Speechless?

A language-support project for children from immigrant families
Kristin Wardetzky (Project leader)
Christiane Weigel (Support)

1. Socio-cultural environment

In Berlin, especially in areas with high proportions of foreigners, both primary and second-level schools are having to combat worryingly low levels of linguistic competence. Yet, linguistic ability is one of the key competencies for self-determination and active participation in economic, cultural and political life. For this reason, we have established an apparently unspectacular but in the long term tremendously effective project in an area of the city where language problems are threatening to escalate, an area known as Berlin-Wedding.

The African quarter, home to our project school, the Anna Lindh School, is one of the poorest areas of Berlin. Every fifth inhabitant (of which 40% are children under seven) lives on social welfare, and many of these are the third generation of their families to do so. Confined living spaces (a two-roomed flat for a family of five) are the norm, uneducated homes dominate, parents may be illiterate and many cannot buy schoolbooks for their children. Poverty is an everyday experience here.
S.- one of the 176 children taking part in our project – is a thin, 6 years-old, pale girl, who is late every morning, because her mother does not wake her up and she has to get her own breakfast. Even on her birthday, nobody gets up with her and gives her presents. S. has no paintbox and no gym things, although her teacher has written several times to her mother. Nobody pays for her school milk and lunch, but S. has worked out strategies that allow her to get what she needs in semi-legitimate ways. She prefers that to the shame she experiences when a teacher notices that she is missing something. At home, there are, at best, stories from the television. She has been to the cinema twice in her life, with a woman from the youth welfare office who sometimes visits her. ‘She is also a German,’ says S. ‘But I am not Germany. I am Bosnia.’

In the Anna Lindh School up to 90% of the children who take part in the project are non-native German speakers, some of whom need major support. 80% of them were noted as having a poor or inadequate command of the German language when they started school. Their mother tongue – Turkish, Arabic, Serbo-Croat, Russian, Polish, Georgian, Czech, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Hindi – remains the everyday familiar medium of communication, but no more than that. The connection between the language and the cultural heritage of their parents or grandparents has largely been severed. As a rule, the children have a clear sense of their non-German identity, but their relationship to their country of origin remains vague.

The children of immigrant background taking part in the project learn German in two forms: as a formal language in class, and as an everyday sociolect, which overlies or possibly displaces their use of Hochdeutsch or formal German. A not inconsiderable proportion of these children learn another language – classical Arabic, in the Koran schools, in which there is an extremely strict regime.

2. Concept

In this environment, in which even primary schools have to combat serious social, cultural, religious and ethnic problems, we set up our project. Its central purpose is the mediation of the German language through the art of the spoken word – the art of storytelling. This is realised by three professional storytellers who are graduates of the Berlin University of the Arts, Sabine Kolbe, Kerstin Otto and Marietta Rohrer-Ipekkaya. The project is run by the Institute for Pedagogical Theatre of the University of the Arts.

The three storytellers told fairy tales to first- and second-class pupils twice or once a week over a period of two years. International fairy tales were told, primarily tales from the cultures from which the children’s families come. The stories were told, not read. The tales were neither abridged nor simplified. The project insisted on an oral literary language that is clearly differentiated from everyday speech. The stories were deliberately not reduced to a supposedly child-friendly version, and only occasionally were pictures used to support the storytelling. Even the playful sequences were limited. Objects were often used, which afford the children sensory-aesthetic experiences.

In this way, the vocabulary in which the children re-told the stories they have heard, and in which they could make up their own stories, is extended. Over the course of the project, the tables have turned, and the children have increasingly developed as storytellers themselves.

3. Process

The practice of storytelling was at first largely unknown to the children, even those without an immigrant background. Television as omnipresent family entertainer for the most part determines family life. Books of fairy tales or children’s books are hardly ever present in the home.

M. answered the question whether they had books of fairy tales at home in this way: ‘No. But I was sick, and I got a book from the doctor. I often read in it. It has stuff about your throat. That you must always drink and your hand over your mouth.’

In answer to the question whether stories are told at home, J. answered: ‘My mother doesn’t do that. Because she’s always on the phone, sits at the computer, and then it’s dark, we’re in bed. sometimes she promises, but then she forgets again.’

N. says: ‘My mum and dad doesn’t do that. My mum goes to the computer and plays. She goes to the telephone: 660060. Then it’s Carsten’s turn, my dad, and tells about the game. People can fight in it. I find it boring. My mum never tells stories.’

