the forms of new languages, religions, and exotic foods, but it also leads to a plethora of socio-economic problems.

Many Turks have been successful in recreating their original communities from Turkey within the neighborhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin. Children growing up in these communities have rare opportunities to interact with Germans. Even though fluency in German is imperative for successful integration of the Turkish German minority, it is alarming to note that the current so-called third generation of ethnic Turks are less fluent in German than any of the two previous generations. 

The Role of Education

The role of education in teaching German and socializing the younger Turkish generation within the school system is crucial. There are many schools in Berlin that deal with a large percentage of children of Turkish origin. However, the German education system seems overwhelmed and unprepared for dealing with a migrant population that has grave problems with basic German language skills. In an attempt to solve the problem, some schools have opted to offer “German as a second language” to those students who lack fluency. Some other schools stick to the traditional system of only conducting all classes in German. One school in Berlin, however, offers another alternative.

The Exception

Once inside the Aziz Nesin Europaschule, we find ourselves in the midst of children excitedly shouting out to each other whilst making their way to the playground. At first glance, it is just like any other elementary school. After a while, though, the difference is obvious. Everywhere we go inside the school we hear German and Turkish being spoken by the students who are between six and twelve years old. Whilst we should not have expected anything less from a school that emphasizes the importance of being bi-lingual, we are still taken aback at the ease in which the students speak in two completely different languages. 

The Aziz Nesin elementary school was created with that very intention in 1996 by a group of concerned German and Turkish inhabitants in Kreuzberg. The concept of “European School” is quite familiar to the city of Berlin, which has many other bi-lingual schools which emphasize, for example German-English, -Russian or -French educations. However, the Aziz Nesin School remains to this day the only German-Turkish bilingual school in Germany. By virtue of being a European School, parents from all over Berlin can send their children to Aziz Nesin, which is an exception to the general rule that children have to attend the schools in their respective neighborhoods.

There are currently 415 students attending the Aziz Nesin School, half of whose mother tongue is German and the other half whose mother tongue is Turkish. The school is an all-day school and, unlike other Berlin primary schools, requires students to engage in sports and other cultural activities after school, thus placing importance not only on language and academic achievements but also on extra-curricular activities.

Many German parents were also part of the initiative to establish the school at the outset. Sabine Schirop, a founding parent and current teacher, explains why the decision to send both her children (of German origin) to the Aziz Nesin School was “one of the best things” she could do for them. “We want our children to understand the language on the street, to learn about a different people and know something about a different God.” 

The founding principle of the elementary school is that all students need a thorough knowledge of their mother tongue if they are to become equally fluent in a second language. Each class consists of approximately 24 students and two teachers who have an equal share of responsibility in teaching. One teacher speaks German and the other speaks Turkish as the mother tongue.

To add another dimension to bilingual education, class teachers organize short exchange programs to Turkey where their students will stay with a traditional Turkish family and visit a Turkish school. Not only does this provide a perfect opportunity for German students to visit Turkey, it also provides the opportunity for students of Turkish origin to become acquainted with the country of their ethnic origin. Sabine Schirop feels that this is something very necessary for bi-lingual education and enthusiastically points out that since they get funding from the foundation Stiftung Umverteilung, every student in the class will make the trip regardless of his financial background.

The Aziz Nesin School is a secular institution that does not teach religion. Instead it opts for the instruction of “humanistic studies.” Aziz Nesin was a famous author and political activist of Turkish origin who was also a well-known atheist. It is therefore no coincidence that the founders of this European school decided on this name despite much opposition from certain sectors of the Turkish community in Kreuzberg. 

The Greater Reality 

With all its special features, the Aziz Nesin School is an exception. The majority of children of Turkish origin who attend school in Berlin face a far different reality. 

In the center of Berlin, almost 45 percent of German students and nearly 90 percent of students of Turkish origin are recognized as having serious language deficiencies and are in need of special assistance. An estimated 10 percent of Germans and 25 percent of students of Turkish origin drop out of school without any qualification. 

