About 430,000 people living in Canada speak German as a mother tongue. Every Saturday, thousands of children and teenagers attend classes at German language schools across the country. In the Canadian capital, German students don’t only learn the language, they also strengthen their confidence, build a network with opportunities, and improve their adaptability.

Saturday morning, time for German school.

“Wachet auf, wachet auf, es kräht der Hahn! Wake up, wake up, the rooster is crowing,“ sings Birgit’s mother, opening up the curtains in the children’s room. It’s a typical start into the weekend at the Isernhagen’s house in Ottawa, back in the 1980s. At the breakfast table, Birgit and her sister Colette munch on German buns, cheese and cold cuts. It’s time to go to German school. Last night, they had finished their German homework and practiced their reading with books their grandmother had sent from Europe.

After breakfast and a 30-minute drive, the sisters enter the German Language School in the heart of Ottawa, which hums and buzzes with families from all walks of life. Eager for the beginning of class, Birgit and her best friend Corinna head to the classroom where their teacher Frau Mantsch is waiting for them.

Opening its doors in October 1971, the German Language School Ottawa started with volunteers teaching about 35 students. Many of them were the second generation of German immigrants and wanted to maintain their culture and language. Today, 45 years later, the school has expanded to an established second language school with more than 150 students. Worldwide, approximately 15.4 million people study German as an additional language and acquire a strong confidence, versatility, and a network with opportunities to study and work abroad.

“Once you learn a different language, it helps you adapt better [and understand] your first language better, because you learned how to gather information and analyze things, and learned how to understand it,” says Elmira Khani, a student at the German Language School in Ottawa.

“I think once you do that in more than just one language, it becomes a part of you and it’s a lot easier to learn new things.”

The high school senior was born in Germany, where her parents had studied and were living for years. Her mother is originally from South Korea, her father from Iran. German and English have been the two languages spoken in her family. When the Khani family moved to Canada, they wanted to keep up their German. Elmira went to a bilingual school in Winnipeg, where half of the day’s classes were taught in English, the others in German. Since Grade 7, she has been attending the German Language School in Ottawa. She says in a globalized world, knowing different languages will be good for career and personal growth.

"I think it’s great that people are able to speak a second language, because then you can communicate with so many more people. That is one of the things that motivate me to keep learning it," says Elmira.

Christian Ringwald and Paul Krügel grew up speaking German from the cradle. Both want to study in Germany later. Christian will be starting prep courses for his DSD 1, a recognized German language diploma that prepares students who want to study in Germany.

“We still learn something new every time,” says Christian. “We can also help others when they have a question.”

Paul and Christian are not the only students in their class who know German from childhood on. Their classmates’ family backgrounds are German, Swiss and Austrian, but also Canadian, among other nationalities. It’s a mix of different cultures and different levels of German, which creates challenges for their teacher Aniela Heubach.

The young woman has been teaching at the German Language School Ottawa since September 2015. She designs classes to cover the elements of the German language combined with cultural studies. The students work a lot in groups and present regularly in front of the class.

“I think you can learn most through conversations and using the language,” says Aniela. “Because grammar alone doesn’t automatically enable you to use the language.”

Saturday school, she says, is a great support to learn the language. Students meet others their age and develop their networks, which offers other ways to practise their language skills.

“Friendship is one of the biggest motivations to learn a new language.”

Looking back of how her years at the German Language School Ottawa have helped Birgit Irsenhagen throughout her career, she remembers opportunities to use her German at every job she had. She translated scientific articles and material and spoke with visitors and guests at her various workplaces.

The capability of the mind to switch between two languages, she says, helped her to live both her German and Canadian lifestyle.

“What would I say to someone who’s considering sending their child to a Saturday school? I’d say go for it! I think you’ll become a stronger person, both as a parent and as a child, because there are so many things to experience. It will just enrich your life and you’ll have something that you can take with you for the rest of your life and build on that.”

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