In School in Germany: Immigration

Here’s a question for all teachers in the German school system and social studies/ history  teachers in the American schools:  How much do you teach your pupils about the history of immigrants- in particular, German immigrants?  How do you approach this topic in terms of teaching method, focusing on a time period in history as well as garnering interest in the topic? And lastly, how much information do/can you provide to your group?

As you recalled a couple articles ago, I presented you with some questions about this particular topic for you to answer, to challenge yourself and learn a couple new items that you have never heard about before.  But this article is about German immigration in general and how important it is that this topic is integrated into the learning curriculum.

Many years ago, I visited Ellis Island, during my 1.5 week stay in New York City, to learn more about this topic and how Germans represented one of the majorities of the population that moved to the new world. Part of this had to do with the fact that my mother’s family is primarily German, originating from Schleswig-Holstein (and in particular, Stein near Kiel, according to genealogy research). Also important was the fact that prior to my trip, I had discovered,  in my parents’ garage, a trunk and on it, the maiden name of my mom’s ancestors that had immigrated to the United States in 1898 and eventually settled down on a farm south of Ellsworth, at  the Minnesota-Iowa border. This sparked my interest in knowing more about how Germans immigrated to the US, the reasons behind their strive towards something new and how they survived over there (and are still prospering today).

Ellis Island. Both photos taken by boat in 1997

The immigration wave of the Germans started in the 1840s before the Great Revolution of 1848. At that time, much of Europe, which featured the Habsburgs (The Austro-Hungarian Empire), Prussia, Russia and France had their own set of oligarchs who favored the church and the powerful over the common people. With violent clashes over food and poverty, plus the strive to put an end to this type of rule in favor of democracy, many of the immigrants boarded ships bound for the States and after several stops along the way, settled down in regions in today’s Rust Belt (the former steel regions extending from Illinois to Pennsylvania), as well as parts of the Midwest, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and North Dakota. Much of their traditions, including their food, such as the hamburger and sauerkraut, the German language and its usage in literature and books, and even the villages were named after those from Prussia and Habsburg. Over 400 villages and towns were created with German city names, like Frankfort, Hamburg, Hannover, Berlin, and the like. Even some of the smaller towns in Germany had their names incorporated in the US, such as Flensburg, Schleswig, Lubeck, Kiel, Weimar, Jena and Trier. There was even the city of Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota that was named after Otto von Bismarck, the founding father of Germany, which was established in 1871. German culture prospered until World War I when President Wilson declared war on Germany in 1917 after a telegram was intercepted promising Mexico portions of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California if it entered World War I against the US.  For a period of three years, German culture was suppressed in a way that all traditions and even the usage of the language was prohibited.  Literary works by Schiller and Goethe were banned. The hamburger was renamed Liberty Steak; the sauerkraut, Liberty Cabbage. The Germans were perceived as evil in the eyes of many other immigrants, including the Italians, Irishmen and Russians, and conflicts broke out as a result.

After the war was over and the Versailles Treaty was signed, immigration to the US was limited because of the Red Scare- the Communist movement that had plagued Europe and parts of the US since the Bolshevist Revolution of 1917. Germans tried to escape the misery their country was facing, first through the hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic and later with the rise of Adolph Hitler but were faced with limitations both internally as well as externally. It would not be until after the second World War when the gates were reopened wide and many who wanted to leave and had the resources did.

Today, traces of German culture can be found in the US through foreign languages in public schools, the foods which have become somewhat commercialized, like the beer and hamburger, and the communities that still bear the German names. Some festivals can still be found in those communities, like the Oktoberfest in New Ulm in Minnesota.  Yet do we talk much about immigration in the schools?  Sadly, I have to say no.


We seem to have drifted away from topics like this one because of the strive to streamline education at the expense of the most important ones, like history, culture and politics. Foreign languages have also taken a hit, as schools in the United States are focusing solely on Spanish while leaving the rest behind- something that is angering the neighbors to the north, Canada, where French is the official second language behind English. While business and technology are two important elements needed to get a well-paying job, other aspects, like the ones mentioned, are just as important for they provide students with an insight to other countries and their culture and history.  Looking at it from a historian’s point of view, taking these humanity aspects seriously can enable the student to learn about him/herself and the surroundings and identify him/herself based on their own family history and how it contributed to the history of their countries.
Yet even when we discuss about humanities, like history and culture, in schools, we seem to have left out the meat of the topics for discussion. Reason for that are the limitations with regards to the subjects to be taught for certain grades- both in Germany, as well as in the USA. The time constraints regarding how and when to teach these subjects have forced many teachers to prioritize which subjects are important and which ones should be left out. Unfortunately, those that are left out are usually not taught unless in academia, if at all.