Questions about what the children do in their free time made it clear that they and their parents spend most of their free time watching TV or on the computer. Often, on a Monday morning, the six- to eight-year-olds could tell you all about the crime scene of the previous evening. And if the storytellers asked about the nicest thing they did at the weekend, TV, Gameboy and Playstation usually have pride of place.

Also at school they have no experience in storytelling. Some teachers sometimes read children’s books aloud in the classroom. Most of the teachers hesitate to tell fairy tales. They believe that they are too cruel for children and have an obsolate concept of female behavior. A big amount of prejudices make it difficult to convince them that tariy tales – especially wondertales – are helpful for children zu develop their imagination, their language and to come in touch with their (inner psychological) conflicts.
So what the three storyteller did was very unfamiliar. That must be emphasized to understand the meaning of the project.

When the children started school, their ability to follow an orally transmitted story was only rudimentary. So how did the storytellers make themselves comprehensible to these children? They used, either spontaneously or quite deliberately, the full range of their expressive repertoire, and hoped in this way to bring the children into the world of the story, even if they did not understand particular words. Their narration took on the nature of a performance: they explained unfamiliar concepts or objects not so much with words as with gestures and actions; the trajectory of the story was not only created out of words but hinted at by playing a character or an actions. In this way, understanding was achieved through multiple channels of communication that accompany speech interactively. When a story is told playfully, performed with body and mime, then its words are embedded in a rich network of sense impressions, which is essential in order to experience the story fully.
What is ‘hell’ exactly? what does ‘suspicion’ mean? Where does the prince go when he goes into a ‘chamber’? What kind of ‘lore’ is ‘propagated’? What is Grandma doing when she ‘berates’ Maschenka? For them, a ‘miller’ is a man who takes away the rubbish (since the German word for rubbish is Müll, the same syllable as in Müller, meaning a miller). They associate ‘Donau’ (the word for Danube) with Döner (as in kebabs), the river ‘Spree’ with the word ‘spray’, the word ‘Kohle’ (meaning coal or charcoal) with cola (as in Coca-Cola). Those are just some of the innumerable irritations that come up during storytime, but which are only very rarely directly explained as they would be during German class. At the end of the story, however, the children had usually acquired an understanding of the meaning of the word, and of how to use it, without any explicit explanation. They made up their own translation and own imagies. In the best case, they used the new words or phrases themselves when they retold the story.

In its first few weeks, the project did not look as if it was going to be successful, and we felt dubious rather than triumphant about it. Only the very first storytimes gave any indication that our high expectations might be met – that the storytellers would really be able to win over mostly hyperactive children and children with glaring language problems. At first, the children listened, fascinated, and ended the class with loud clapping and calls for ‘More, more.’

But the magic soon wore off. The humdrum life of the school worked its brutal way into storytime.
Storytime was like a weathervane: one minute the children were concentrating on listening and enjoying themselves, and the next minute there would be uproar and not a chance of finishing the story. It was difficult to make out the reasons for the change. None of the recipes for success that had worked before could be relied upon: the difference between success and failure was balanced on a knife-edge.
The struggle that the storytellers had with this phenomenon of unpredictable disruption took up more time than the storytelling itself. After storytimes like this, there were serious arguments about the value and even the possibility of telling stories in this environment.

Was the concept too demanding? Should the narratives be reduced in favour of playful or other creative interests? Should more visuals be used to aid comprehension? Should the language used be adapted to the everyday language of the children?

4. Results

After about six weeks our attempts began to meet with the first glimmerings of success. After six month the children were listening for up to 40 minutes(!) with visible emotional engagement. They were enjoying the quiet in which you can hear that famous pin drop. They joined in with verses and certain turns of phrases.

The interruptions and questions of the children were increasingly attributable to genuine curiosity and surprise. They no longer expressed their displeasure or their joy at events inarticulately, but verbally, and were more and more driven by the desire to give their feedback in words that imitate the poetic vocabulary of the storytellers. When a new story started, they made more and more frequent references to ones they had already heard. Their witty comments testifed to their observation and their understanding of stories that are sometimes complexly structured.
Especially in comparison with the classes that have come to this only in recent months, the development in understanding of the structures of fairy tales is clear. In one story, the bad king throws a baby into the water. ‘What’s going to happen to the child now?’ the storyteller asked. ‘Maybe it will fall into a a waterfall.’ ‘It’ll die,’ the ‘newbies’ guessed. The same question elicited the following utterances from a class who had been involved in the project since the beginning: ‘But that must have been a lucky child!’ ‘Maybe someone will rescue him.’ ‘Maybe he will grow wings!’ More and more often, the children predict the principles of how the story works. Storyteller: ‘He slept at an old woman’s. But what he didn’t know was …’ ‘J: ‘A witch!’ Storyteller: ‘Having reached the king, he seeks the hand of the lovely princess. M.: ‘Oh, now there will be three tests.’

