Eastern Germany Picks Up Polish for Children's Future - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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For decades, Poles saw Germany as the land of opportunity. Now, for eastern Germans, that role has been reversed — and they're getting their kids to learn Polish.

By Denise Hruby and Marta Kasztelan

  • East German schools are picking Polish over French and Spanish as their second language, as families eye the eastern nation for their economic future.
  • Their sense of neglect from Berlin and Poland’s rapid economic rise are fueling this shift.

Under the dome of a round, friendly kindergarten building in an otherwise gloomy area of eastern Germany, some 20 educators spend Saturday morning discussing bilingual education — and not once does anyone mention English, French or Spanish. Instead, German-language posters here advise students to “Secure advantages with Polish” — and feature maps of the German-Polish border region with bullet points explaining why Polish gives children a head start.

“It’s really become so much more popular, especially in the past 10 years,” says Olaf Lejeune, head of the Randow-Spatzen kindergarten in the eastern German village of Löcknitz, as he stands next to a coatrack with images of bananas and strawberries, spelled out in German and Polish. A 10-minute drive from the Polish border, the school’s teachers chat, play, and sing with 150 children in Polish and German.

The Randow-Spatzen isn’t alone in prioritizing Polish over English, French or Spanish. It’s part of a deeper shift taking hold in a part of Germany where decades of slow economic development have pushed those with means to seek a new future far from their homes, leaving behind an aging population in ever more desolate villages and towns. Many here feel the federal government in Berlin has abandoned them, but now, their gaze is turning to the east. Once a source of cheap, unskilled labor and affordable cigarettes, Poland has developed into Eastern Europe’s economic powerhouse since joining the borderless EU in 2007. Now, more and more eastern Germans are betting on Poland as their hope for a brighter future — if they spruce up their language skills. 

Every parent who wants their kid to be well-equipped for the job market should be excited if they learn Polish.

Patrick Dahlemann, state secretary for Western Pomerania

The first Polish textbook for German high school students was approved in 2009, a year when just over 500 students in the eastern German province of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania studied Polish. Today that number has nearly tripled to 1,300 students, and demand is growing, according to the provincial education ministry. In some of the 20 schools now offering Polish classes, traditional foreign languages like Spanish and French are taking a back seat. 

“Every parent who wants their kid to be well-equipped for the job market should be excited if they learn Polish,” says Patrick Dahlemann, the state secretary responsible for the border region of Western Pomerania.

GERMANY-HEALTH-VIRUS-SCHOOL

A classroom at the Petri primary school in Dortmund, western Germany.

Source INA FASSBENDER/Getty

For sure, the region’s changing demographics are a part of the reason for the growing demand for Polish in schools. Increasingly priced out of their own cities, Poles are already buying fixer-uppers in provinces like Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where some villages now boast a Polish population of 20 percent and more. A decade ago, about 10 percent of children at the Randow-Spatzen school had at least one Polish-speaking parent, Lejeune estimates. Today, that figure has risen to 50 percent. 

But Germans, too, are becoming more eager to learn their neighbors’ language, says Dahlemann. Eastern Germans are beginning to recognize that they’re missing out on the economic opportunities in Poland — particularly in Szczecin, a city boasting a population of almost half a million people, a dynamic job market, modern shopping malls, art exhibits, concerts and movie theaters. Situated right on the other side of the border, it’s closer and easier to reach than any German city of comparable size. Western Pomerania, Dahlemann says, is becoming a suburb of Szczecin.

“Szczecin is the great opportunity, and people are feeling that more and more,” he says. “Now, the urge of people to learn Polish, even after work hours, is immense, and the language classes are packed: Never before have this many people wanted to learn Polish.”

But there’s plenty of room for growth — in Poland, close to half of the school kids are currently learning German as a foreign language, more than anywhere else in the world. “That’s why our proclaimed goal is that every young person who goes to school here should have the chance to learn Polish,” says Dahlemann.

Getting Germans excited about studying Polish hasn’t been easy. When Lejeune started, he says, some German parents bristled at the thought of their children learning the language. But as they took trips to partner kindergartens in Szczecin, participated in soccer matches for kids’ clubs from both sides of the border and watched Polish families fix dilapidated houses, their worries turned into elation over a brighter future, enabled by Poles.

“German parents aren’t just crossing the border to buy cheap cigarettes, but for culture and concerts and everything else they offer,” Lejeune says. “Now, it’s the parents who are pushing us to do more.”

This story was supported by a “Reporters in the Field” cross-border grant, hosted by n-ost and the Robert Bosch Foundation. 

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