Language in Schools

I find myself with time to write, which either means I haven’t been doing enough physical activity or I have settled into some sort of routine. I suspect a bit of both, and likely the role of additional confounding variables. Time to write is also time to think, and I’ve been thinking a lot about language.

As I try to learn German, which first became a project back in January, I have found that my other languages are disappearing. I can understand most of what I read in French (my phone is in French and it’s still easier for me to read food labels and assembly instructions in French rather than German when the option presents itself) but I can’t think in French at all. I can’t find words, construct ideas, form sentences. I can read or listen and understand, but I can’t communicate.

The situation with Hebrew is worse. I started learning Hebrew in kindergarten and kept it up through high school, but never had an intuitive grasp on the language. Unfortunately, we were taught Hebrew in English. (I’ve been learning German in German and that has made a huge difference.) Very recently, for example, I met an Israeli man on a tour of Munich. He tried speaking to me in Hebrew and again, I couldn’t respond. I knew what I wanted to say in German, but that was the best I could do. Instead, we spoke English.

It is equal parts fascinating and frustrating.

This has me thinking about how we use language in international schools, and I have made different observations here than in both Malaysia and Singapore.

In Malaysia, English was the lingua franca for my students, all of whom spoke some degree of English and learned Mandarin and Malay in school. With few exceptions, they spoke Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil at home, and/or previously attended schools that functioned in any of the four languages. English is the default for mixed groups in Malaysia, certainly by educated people, and so it was at school. No questions asked.

It surprises a lot of people to learn that Singapore functions first and foremost in English. English is the language of schools, business, and government. There are special programs that operate in Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay, but otherwise these are language and literature classes within English schools. Many Singaporeans, however, do not speak English at home. There is a generational difference in Singapore between Mandarin speakers and speakers of other Chinese languages, notably Hokkien, and everybody else. The majority of the population is of Chinese descent and one can get by in that community without using English. It also helps that anything provided by the government, including the public transportation system, is available in all four languages.

Since my students in Singapore came from around 75 countries, English was their common language, as well. Danau Tanu’s wonderful book on international schools addresses the ways in which students group themselves by facility with language, and this could not have been more obvious in the environment of my school. Without getting into the social politics here, there was a clear divide between those comfortable in English and those who were not. That Singapore itself lives in English meant that obviously school would, too, with obvious exceptions among specific groups.

It is different in a small town in Germany where life outside of school is only in German. With merely a handful of exceptions, my students are German and that is the language they speak among themselves. I’ve been told of only one teacher who insists upon the use of English during her literature classes. My students are kind enough to switch to English when they want me to understand their discussions, at which point I can provide feedback. It’s also a great way for me to get to know them. Otherwise, my eavesdropping is limited to the little German I can understand.

I have thought a lot about this: Do I require students to share, collaborate, and discuss amongst themselves in English so I can be part of this element of the learning process? Or do I provide an opportunity for them to clarify, explain, and understand in the language that is clearly more comfortable for many of them? (I should say here, all of them have excellent academic fluency in English, whether they believe it or not.)

By contrast, in Singapore there were always a group or two of students who did not speak English while working in small groups. And I never asked them to switch to English because I recognized how difficult, tiring, and intimidating it was to be in their position. One difference is that in Singapore, I was working with much larger classes and I couldn’t possibly be part of every small-group task. Here, the class sizes are such that I could be. So who would benefit from a shift in the social norms of the classroom?

It’s a confronting question because it means I need to think about my role as an educator. Who am I in a classroom, and what does it mean to support the young people that I work with? They know something significant that I cannot currently access, and that is not a place I have been in before. Making decisions in this environment requires different considerations, and I find myself taking both sides of the argument.