In retelling the story (which took up more and more of the time after about half a year) it was always surprising what details the children remembered. Children who, when tested at the beginning of the project, could not understand basic words in the German language were now using the most unusual expressions.
Often, in making the effort to re-tell the story, the children were aware of the difference between the language of the storyteller and their own linguistic range. Whereas they got by in everyday life with minimal constructions and without declining nouns or conjugating verbs, dispensing with the future and the past tense (preterite), their linguistic ability let them down when they wanted to express the often complex time structures of the fairy tale, and they wanted to emulate the plasticity of the descriptions used by the storyteller.
I. is one of the boys who clearly suffers from his linguistic limitations when he tells a story. He speaks very slowly, thinks a lot in between, and searches his memory for the right words. He comes across as almost apologetic when he stumbles in his speech. He is afraid of not being able to express things that he obviously has in his head: ‘I understood more. It’s just that I can’t speak the language so well.’ He makes the effort to find solutions within his limitations. In the story he is telling, there is a betrothal at the birth of a boy that is to be fulfilled when he reaches the age of 14. I. tries to use the subjunctive: ‘He will, when he would be 14, then he would marry the princess.’ In other places, he tries to use the preterite (past tense), and uses repetition to reproduce the very long duration of a journey that was particularly emphasised by the storyteller: ‘And he goed and goed and goed to a tree.’

W. speaks only Polish at home and has only been a short while in Germany. She uses the auxiliary verb ‘has’ to create all her sentences; moreover, she uses only the feminine article. Nevertheless, in retelling the stories, she shows a growing feeling for the importance of choosing the right word, and looks hard for words that echo the utterances chosen by the storyteller. The storyteller said, ‘Full of anger, the robber crumpled the piece of paper.’ savouring this ‘crumpling’ (the German word is ‘zerknüllte’), so that one could almost hear the rustling of the paper. But W. can’t quite remember this lovely word, and in trying to find the right sound, she creates a similar sounding ‘word’: ‘He “geknicht” the piece of paper’ – which is meaningless, but echoes the KN sound in ‘zerknüllte’ and also echoes the word ‘geknickt’, meaning bent or folded. An English equivalent might be something like ‘He “crimped” the piece of paper.’ Later in her telling of the story, she took on board some of the storyteller’s original expressions and achieved an unusually high standard of expression for her: ‘He calls these boy and says: I have never before seen these little house! Where are your parents? With whom do you live here?’

As already mentioned, in the course of the project, the children also began to make up their own fairy tales, which they told to their classmates. They evinced a secure command of fairy-tale structures, motifs and images, which they often combined adventurously, in their own stories, with everyday life and with media experiences. Children who, at the beginning of the project, were constantly interrupting each other now listen patiently and respectfully to each other, and they are capable, in second class, of telling little stories, which may be fragmentary but are sometimes coherent. Although the children found it difficult, at the beginning of the project, to create short, one-sentence stories, they gradually came to know the fun of creating and telling stories. Over many months of listening and experimenting, the ability to create exciting stories developed, stories that differ from everyday life.
This development may be illustrated by the four stories of M.:

(1) 08.09.06: Once upon a time in Austria. I drove a car. To the supermarket.

(2) 09.11.06: Once upon a time there was a lovely day. They went out by boat. They were pirates and they were happy. There was a waterfall, they fell down. There were elves and other nice things. The pirates didn’t believe it. That’s the end.

(3) 18.12.06: Once upon a time there was a house, and there was a haunting in it, and when I came in, there was a tree trunk, there was an owl in it. It wanted to eat me. I hit it with the tree trunk, then I buried it. Then a handsome prince came out and I married him.

(4) 11.01.07 Once upon a time there were a man and a woman, they were very poor and wanted to have a little money. The man was always fishing, and the woman cleaned. When the woman went to snatch fresh air, there came a man on horseback. He gave her a bag and said: ‘You can wish something for yourselves, and it will be granted to you. But softly and always into the bag.’ They wished everything for themselves and got rich and lived in a castle. And they gave from their money to all the poor, and then everyone was rich.

