German is a difficult language


Young refugees are learning basic German language skills at the mariners’ children’s home in Ruhrort with the support of Haniel and others.

It is just before 6 p.m. on a Monday. The second floor of the Nikolausburg mariners’ children’s home (LINK) leads through living areas and sparsely decorated corridors. The small walk-through kitchen smells of freshly brewed coffee. Behind here, four young people are waiting by a closed door. “You’re late!” says one of them in broken German, admonishing 23-year-old social pedagogy student Zarah Altenberg. She is supporting the residential group for unaccompanied child refugees.

The almost 36,000 minors who fled to Germany without relatives in 2016 were joined by around 9,000 more in 2017. In Germany, they are considered particularly vulnerable and are taken into the care of the youth welfare authorities before being placed with foster families or in children’s homes. The mariners’ children’s home provides space for seven unaccompanied child refugees over 170 square metres. The former boarding school for school-aged children of boatmen is now a facility run by the charity Caritas and offers a broad range of services for children, young people and their families. The mariners’ children’s home is involved in the integration of young refugees through the “Leuchtturm” (beacon) group. A German lesson is on the agenda for today. Those children who have been in Germany for a while receive lessons for advanced students. Alfa, Omar, Mamadou and Mali are still among the beginners.

The door has barely opened and the four young people from the West African country of Guinea are already sitting around the large table in the centre of the tiled classroom. The evening sun shines through the large window into the light yellow room. The work materials are kept in antique desks. The students put their mobiles on the table – their “digital dictionaries”, as Altenberg calls them. Traditional dictionaries have also found their way onto the centre of the large table.

“Let’s make a start, my dears,” says Altenberg. She distributes worksheets to the 15 to 17-year-olds. The young people read the text with furrowed brows, their eyes wandering around the room from time to time. “Learning the language is the first and most important step towards having a chance in Germany,” says Altenberg. This is the reason she gives beginners’ lessons here twice a week – on Monday evenings and Saturday mornings. “Attendance isn’t mandatory but most of them come every time,” she explains. Altenberg is busy preparing curricula and exercise sheets for the young people, even just before her exams. Haniel donated the dictionaries and other work materials to the mariners’ children’s home. “We are very grateful for that,” says Altenberg.

“You are ill and you get a prescription from your doctor,” Omar writes on the flip chart. Mamadou looks up “prescription” in one of the dictionaries. To his confusion, he realises that this word can have several very different meanings in German. “For non-native speakers, German is a very difficult language with many stumbling blocks,” says Altenberg. “For example, German uses the same words for prescription/recipe, bank/bench, drive around/bypass, introduce/imagine – a lot of vocabulary is very ambiguous.” The other sentences on the recycled paper describe what prescriptions are and how they are ultimately used to obtain medicines. “A sort of guide to living in Germany,” explains Altenberg, as the young people can only stay in the clearing group at Nikolausburg for around six months. “Often, this period first of all has to be used to clarify basic matters and their state of health,” says Altenberg. As they come to Germany without any relatives it is necessary to arrange for guardians to represent them. After these six months, Altenberg explains, “They should develop as individuals here and learn about the European understanding of values so that they have fewer problems at school or in their careers, should they be allowed to stay in Germany.” 

Language lessons are therefore very important, but Alfa, Omar, Mamadou and Mali have also quickly grasped something else. They vote in favour of more lesson time rather than taking the scheduled break. “That’s how it is here in Germany – we vote democratically,” adds Zarah, half joking, after the unanimous vote. However, after two hours of full concentration and no break everyone is looking forward to a well-earned evening off. 


The language funding project in the mariners’ children’s home ran as described above. According to Caritas, various developments led to the project being rethought and relaunched in a modified form as of September: firstly, fewer refugees are coming to Germany; secondly, the processing is being handled more quickly, which results in an even shorter length of stay for the refugees. According to Caritas, the situation of refugees from African countries, in particular, is less hopeful. This is having an effect on their attitude to learning and willingness to integrate. Its work with young people is proving increasingly difficult, as they are moved into facilities immediately after entering the country without any language skills and little prospect of a school education. Caritas is trying to focus its work with young refugees on integration and teaching German skills, cultural techniques and an understanding of society.