Learning German in the Zurich School System -for non-German parents

Back to school! - by Mirjam Egli-Rohr

I hope everybody has had a good start. Some of your children have just made their first steps in the public school. So depending on their level of German, you have already learnt about DaZ.

For those who are not yet familiar with it or would like to learn more about how to support their children’s learning progress in German, here’s a short summary:

Around a third of all young learners in the canton of Zurich speak a language other than German in their family.  As is so often the case in Switzerland, the approach for learning German for foreigners varies by canton and even municipality. So it’s best to approach the school early and actively to find out the details.

German learning in the canton of Zurich is organised as DaZ (“Deutsch als Zweitsprache”= German as a second language).  In kindergarten, the additional support consists of not more than
2-4 extra lessons by a qualified DaZ teacher even if the child has no prior knowledge of German.
This is not a lot but considering the fact that most language learning is achieved through daily playing and interaction between the children, it’s a reasonable start.

This is different on primary and secondary school level. Here, children with no prior knowledge of German have DaZ every day, often for about a year. It is 2-4 lessons for learners who already have a basic understanding of German.

The idea is to invest a lot at an early stage in order to enable the learners to take part in normal class lessons as soon as possible. When you or your child’s teacher think your child needs support, the teacher will set up a parent-teacher meeting to evaluate your child’s current level in a so-called SSG, (“Schulisches Standortgespräch”) This will be repeated periodically to monitor the progress of the DaZ.

Depending on the municipality, the amount of children in need of DaZ and to be honest the capacity of the teachers, the support starts right away or after a waiting time.

How can you support your child?

The ‘Bildungsdirektion of the canton of Zurich’(Department of Education) suggests the following:

"- Demonstrate to your child that both your own first language and the German language are of value and importance.
- Encourage your child's language development by talking to them often about different topics in the language you feel most comfortable speaking - it is often your first language.
- Make the most of opportunities to use German. Your child will learn a lot of German from being with German-speaking children in the playground, in play groups, in daycare, in afterschool clubs, sports clubs, in scouts etc.
- Borrow books, audio books, educational games and other audiovisual material from your local library. Look at picture books with your child and read books to them, making sure your child reads a lot themselves.
- Provide your child with a quiet place at home where they can do their homework on a regular basis.
- Keep in touch with your child's teacher. Talk to them openly about how your child's language and learning is progressing and about their well-being.”

You see that the basic idea is that in order to become competent in German, a child’s native language must be well developed. So the focus is on the child’s overall language development and general interest in language, both written and spoken.

Some municipalities, above all the town of Zurich, offer so-called HSK- classes (”Kurse in heimatlicher Sprache und Kultur”= classes in the language and culture of the country of origin), like Swedish, Chinese, Italian, though not in English.

First language (or first multiple languages) vs. German

In playgroups I have so often overheard mothers worrying about their children’s German. And as a teacher I have seen numerous examples of children picking it up amazingly fast. So I’m still
convinced that the language you should rather worry about is their native language (or multiple first languages if that’s the case). Keep organising playdates and activites with other families of the same native language and if it’s English, keep coming to the WAC . Just
make sure that the first language stays an active and vivid language and not just one they only maintain in a scholastic surrounding. Quite a challenge with one, even more with
multiple languages…

A remark on Swiss German

From experience I can assure you that it is far less difficult for children to deal with Swiss German than for adults. Being around their classmates they immerse themselves in the everyday language and after a very short time become fluent regarding expressions
used in daily life (okay, including some you don’t want them to learn…) and from there their knowledge expands.  But sure I agree; it would be much easier if the schoolyard language
was also High German.

If you’re interested in more insights into life in Switzerland and have questions like “What’s
the idea behind all the playing instead of proper learning in school?” join us for our next
seminar at the WAC. 

Mirjam runs the popular HOW THE SWISS WORK seminars that take place half-yearly at the WAC in Uster.

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