Some of the initial problems – and we were not aware of this at first – were not only in the area of language deficiency, the lack of vocabulary, but in the area of the imagination, and this was independent of the ethnic background of the children. For a considerable proportion of the children, their imagination was blocked. Other things occupied their fantasies – often, shockingly, even in the case of first-class pupils, sex and crime. That is to say, the map of these children’s imagination has been drawn, but it shows only readymade images.
At the beginning of the project, the stories that the children made up themselves were marked by violence. The children of one second class were given the task, in one session, of telling tall tales. The children’s stories concerned fights, killings, exploding bombs. Children who were present were often killed off in their classmates’ narratives. S.: ‘He threw a grenade. Exploded. Valentino is died, and his legs were salami. To God they are, and he gave him one last chance. In the house they went. In the house was a bomb. The house explodes.’ The children laughed themselves to death at every explosion, and seemed almost high, which fired up whoever was telling the story even more. Afterwards, the storyteller asked the children if they played at bomb explosions at home. ‘Yes,’ M. answered, ‘on the computer there’s Torpedo. There you can destroy a whole Titanic.’ Storyteller: ‘And you enjoy that?’ A euphoric chorus of ‘Yessss!’ as answer.

This colonisation of the imagination was paralleled by the difficulty the children had in creating images in their heads from hearing the spoken word, in other words, the difficulty they had in translating the heard into the visual, using images they have constructed themselves, not previously ‘given’ images. When one boy called out, ‘Now I can see it all in my head!’ it was like a breakthrough. This ability to see what was told is an indispensable prerequisite for understanding not only what is heard, but especially what is read. Literary education has to do not only with reading-readiness, but in the same way with imaginative ability. And obviously that must be cultivated today – in the digital age – much more diligently than in the ‘Gutenberg age’ (or the age of print). Only then can literature really ‘arrive’ or can a literary text be transformed into individual fantasies, in order to broaden horizons. The access to the world that is mediated by literature is only possible by means of a closely woven network of such individually formed, subjective imaginations.
One of the storytellers began to ask each of the children, after a story, what picture they had in their heads. Though the children were at first completely incapable of creating their own pictures, or at least of describing them, the desire to imagine what had been told developed by degrees, and this was observable also in the re-tellings of the children. M. narrated: ‘Then the grandfather (Daddy Frost from the Russian fairy tale of the same name) come by coach. The coach is gorgeous. Bright white and has a red door and it has a white horse. A feather on top. Put her down, and then came this man. He has a white beard and this light colour. Then he came closer, and then he said, Are you warm? I’m warm. He comes closer: Are you warm? I’m warm. Then third time. And then he put cuddly things for her in it, and she got in.’ Neither the way Daddy Frost looked, nor the fact that he spread out ‘cuddly things’ for the girl had been mentioned by the storyteller.

5. The long term

The long-term nature of this ‘infusion’ with the ‘vitamins’ of language and imagination is effective: after about one year, the children spontaneously act out fairy tales in their plaid after school, and they also plaid at storytelling: one child is the storyteller, and the others listen.
In class, the teachers were amazed at the improvements in the areas of vocabulary, grammatical inflection, fluency and especially at the way the children were more and more able really to listen properly, instead of just half-hearing. “Half-hearing”, said one first-class teacher participating in the project, “they know how to do that from home. ‘Do this … leave that, stop the other’. In one ear and out the other, that’s how it is in their families. But now you can really see that they are starting to listen and to think!”
Listening is a basic prerequisite of human communication and indispensable for learning at school. This is also taught through storytelling. All the teachers who took part, with their children, in the project, described an improvement in concentration, creativity and verbal expressive ability in their pupils. “If we have pieces of reading now, and I say, ‘We’ll just read as far as here, and then you tell me what might happen next?’, then they have so many ideas. And I have the feeling that some children who didn’t talk nearly as much before, they can join in the conversation too.” Another teacher: “And then of course it’s fantastic to observe the children, how they sit there with their mouths open and their eyes shining, and go along with it. That’s really, really lovely. When some children are really in bad form, and they are completely wound up, the way the storytellers are just able, with their art, to calm even these children down, so that they find a kind of inner peace.” Especially children who, in the ordinary classtime, always came across as finding it difficult to concentrate and to learn, benefit from the new situation and the creative, unpressurised access to language and literature. “F., for example, even though he is sometimes so completely undisciplined, the storytellers manage to get him to listen. And now he can formulate proper, coherent sentences, and can express himself well, he has sophisticated ideas, which you wouldn’t expect of him. He has a real fantasy world. But in class, it’s always such hard going” - so said the class teacher.
H. is a boy who, at the age of just eight, has been up before the police, for the second time, because of serious physical attacks in the school yard, and for whom it is impossible to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time in class and concentrate on something. ‘But he is so enchanted with this storytelling project, it is as if he has found an island of relaxation,’ the teacher claims. H. is very calm at storytime, verbal utterances are rare from him. But, especially when the hero is fighting a dragon or some other monster, he is nevertheless visibly involved, physically and mentally, and sometimes it seems as if he finds an outlet for some of his aggressive energy when he turns himself into the hero or the dragon. In interview H. says, he would be embarrassed to tell stories in front of the whole class, but in the more intimate situation of the interview, he starts to tell one story after another. In doing so, he uses recognisable elements from past storytimes. His stories are harrowingly concerned with abandonment, betrayal, persecution and death. An extract: ‘Once upon a time there was a wood. There was only one wild boar. Just one, otherwise, none. It ran, home. No one was there.”Where is Mum?” that’s what he said, though there was no one there. Just said that, called “Mum!”, as loud as he could. Mother came. “Where were you? I was looking for you.” Said the mum: “I was near you all the time.” “But I looked left and right. You weren’t there.” ”‘Then I was above you” “I looked there too.” ”‘Then I was at home.” She lied. And it wasn’t his mother anyway. She had a mask and a suit. She was all dead. The wild boar didn’t know it.’