The Heart of the Problem

Annette Spieler deals with problems of educating migrant children every day in her position as headmistress of the Fichtelgebirge elementary school in Kreuzberg, where 86 percent of the students do not speak German as mother tongue. All students who attend her school come from the local community and therefore from the same low socio-economic background. The majority of these students are of Turkish origin whereas all teachers are German and all lessons are conducted in German. Despite this being so, the students’ interactions at home with their families, communities, and classmates are limited to Turkish. This, according to Ms. Spieler, is the main problem almost all schools in the community face. 

Sigrun Baumann is a young teacher from the Carl-Friendrich-von-Siemens-Oberschule of Spandau, a school which has over 30 percent of students from non-German backgrounds. She states that the lack of fluency of migrant parents also results in their fearing to visit the school or to get involved in their children’s educations. The students are further neglected and teachers often end up frustrated by the lack of parental support. 

This however, is rarely a problem in the Aziz Nesin environment, where the bilingual system readily makes available a teacher who speaks Turkish to speak to parents about their children’s progress.  This transforms the school into an important space for parents – especially for Turkish mothers who are new to German society, language and culture. Ms. Schirop points out that it is not uncommon for her to see groups of mothers who cannot speak German, sitting in the school cafeteria socializing with each other. “This is a beginning not only for them but also for the community,” she explains, pointing out that visiting the school is perhaps the only time they walk outside of their communities. Ms. Schirop is hopeful that this will positively influence their attitudes towards learning German and the importance of integrating their children into German society. “Maybe they will watch less Turkish TV at home and get the kids to speak German after school!” she adds, laughing.   

Some schools in Kreuzberg offer German language classes to mothers – hoping that such an initiative, if successful, could motivate parents to speak German at home and develop a certain sensibility to the importance of education. A senior official from the Commission for Integration of the Berlin Senate, who wishes to remain anonymous, voices a similar opinion, stating that most problems of integration could be solved if the young wives that are brought in from Turkish villages to Germany were more actively interested in learning the language. On the flip side, she argues that women should be given more recognition for the important role they play as mothers and that more support should be extended by the state. 

As the problems of children of Turkish origin and their lack of fluency increase, the regular schools in Kreuzberg face another problem: Decreasing numbers of ethnic German students. German parents are less keen on sending their children to schools where they will be in the absolute minority linguistically and otherwise. Today more and more German parents are pulling their kids out of the schools in their communities and sending them to specialized schools, such as Montessori, Waldorf, or Protestant Schools. This, in turn, exacerbates the original problem. The admittance of a healthy mix of ethnic and non-Germans to a school would perhaps encourage the Germans to stay in school and help the integration of students of other backgrounds. 

The Advantage

Whilst it seems as if the Aziz Nesin School is far ahead of the other schools in Kreuzberg in successfully educating and integrating the children of Turkish origin, it is imperative to acknowledge that as a bi-lingual European School it has a support system and a unique structure that preempts most problems common to the other schools. Thus it could be labeled an elite institution. 

In talking with different teachers about the many problems they encounter

with parents, it was evident that the bi-lingual school has the advantage of having a community of parents that already understand the importance of learning both languages. This “self-selection” naturally translates into their active interest and concern for their child’s education. Ayşe Bardak, a class teacher of Turkish origin at the bi-lingual school, describes how even those parents who do not speak a word of German are eager to see their kids learn both languages and learn them well. 

The Religion

The so-called “self-selection” of parents occurs at another level at the bi-lingual school. Since the school is secular in its teaching, parents with traditional or radical religious beliefs refrain from sending their children to the school. At Aziz Nesin, girls and boys swim together and go on class trips together – two things that conservative Muslim parents would usually frown upon. Whilst conservatism and being overtly religious are not necessarily a hindrance to integration, there could be instances in which they could be detrimental. Almost a dozen parents took their children out of the Aziz Nesin School citing religious reasons when the decision was made to name the school after Nesin. Ms. Schirop brushes aside their action and states, “Integration means tolerance by all sides. If they could not tolerate the mere name of the school, then it wouldn’t have worked anyway.” 