At the moment, my goal is to learn German. At this point, while I understand some of what my students say, I better understand body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and typical teenage behaviour. Importantly, though, learning German will give me entry to the culture that I am living in. I am lucky to have found a group of German friends through climbing and while all of them speak better English than I speak German, they are happy and patient when I try, and quick to point out simple errors. And so I do try, though I’m a lot quieter than I might otherwise be, and I get lost in loud places where people talk extremely quickly with grammatical constructions that don’t appear in textbooks. I’ve learned to ask for help, but someone usually translates into my ear before I need to. Body language. Facial expressions. Sometimes it’s just important to be there.

As for my students, I enjoy working with them regardless of language. I have a different appreciation for what it means to really live in another language than I did before moving here, and greater admiration for young people whose experiences put them at crossroads. After a lifetime of learning a language in school, it’s a joy to finally use it not because I want to, but because I need to.

Learn a language and you’ll avoid a war. – Arabic proverb

Zwiebelmarkt

Before accepting a job in Weimar, Germany, I looked it up on Wiki Travel. (I didn’t do this until after moving to Seremban, Malaysia and, well, if the only thing Wiki Travel has to say is that your town is near the airport, I wouldn’t suggest moving there.) I knew the basics of Weimar – home to the Weimar Republic, after all – and there were a variety of other mentions that caught my eye, one of which was the Onion Market. When I arrived, locals and expats alike told me, “Let’s just hope the Onion Market is on this year.”

A few changes due to Covid notwithstanding (no Queen of the Onion Festival, no pre-dawn opening, only four stages with live music instead of ten, a manageable number of visitors rather than the 250,000 that usually flock to this town of 65,000) it was!

Zwiebelmarkt was part food festival . . .

. . . and part harvest festival (I made my way to several farm stalls before it got too busy) with specific attention given to onions, which I will never see the same way again.

There were opportunities to buy onion-themed gifts and other household items (my contributions to the regional economy include a bouquet of dried flowers and a couple packs of spices) . . .

. . . and opportunities to sample onion-based foods. I can vouch for Zwiebelkuchen (onion cake) and Zwiebelsuppe (onion soup).

There were performances, too, of both the musical and circus variety, as well as a special carnival area for children, which was not too far from the medieval fair where some really fun bands played.

“Why did you choose Weimar?” a Weimar native asked as we drank beer and wine, sang along to Incubus and Radiohead covers, and used her sky app to find Jupiter and Saturn.

Many reasons. I can’t honestly say that onions were taken into consideration, but I’m glad they have become part of this experience.

Travel Guide: Munich

Being in Munich for Oktoberfest was a bit like being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras: It was an accident and I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until someone else told me.

In all fairness, I hadn’t intended to be in Munich for Oktoberfest. Rather, I had tickets to an Elton John concert that was cancelled (and rescheduled for two years from now!) because of Germany’s Covid regulations. Any reason to travel is a good one, and so, concert or not, I decided to head to Munich.

I arrived after dark on Friday night but I could already tell that being in a city felt rather different to my small town. There was something about the amount of light, the sheer number of buildings (though they were a far cry from what my Singapore and New York lives would consider tall), and the ambient noise that showed me how accustomed I’ve grown to my current environs. Despite this reaction , it was precisely my years of city living that immediately had me feeling comfortable navigating Munich’s excellent public transportation system.

The weather throughout the weekend was gorgeous, 20° and bright blue Bavarian skies. This meant that I was outside the whole time and have saved the indoor recommendations (all suggestions thanks to a friend who had lived in Munich for a time) for a future visit.

On Saturday morning I got a coffee and sandwich and sat in Marienplatz to watch the world go by. As I am directionally challenged, this became the centre of Munich in my head and I returned to this spot multiple times to reorient myself. The famed Glockenspiel at the Rathaus, or New City Hall, puts on two performances at 11am and 12pm to bring some of Munich’s history to life. It was charming and I had to smile at the excitement that must have caused in the early twentieth century.

The day began in earnest with a walking tour in which we learned about the history of Munich and Bavaria and talked about beer culture. The tour guide, Jax, explained that the façades of Munich’s buildings were redone after the war, often in very clever ways. The buildings themselves are therefore not old, considering about 50% of the city was damaged during the war, but their careful consideration of the past has lent the old town an old feel.