W. likes telling stories and often does so. Admittedly, it takes time and is difficult to follow what she says in her strong Polish accent. She often leaves out words here and there, and she stumbles. Because of this, the teacher often cuts her off in class, and her classmates avoid contact with her. In interview W. enjoys unhurried attention and re-tells the complex fairy tale from storytime the previous week, with impressive accuracy and with faithful detail. At the end, I have to read out to her what she has narrated, and she is completely surprised and impressed that she has told this whole story by herself. She wouldn’t have believed it of herself, and neither would anyone in her German class.

D. has enormous language problems. He stutters and needs lots of time to re-tell a story. He constantly wants to give up, when the words won’t come out, and he criticises himself. He enjoys it very much that there is enough time for him in the interview and is very proud when I show him how many pages I have filled with my transcription of his storytelling. He can tell the stories well and coherently, uses a lot of images in his narration, and is happy about this: ‘Then came the beautiful princess. What is she called? The princess? Princess Beautiful she could be called.’ When I ask him if he wouldn’t like to tell a story to the other children, he answers, ‘No. I stutter.’

The distance the children had come is striking. We demanded a huge amount of them: listening (almost) without physical/motor activity, to stories of considerable length told in a poetic language unfamiliar to most of the children; images and motifs, which have hardly any analogues in the immediate sensory and intellectual experience of the children. The reasons for the success of the project laid primarily in its long-term nature and the richness of experience that the children were afforded, trusting that, over a long incubation period, the imaginations of these children could be enriched by poetic stories.

The results are – and let’s be absolutely clear about this – related to the professionalism of the storytellers and to the intensity, the regularity and the long-term nature of the undertaking. What the storytellers invested in time, effort and specialism exceeds what a teacher could be expected to provide. Storytelling is a specific art form, which a school can benefit from, if an appropriate space is made for it. In some of our neighbouring European countries, in France, England and Norway, for example, this has already happened. Professional storytellers operate there in schools and introduce the children to the oral and literary tradition of the country – an example of the successful integration of artistic professionalism into the life and learning of school.

6. Sustainability

This project stands alone in the cultural landscape. In order to ensure sustainability, we have applied for funds from various foundations in order to further integrate professional storytellers with their artistic skills as mediators of language and literature into the everyday life of the school. It is planned to extend the project to other local schools in different areas of the city. More storytellers have been preparing for this task since October 06, likewise graduates of the University of the Arts. In regular meetings, they are acquiring a broad repertoire of international fairy tales and myths, as well as the skills to encourage the language competence, the literary sensibility and the creativity of the children.

In addition, eight teachers from the project school took part in a storytelling workshop.
At the University of the Arts in Berlin there are regulary courses in storytelling especially for teachers to encourage them tellin stories and fairy tales in the regular classroom.

Heartfelt thanks to Marie-Agnes von Stechow for her help with our application for third-party funds for the financing of the project and for various kinds of support with regard to content.

Translation by Siobhán Parkinson, Ireland

The project will be comprehensively documented and published in Septmeber 2008 by Schneider Verlag Hohengehren: Kristin Wardetzky/Christiane Weigel: Sprachlos? Erzählen im interkulturellen Kontext. Erfahrungen aus einer Grundschule.