As the headmistress of Fichtelgebirge, one of the first schools in Berlin to teach Islam in its curriculum, Ms. Spieler has been caught in the fray recently. It has been three years since the Islamic Federation in Germany began conducting religious lessons in the classroom, but it is still too early to say how this will affect the student body in the school. It can be assumed, though, that for many conservative ethnic Turks this structure will be more attractive than the more liberal Aziz Nesin, which does not emphasize Islam. 

Further Division

Offering a bilingual education would mean that, for the most part, the student body would consist of two ethnic or linguistic origins. This structure by itself is saving the bilingual school much heartache, according to Sigrun Baumann, as Aziz Nesin only attracts ethnic German and Turkish students. In her school in Spandau, Ms. Baumann deals with students of German, Turkish, Russian and Polish backgrounds. These linguistic and ethnic differences, compounded by the fact that the school is situated in a low socio-economic community, create rivalries among the different ethnic groups. As a teacher of German language, she helplessly notes that the warring factions within the school see no reason in using a common language for every day use. 

Aziz Nesin School, however, is far from being the ideal solution. 

Changing Identity

We are sitting in a classroom full of eight-year-olds inside Aziz Nesin and are pleased to hear both languages being whispered, spoken and shouted out in class. Yet it doesn’t take us long to realize that something is amiss. Almost all the students in the class are of ethnic Turkish origin. Ms. Bardak, the class teacher, understands our confusion and explains that there are substantial numbers of ethnic Turkish students (hailing from upper middle class families) who speak German as their first language. Therefore, the equal division of students according to the mother tongue does not necessarily translate into an equal division according to ethnic background.  This gradually changing identity could have serious implications in the future, according to Semih Kneip, the father of two boys who attend the Aziz Nesin School. “It is now a ‘good Turkish school,’ but is that enough?” he asks, pointing out that the school is gradually losing its uniqueness as a European School. His wife Catrin, who is of German origin, quietly questions if the school is any longer a balanced environment for an intercultural exchange between ethnic Germans and Turks.

It seems ironic that while the Aziz Nesin School is undergoing a phenomenon common to the other schools in Kreuzberg – the increasing number of students of Turkish origin – its problem lies in a population of third generation Turks who speak German as their mother tongue. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall in the same community, the majority of the ethnic Turkish children are getting farther and farther away from German language and society. 

Right—But Not Quite.

Whilst it is obvious that bi-lingual education and the structural support it offers provides many answers to the questions of language and integration faced by the younger generation of Turkish origin, it is also obvious that such a system is far from being a practical and realistic option for the majority of the ethnic Turkish population in Berlin. 

The need for resources, materials, and teacher training required in establishing more bi-lingual schools in Berlin or in Germany is staggering. 

The Long Trek Ahead

“If you could change your school structure would you introduce bi-lingual education to your students?” We are in Ms. Spieler’s cozy living room sitting across from her and asking the Big Question. She stares at us for a moment, leans back on her chair, and sighs. 

The next time we ask that question is when we are sitting in Ms. Bauman’s kitchen talking about her experiences with Turkish students. She, too, seems initially taken aback at the question, but she smiles and sighs. 

Both women are practical. They have to be, for they are in a trade in which they deal with grim realities everyday. Their immediate response is that it is not practically possible to change the system. They do, however, have ideas about how to create better conditions within the existing structures of their schools. 

“We need more Turkish social workers,” calls out Ms. Spieler, describing to us the Turkish official that works in the school as an intermediary between the German teachers and the non-German-speaking parents.  If it is not possible for the state to allocate more funding to the schools, she says the only solution is to redistribute funds within the school effectively. Yet she shakes her head, saying that her actions and initiatives even as the principal are limited by bureaucratic red tape.

“We need better practical teacher training,” insists Ms. Baumann. “We have one abstract seminar titled ‘Intercultural Communication’ as part of our training,” she tells us, laughing it off as being inadequate preparation for dealing with non-German students. 

The Turkish Parents Association of Berlin-Brandenburg calls for bi-lingual kindergarten education to be available for everyone in the community, whilst the official from the Commission for Integration of the Berlin Senate says that the concept of a “best system” is a mere illusion and that success lies in the ability of teachers motivating their students.