Our tour also touched on Munich’s role in Hitler’s rise to power. I didn’t realize that the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch that landed Hitler in jail, where he subsequently wrote Mein Kampf, had taken place here. It was an interesting juxtaposition to talk about this just before heading into the beautiful Englischer Garten, originally the royal private garden that, once opened to the delighted public in the late 1700s, became the home of Oktoberfest.

The Englischer Garten is Munich’s largest park and these photos do not do it justice. In addition to being historically interesting, it also held a first for me: Watching people surf in a public park.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That was the last photo I took on Sunday. Back to the tour on Saturday, which concluded with my favourite part: Viktualienmarkt!

If you’ve followed this blog for any of my travels, you already know how much I enjoy markets. Please feel free to skip to the photos. If you’re new here, welcome! To sum it up, I really enjoy markets. I love the people, the energy, the community built around food. I love the smells and tastes and the fact that everything you purchase comes from a real person who is standing right there in front of you, and who could probably tell some sort of story about what you’re buying. I love the interaction and the camaraderie that comes from watching others and being caught in the act of watching. All kinds of people shop at markets, and markets cater to so many traditions and flavours. One must only glance at the colours, the careful presentation of goods, and the handwritten signs to witness the collective humanity that has created this place. Walking through a market tells us something about the culture of a place and the people who make their home and livelihood there. There is so much to see and so many opportunities to experience something new.

After the tour concluded, I returned to Viktualienmarkt, had something to eat, took some photos, and watched people. Even though the tourist events and big Oktoberfest celebrations were cancelled, it was a treat to watch people going about their business in Drindl and Lederhosen, and then joining their fellow Bavarians at the many beer gardens and beer halls. I did my part by sampling kaiserschmarrn and pretzels with obatzda in my breaks from wandering around.

My Oktoberfest experience came later, however. Due to the beautiful weather, I was determined to remain outside as long as I could. This first meant standing in line to climb the tower at Saint Peter’s Church. I do enjoy a good church tower for a view and the passing people, many in traditional clothing and having a good time, provided plenty of diversions. Half an hour in line and about 300 steps later brought a wonderful view. People had said you can see all the way to the Alps and they were absolutely right.

Later that afternoon I went out to Olympiapark, both for the walk and the view. Munich is a city full of parks and I was so glad to see people enjoying the weather and one another. I was also glad for so much greenery in a city! That being said, Munich is far from crowded and congested. With a population of about 1.5 million people, it is affectionately referred to as a “large village”. I cannot imagine this place with the 6-7 million visitors that come for Oktoberfest during a normal year, and I’m honestly not sorry I missed it.

Which brings me to . . . Oktoberfest!

The friend who offered suggestions also provided a list of her favourite beer gardens and I tried, I really did. I’m not one to shy away from being alone in public places, but the essence of beer gardens and beer halls is that you sit down at a communal table, introduce yourself, and enjoy your time there. This was an uncomfortable thing to try alone, even though I found plenty of single seats when I looked around. Since beer in Bavaria brings people together, I was not inclined to take the communal out of it. And I had no intention of attempting small talk in German while everyone else was at a party.

And then I got lucky. I had given up on a beer garden and decided I’d have a drink outside and watch the world go by. But then I heard music and the man at the door directed me up the stairs to the drinks-only open-air balcony above a beer hall. I found a spot by the railing and laughed out loud. The music, costumes, food, huge beer steins, the noise, laughter, drinking songs: It was just like the movies.

I was in Munich for a real Oktoberfest because a concert and the tourist parties were cancelled. The world works in strange ways, and this one treated me very well indeed.

The next morning, I headed to a vegan café for brunch and then continued wandering in the sunshine, visiting some of the same spots I had been to the day before. I redid some photos and wandered through more of the Englischer Garten than I had first seen, and then it was time to go. I still have a list of places to go and foods to try, and it’s only three hours away; I suspect I’ll be back.

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place