Gudrun Steinacker was born in Düsseldorf, in 1951. She has studied History and Social Sciences in Munich, Münster and Belgrade. From 1978 until her retirement in 2016, she has worked in the German Diplomatic Service, in New York (UN), Zagreb, Strasbourg (Council of Europe), Oslo, Vienna (OSCE), Moscow, Sofia, Consul General in Novosibirsk, Ambassador in Skopje and Podgorica. She is Vicepresident of Südosteuropa Gesellschaft (South East Europa Association), Programme Director for Western Balkans, International Training for Diplomats, Federal Foreign Office Berlin; she is also Member of the Board of Trustees Foundation Euronatur, committed to the conservation of nature in Europe. We are publishing the keynote speech she gave at the International Conference on Multicultural Education organized by LOJA Centre.

Learning the culture of the Other

By Gudrun Steinacker

The German-French Youth Office is an organization in Germany and in France, with enormous practice in German-French exchange and cooperation between young people from the two countries. It started in 1963 and included since the nineties cooperation with third countries and of course also learning the language of the other.

I would like to talk here about my personal experience, when I was posted at the German representation to the council of Europe in Strasbourg. Officially, the relationship between France and Germany in general and particularly in the earlier troubled border region of Alsace was excellent, Thanks to the German-French Youth Office, we had exchange and cooperation between young workers and students on both sides. Nevertheless due to the history in this complicated border region in Alsace  on the French side few people spoke German, although the Alsatian dialect is close to German  and on the German side few learned French. It was quite difficult for young French, for young Alsatians, to learn German or French in the school during the first two decades after the Second World War. A regional French politician, Alain Dejean, himself not from Alsace, decided to change this. He was responsible for education and took the initiative with the German colleagues on the other side of the border to promote the learning of the language of the other country in pre-school and elementary schools. This was called learning the language of the neighbour. Thus, there were German language training courses from pre-school through elementary school on the French side and similar courses on the German side. At that time, late 80’s and early 90’s, this was still a courageous step. Fortunately, this developed to such a degree that now on both sides learning French in Germany and German in Alsace has considerably improved, although, and you know this in your own countries, the international language that is used in communication and cooperation between young people is often English. Still, when I look back on what was thirty years ago and where this region stands now, the progress is considerable. When you visit Kehl, which is the closest city, on the German side you hear French by not only French people, but also German inhabitants not least because shopping in Kehl is very popular. On the French side, you will hear people speaking German. Germans constitute the largest number of tourists in Stasbourg, which otherwise is an international city as the seat of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. This was a great success and not least due to education. It was not only about teaching the language, but also about an intercultural approach, learning also about the history, the culture, the traditions etc. on both sides. Now I think people on both sides feel at home on the other side as well.

I also want to mention another example from my own family decades ago. Many of my ancestors from my father’s side lived in Slovakia, which was until 1918 a part of Hungary and belonged to the German minority.  The official language that was taught at school was Hungarian. Since the second half of the 19th century, there was a developed system of education in the mother tongue of the three people who lived then in Slovakia, Slovaks, Hungarians and Germans. But all had to learn Hungarian as the common official language that was the official common language. Gradually the Hungarian language was more and more enforced by the Hungarian authorities. Nevertheless, this was not really bringing the different ethnic groups together.  There was good cooperation on the daily level; people simply live in the same place; but they were living rather besides each other than with each other. And the life in the society, associations, churches, were separated according to the languages. Very few from the German minority and even less from the Hungarian, who were not the majority, but the dominant population, learned Slovak. This only changed after the First World War when Slovakia became a part of the new state of Czechoslovakia. My grandmother was born in the small town Modra (in German Modern) near Bratislava, which Germans called Pressburg and the Hungarians called Pozsony as it is very typical that most towns and places in Slovakia have three names: a Slovak name, a German name and a Hungarian name. While speaking German at home, she learned Slovak before the First World War. Her father was a Protestant minister in Modra and wanted her to learn not only Hungarian, but also Slovak. My grandmother, according to what I know, was very proud to speak the three languages. However, one of her brothers decided to be a very nationalist Hungarian. He moved to Budapest and insisted on only speaking Hungarian. My grandmother lived with her family until the end of the war in Hungary and the moved to Bratislava, As far as I know her brother refused after the war to be in contact with her because he didn’t want to speak German. Thus, the separation of people even within one family because of speaking different languages for nationalist reasons is a longstanding phenomenon, unfortunately until today

I would like to add: if you learn a foreign language and in particular the laguage of your neighbour you are not learning only a language; you are also learning the culture, the history and all aspects of life of a particular ethnic group. I think that in the education system of that time, one hundred years ago, teachers in practice knew how to do it, but there was not a theory, a developed methodology like today. Sometimes it was successful because the teacher understood how to address the issue of learning another language. However, learning languages one hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, was quite different from learning languages nowadays. They did not pay so much attention that you really speak it, but rather that you know the grammar and the vocabulary. But even at that time a part of the population in such a multi-ethnic country like Slovakia understood how important it is to know the language and also the culture of the others – sometimes it was for pragmatic reasons, but the result was very positive. I read only a couple of months ago a book with contributions from different conferences investigating and describing the situation as it was in this respect in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire particularly in the field of education. I read about this practice that owners of restaurants, shops and other businesses sent their children to families of the other ethnic group for months  so that they would learn the language as good as possible, because it was good for their business.  I think that it is interesting to know about it. One could reflect whether this could be something that would be taken up again.

When I came to what is now North Macedonia in 2011 I was aware of the uneasy or difficult relationship between the so-called ethnic Macedonians – I don’t like the expression but it’s difficult to explain it otherwise – and the Albanians, which constitute the second largest group in the country. Germany at that time supported programs to promote interethnic cooperation; the Embassy cooperated with LOJA and with the OSCE  High Commissioner for National Minorities in programs that promoted multicultural education. One of the programs was that future young teachers, Albanians as well as ethnic Macedonians or from any other ethnicity, could participate in a training on the job in intercultural education. Then they would practice for a couple of months ,mostly in NGO’s helping children from disadvantage socials groups to do their homework, many of them being Roma children. They would work and play with these children after school, to help them to better integrate into the education system, which was quite successful. It brought young future Albanian teachers and Macedonian teachers together. I was positively surprised how much the future young teachers liked this training and thought that it was very important for their teaching abilities. Many of them became only then aware of the problems of socially disadvantaged children in the existing schooling system, which did not always consider their problems. This is what is still happening, not everywhere, but in many places. In Germany, in classes which are called integration classes, where newly arrived kids of migrants get gradually in one, two years into the German schooling system. It is not always successful, but they are developing constantly new methodologies, how to address the kids who come to the school and do not know German but do not even have a common language. Therefore, they cannot communicate with each other. Now even official politics admit that Germany is a country of emigration and that is of course still another challenge to integrate such kids in the educational system where the common language by which they will communicate with each other has to be German. This is a learning process for the German educational system.

Coming back to the time, I spent as a diplomat in today North Macedonia. As I mentioned, there were programs, by the High Commission of National Minorities, which were really trying to bridge the separation along the different mother tongues in the country. I was sometimes a little bit disappointed that most Macedonians would not see a reason to learn Albanian. They would send their children to schools where they might learn German, English, French, but not Albanian, and not understanding that this is the language of their own people.

If you are raised bilingually or trilingually as it was the case in my father’s family in Slovakia you have a different mind-set and you’ll have much better precondition to learn even further languages. We have to have a broad view of this very important issue and to convey to the larger population the enormous advantage, the enormous profit one can have by being raised and educated in a multicultural system with different languages and different ways of life