Immigration is one of those aspects that should be brought to the table at an early stage. There are many reasons for this argument, but I will mention only two, as they are the most important in my opinion. The first is immigration is like a bridge, connecting one’s old home with their new home. People who immigrated to other countries collected many impressions and stories to share with their relatives and friends back home. Many of these impressions and stories deal with comparisons between their new home and their old one, as well as suggestions as to how to improve their old region. While some of the immigrants returned to their old homelands, some remained in their new homelands forever, creating families of their own.  In the case of German immigration, it is typical to find many German families settling in clusters in either a community or region. An example of which can be found in an article written in 2010 about New Trier in Minnesota, which you can click here.

The second argument behind teaching immigration in school is because it played a key role in the development of the countries the immigrants originated from and the countries where they eventually settled down.  In the case of Germany, the emigration of Germans from Prussia and Habsburg resulted in the need to reform the countries respectively, unfortunately through the usage of violence, as was seen in the Revolution of 1848. Eventually the situation stabilized with the creation of a German state in 1871, which provided the solidarity and sound structure of a democratic state many people had envisioned two decades before but were realized by Bismarck.  In the case of German immigrants in the US, their  previous experiences before immigrating over, combined with their innovation and thinking has helped shape the US as it is today.  It is not hard to find Germans in America, who had made a difference, whether it was Henry Kissinger’s role as Secretary of State under Nixon and how the US scaled back on its mission of containment and opened their doors to relations with Russia and China, or John Roebling and his design of the wire suspension bridge, a few examples of which still exist today. Kissinger originated from Fürth (north of Nuremberg) in Bavaria, while Roebling emigrated to Pennsylvania from Mühlhausen in Thuringia and established the town of Saxonburg.

How the topic should be taught in the classroom is fully up to the teacher, but some of the small aspects mentioned here will help students know about the importance of immigration, even more so when it is discussed in the classroom in schools in Europe, and in this case, Germany.  This is where the article ends with a small anecdote: Ignore the smallest details and you will ignore the most relevant. Give them something small to think about and it will make a big difference as far as learning is concerned.

And now, some interesting Flensburg Files’ Fast Facts, which you will find in the next article…..

In School In Germany: Strange American Accent


Friday afternoon in an English Fachdidaktik (English subject teaching) Course at the university. Our first meeting of the semester brought forth a lot of impressions of our first two weeks in class. Yet while there were some positive experiences shared in class, there were some students who did not have some spectacular moments while observing some English classes.

One of those came from a student colleague, who was in an English class at a Gymnasium (high school), where a pupil was asked to respond to a question in British English instead of American English, even though he had previously spent time in the States. When he answered using an American English accent, he was told to repeat it with a British accent.  Not a nice thing to do to a pupil who is learning the language in the first place.
Yet this story opened a large wound on the part of moi here, for despite coming from the US, I too was criticized for using an American accent in my English class, being asked to speak Oxford English. More insulting is when laid off from a university (together with another American colleague) and being replaced with a British colleague was the excuse of being let go was I spoke with “a strange American accent that is not understandable.” This sour taste still remains to this day, especially as the arguments were unsubstantiated and one would always assume that American English is more understandable, recognizable and even clearer, right?
Yet the story and the memories that came along with that brought up three key points that I want to address in this blog entry:


1. English is Universal in the Classroom: There is no such thing as British and American English differences in the classroom.
2.There is no such thing as an American English accent that is understandable unless you come from the Deep South and….
3. Even if you come from that region, any American can teach English to non-natives without having any difficulties in understanding.


There is always a hidden preference in an educational institution as to how to teach English, as I had just mentioned with my experience teaching English as that particular university. Some universities in Germany prefer American English over others, and vice versa. Part of it has to do with the historical aspect, where the northwestern and southern parts of West Germany were occupied by Brits and Americans respectively during the Cold War, whereas British English was preferred by East Germany as the Soviets were at war with the US. Traces of Americanism and British culture remained after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the influence prevailed everywhere, including academia.  When moving to Germany in 1999- ten years later- the preferences for one over the other was still there, but a new trend was taking shape- a form of universal English where there is no difference between British and American accents, just the vocabulary and how the words are stressed.
Fast-forwarding to the present, we are starting to see an unusual trend where the distinction of American and British English is disappearing faster than we think.  Over a billion people speak this universal form that is now considered international English, which has no direct distinction regarding accent and vocabulary. Instead words originating from the native language are being integrated into the structure and the people who speak it, have a accent that is typical of the native language they come from. That means in the case of Africa, Asia and parts of Europe, English is the second language for many people whose native tongue is rarely spoken outside their country of origin, like in the Czech Republic, Uganda, Kenya, India, Bangladesh and other countries for example. The trend is increasing, compared to the nearly 400 million native speakers of English in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and countries of the former British Commonwealth, which is holding steady but likely to decrease over the next 80 years. As this trend continues, we will more likely see non-native speakers of English roaming the streets of Berlin, London and Paris, with many of them speaking perfect English and teaching the language in the classroom. These people may still have their own native accent, but more likely will not adopt the American or British one, making it easier for students to understand the language in the classroom and learn the grammatical structure exactly the way it has been taught by native speakers.
The difference in British and American English brings me up to the second point, where one has to define what exactly is an American and a British accent, for the difference in communicating in both lies clearly in the region where the people originate from. There are some dialects of English that are even difficult for native speakers to understand, such as Scottish, Welsh, South London and Cornwall. Yet most Brits prefer the standard London dialect as the primary language of teaching.
In the US, there are many regions whose distinction lies clearly on the accent and dialect. Speaking from a northerner’s point of view, it is much more difficult to understand someone with a southern dialect originating from an area like Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia than one from the New England and East Coast states. Yet it does not mean that they cannot teach English in the classroom of a school in a foreign country.  Many American teachers abroad have chosen what I call the Chicago dialect, which is the primary language of the northern half of the country because it is clear and understandable, despite some over-usage of strong accents, like the words with R, E and/or A, for example . In other words, it is important for us to be a Chicagoan than a Texan if we use American English in the classroom.  Some examples of both British and American dialects can be found in the videos below:

Still, many non-native speakers of English have problems understanding the American form for several reasons. Apart from the dialect difference, we love to roll our Rs and Es, while talking fast and continually like hives of bees. And this can turn off many participants in the classroom right away, even if we are as loud and boisterous as the typical American stereotype.  Speaking from experience, a teacher cannot expect the students to keep up with the pace without them having to ask him/her to slow down. Henceforth, there are some tips for all American teachers to ensure that the experience teaching English in the classroom is an enjoyable one, instead of a nightmare.
Mr. Smith’s Teaching Tips for Communicating in the Classroom:
Speak slowly and clearly. If you need to, over-enunciate some words. It is very important that you speak at a pace where the students can understand you but you feel comfortable with the tempo. It will be difficult enough for them to pick up everything you say. Pending on the learning level, you may need to speak extra slow if their English knowledge is limited.

IDEA: Should you have problems keeping the tempo, or even enunciating the words, try speaking with a partner or group of people prior to your entrance into the classroom and allow them to give you some tips. Having some constructive criticism helps you to learn how to maintain your tempo.  Also useful is speaking with a wine cork in your mouth, placed between your teeth. A quirky exercise, but after a few sessions, it will help you speak more slowly and clearly.
If you have a regional dialect that is difficult to understand, try speaking with the universal accent that is known. America has its Chicago dialect. Britain its London. Germany has its Hamburg and Frankfurt dialects. Switzerland: Bernese for German, Genevan for French and Locarno for Italian.  You don’t need to be perfect in those, but using them as reference can help you better speak with a dialect that is understandable with your students.  Remember though, you don’t need to live in these regions in order to adopt it. It takes 10 years to do that, and by the time you’ve mastered it, you will most likely move onto another region with a different dialect.


Make sure you ask your students if they understand everything or have any questions. Asking is free and both students and teacher will benefit from it, whether it is for clarifying something that is confusing or elaborating further on a theme that is difficult to understand. As a rule of thumb, explain your concepts and the like as if you’re explaining it to a child- this quote should ring a bell, if you are a Denzel Washington fan.


And most importantly, never assume everyone will understand everything. Lower your expectations and plan according to their learning knowledge. Assumptions, speculations and guessing are costly to the teacher and his reputation towards the students, as well as the students  who will perceive him as arrogant and thinking too much of himself.


By following these simple tips, teachers will be able to have an enjoyable class with students who will benefit from a little learning. After a long day, students expect some relaxing entertainment from the teacher when learning English, and if the teacher can make it fun for them, the students will come away learning some new things about the language every day, be it vocabulary, grammar or anything pertaining to culture.
With that I would like to leave with a simple note. If someone tells you, as a teacher, that you need professional help because you speak too fast or have a strange dialect or accent that if not understandable to others, even if it is an American one, don’t take it seriously. That person probably hates you because you wanted to take her job away, which is not what teaching foreign languages is about. And perhaps it’s a sign to look for another teaching job in a friendlier environment. Upon consulting with a teacher of speech communication at a German university (whose name I will not elaborate because of privacy purposes), speech therapists only work with people with issues pertaining to lisps, malformed or even malfunctioning Adam’s Apples and accents in one’s native tongue that are caused by physical ailments or psychological issues.  Most problems in the world are treatable by working on it on your own and not through that of a therapist. Save the therapist for issues that you cannot control, yet if in doubt and people really have problems understanding you (not just a couple but numerous others), talk to a friend, trusting colleague or family member about it. Nine times out of ten you can take care of it yourself just by making a few minor adjustments or even practicing.