I meant to write more about my experiences in the German High school (Integreirte Gesamtschule, or IGS from here on), but this has been the first week where I have really felt like I know what I’m doing and what I’m supposed to do. But before I share my experiences, I want to talk a little about just how different the German school system is from the American school system. That, too, has taken me nearly a month to figure out.
There are three “tracks” available to students: Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium. Normally, a student finds their way into one of these tracks after the 6th grade. The 3 divisions are based around what a student is good at, and each leads to different kinds of jobs. Students in Hauptschule must only attend school until the 9th grade, and will likely take a job that one might get after attending a trade school in the United States. Students in the Realschule receive a broader range of education and stay in school until 10th grade, after which they can choose to go to a special University in a very limited range of subjects or they can enter the workforce. Gymnasium is oriented towards preparing students for University, and almost all Gymnasium students go to University after taking their 12th or 13th year final exam, the Abitur. But there is also a fourth option, and it’s where my school fits in. Though I’ve been told that it varies depending on which “state” you live in (I live in Rheinland-Pfalz), most young students also have the option of attending a Gesamtschule. The Gesamtschule is basically a combination of the other three schools, and offers classes for every kind of student. This makes the Gesamtschule more like an American middle and high school, and you see a much broader range of competencies and skills.
Primarily, I work with students between 11th and 13th grade, meaning that most of my students have University aspirations. Depending on the week, I work with 6-8 different English classes, and probably 60-90 different students. So far, I’ve been leading small conversations groups with 2-4 students for 10-20 minutes, depending on skill level. And speaking of skill level, I’ve been very impressed so far. Every student I’ve worked with has been learning English since at least 5th grade. I can count on one hand how many students couldn’t or didn’t want to speak English, even in the lower-level 11th grade classes. Excepting those few, every student can communicate at least on a basic level with English, and many are well on their way to mastery. After a few conversations with some of the more advanced students, I’ve realized that the typical student’s perspective about foreign languages is completely different than the attitude I had and observed during my pre-University education. The students see learning English as a matter of course, and there is a sense that being able to speak and understand English is just as important as Physics, Math, or any other major subject.
And they’re probably right to think that way. The students know that in almost every professional field, from education to business to science, English is the dominant language. And since they’re planning to attend University in order to enter those professional fields, they see English as something necessary and relevant to their plans, not as something superfluous or downright useless. I think this is the biggest difference between the American and German attitudes towards learning languages. Americans grow up learning English as their native language, and when they look at job prospects, even on the international scale, they find that they already have mastery over the most important language, which predisposes them to regard foreign languages as inessential to their lives and careers. And native English speakers will be correct in judging thusly, so long as English really is the preferred language of so many fields.
But shouldn’t the American education system be doing everything possible to counteract this attitude? It certainly is not a long-term solution to just hope that English remains the most popular and widely used language in professions. If anything, American educators should see our linguistic position in the world as a head start, giving us the chance to get even farther ahead by learning other languages. But unfortunately, I believe the real attitude is that we don’t need to do any extra work, because we already know the “most important” language. It is precisely this complacency that I believe prevents the United States from adopting a more rigorous and comprehensive attitude towards foreign languages. It seems the prospect of excellence is not enough to drive change in such a large scale – only the unexpected bite of necessity.
Note: Updated 11/25 to add picture of IGS.