Almost everyone we spoke to had varying ideas on how to better the situation. At the end of a long day, we walk out of the Aziz Nesin School wondering why no one seems to be listening to them.


Many of Berlin’s social problems can be solved if the ethnic migrant children are better educated and integrated. The state can no longer cite the unavailability of funds and ignore the ailing education system in Berlin. 

Much more funding should be directed towards an effective teacher-training program that will give practical training to teachers in dealing with migrant children in the classroom. 

More Turkish-speaking social workers should be assigned to schools that have problems communicating with parents, and they should concentrate on building a parental support network that will actively involve them in their children’s school lives.

Bilingual pre-school education should be made compulsory for children who do not possess basic knowledge of German. More European Schools that offer Turkish German education should be established. This in turn would help expand a German upper middle class of Turkish origin, which will contribute immensely to the integration of the minority in Berlin.

Social campaigns directed at the Turkish community and emphasizing the importance of learning the German language should be launched, and leaders in Kreuzberg should carry the important message of language and education to the masses. 

This is also the time for a shift in perspective – to stop regarding schools in Kreuzberg as breeding grounds for social problems and start seeing them as valuable institutions that offer the rare opportunity of intercultural exchange for ethnic German students. 

More funding should be allocated to these schools, yet along with the financial assistance, it is imperative for all to realize that this assistance is being offered not to an alien migrant population but to an ethnic migrant population that now identifies itself as German. 

my father

is returning to turkey

he does not want

to die in a foreign land

nor do I want to die

in a foreign land

and so decide

to stay in Bamberg 

At the end of the day, there is no denying that in the day and age of kebabs and bratwurst in Berlin, much more should be done to integrate Germans of Turkish origin into society. It is also time to look beyond the seemingly perfect walls of Aziz Nesin and acknowledge that the problem in Kreuzberg is grave, and it seems to be worsening. The problems of Kreuzberg are the problems of Berlin. The famed Turkish-German poet Nevfel Cumart sums it up perfectly: “There is no going back for us. We are German.” The sooner the state realizes that, the better it will be for everyone. 



Bardak, Ayşe. Teacher, Aziz Nesin Europaschule. Berlin. June 22, 2004.

Baumann, Sigrun. Teacher, Carl-Friedrich-von-Siemens-Oberschule. Berlin. June 29, 2004.

Cumart, Nevfel. Poet. Berlin. June 23, 2004.

Kneip, Batuh. Student, Aziz Nesin Europaschule. Berlin. June 28, 2004.

Kneip, Semih and Röber-Kneip, Catrin. Founding parents of the Aziz Nesin Europaschule. Berlin. June 28, 2004.

Schirop, Sabine. Teacher, Aziz Nesin Europaschule. Berlin. June 28, 2004.

Senior Official from the Commissioner for Integration of the Berlin Senate (anonym). Berlin. June 28, 2004.

Spieler, Annette. Headmistress, Fichtelgebirge Grundschule. Berlin. June 29, 2004.


Beauftragter für Integration und Migration des Senats von Berlin. Bericht zur Integrations- und Ausländerpolitik in Berlin 2000. Berlin. 2000.

Beauftragter für Integration und Migration des Senats von Berlin. Integrationspolitische Schwerpunkte 2003-2005. Berlin. 2004. 

Cumart, Nevfel. Waves of Time: Poems. Transl. by Eoin Bourke. Grupello.

Düsseldorf. 1998.

Crul, Maurice and Vermeulen, Hans. Immigration and Education. The Second Generation in Europe. Institute of Migration and Ethnic Studies. Under: www.lisproject.org/immigration/papers/crul.pdf 

Karacs, Imre. Turkish Children Sink into the Underclass. In: The Idependent, of: November 12, 2000. London.

Lubig-Fohsel, Evelin: Speech: Wo bleibt an Berlins Schulen die Interkulturalität? Berlin. 2004. 

Riagáin, Pádraig Ó and Lüdi, Georges. Bilingual Education: Some Policy Issues. Language Policy Division DG IV – Directorate of School, Out-of-School and Higher Education. Council of Europe. Strasbourg. 2003.

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