Global Dialogues

Speech Deficits: A Young ‘Other’ and his Mother in Berlin

“Each sixth kindergarten child has a speech deficit” announced the Monday headlines on the front cover of the Berlin’s Tagesspiegel. The subtitle reads: despite immense investment in Berlin’s kindergartens, there is very little improvement. The biggest problem is in NeuKoelln [the neighborhood with the largest number of migrants in the city].

The opinion page, with the cover “speechless,” describes the “problem” even better:  directing the responsibility to “education politicians,” the anonymous writer says: even after many years of visiting the Kindergarten (it is free from age 3 in Berlin, and heavily , wonderfully subsidized otherwise), more than 3,700 children of Berlin, one year before they go to school, have significant speech deficits.  Among children with “non German Origin” the number is 34%. That op-ed ends with the sentence: “now time presses: society cannot afford to give up even one of these children before school begins.”

This makes me think of the classic catholic definition of Limbo, of the newborn that dies before they even get baptized by the church, but also about the excellent ethnography by Haim Hazan, the Limbo People—where he talks about the liminality of the elderly in a Jewish old age home in London. There I learned how time is organized to exclude them, over and over again, from partaking in what is otherwise life by, most significantly, obliterating the future, which in turn helps them ‘cope’ with the end of life.

Back to the Tagesspiegel article: The reader is led to conflate a child’s ability to speak at all with that ability as it is measured by the German test in the German language. The reader is also morally implicated as speechless, herself, facing the disappointing outcomes in language-abilities despite the investment. Then, proposes the newspaper op-ed, after we approach families with “remote education” problems, after we let their children register to the kindergarten when they are one year old and after we qualify teachers to better serve their needs, we need to direct our gaze to the families— “things go wrong there” (in direct translation from the German). Where do things go wrong?

We happen to be one of those families, so I can write about what a very privileged version of two “white” academics experience with a child at this age. Our five years old son speaks three languages and about a year ago was deemed as having “speech deficits” in German. We, then living in a part of town that has the least problem, in the former East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, were also asked whether we heard of autism and very sensitively—that perhaps the problem is inherent in our language. Perhaps we do not speak clearly some consonants with which our son had issues.  From this we also learn that unification is finally a success story: the former East isn’t inherently a problem unless it is also poor, added Die Welt on the issue.

A few months later, we switched to a multi-lingual kindergarten across town in the former West Berlin that speaks all the languages (Hebrew, German, English) that our son speaks. We went Jewish, basically.

He loves it, but about two months ago we were summoned to the kindergarten and told that he has both speech and also social issues, that perhaps something is wrong with his brain and that he’ll possibly need another kind of school. Professionals should test him. We agreed and they did, four times, and found that the child is quite intelligent and likes to play on his own and do math. The doctor who tested our son first was perhaps the most telling. He showed culture-specific pictures that our son then needed to describe. The best example was a picture of an old man carrying a sack with round figures inside. On the right hand side was an apple tree, the left- a flower garden. Our son said—in the backpack there are flowers. The medical doctor, a cool looking guy a little bit older than me, told our son that in Germany many kids say that this the man is carrying a sack of potatoes. He then looked at me and said—perhaps your husband, the philosopher, would be able to explain your son’s answer.

It was indeed an existential question for us all (I, the sociologist, wanted to explain under which circumstances I am spoken to like that and my son fails to recognize the core of the local culture, but remained silent). The doctor then asked what we heard earlier—perhaps in your language there is no L and Sh. Then, confused, I said- but I just told you we speak English (and Hebrew). When we agreed that it would be best for our child to stay another year in the kindergarten, he asked me “will you send him there”?

I said of course. He is very happy in the kindergarten. I then heard: “well, some people with migration background (we do not name the monster “migrant,” mostly because the child in question is often third generation German born) when they hear that the child will not go to school [in the year dictated by their date of birth] say that it is too hard for them to send them anywhere.” I assured him that this will not be the case and thought what kind of a threat, and an assumption, it is on our working hours?

The unintelligibility of the migrant as a total other is so severe, so pronounced, that Berlin tries time and again to save the children from this fate, and fails. This ‘deficit’ is described in terms in language as such, and never in terms of potency, of multi lingualism. Without language these families have no history, or the wrong one. In the US and in the migrant country I come from, Israel, I know many people—some of whom teach in universities—that have no one mother tongue. But that never made their parents suspect in the way it does in Berlin. Our solution was to let the professionals assess the child, intervene, and make sure that we stay powerful enough when it comes to the definition of the situation. I cannot imagine what a less recognizably “western” mother goes through when she is first approached with stigmata—she is not catholic, she does not have Goffman and the Limbo People (even if she read them, she is not heard anyway) and she perhaps does not have time to read the newspaper articles in the very same Tagesspiegel that reveal that boys can get cured of autism.

  • Silke

    When I told your story to a friend this morning, she shared her experience with her, now 9 years old son. Native German (we now call them “biogerman”, have you heard that expression), both parents academics. The son was found deficient in the German language when he was five years old. It was only by chance during the deficiency-focused conversation with the parents, that the doctor’s assistant spoke to the little boy in Turkish. It turned out that he understood her perfectly but did not respond in Turkish. It turns out that not even the parents knew that the boy’s favorite kindergarten teacher would speak a lot of Turkish with the kids. He was passively fluent in Turkish but found “deficient” in German. The parents refused any other “treatment” of the kid.
    It is indeed shocking to see how our education institutions in Germany are unwilling and unable to appreciate diversity. There has been quite some progress at the pre-primary level in recent years (though neither your example nor mine testifies to that), but very depressing from the primary school level. Unfortunately there is no recognition that the investment in language support “Sprachfoerderung” may be systematically malprogrammed because of this focus on deficiency.