This article has been published in Enabling Education Review 4
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Title: Cultural interpreters in German pre-schools
Author: Bowden, R
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2015

Cultural interpreters in German pre-schools

Rachel Bowden

Globally, millions of children are displaced by war or other crises. In such situations, accessing education is a big challenge, yet participation in learning is essential for supporting children during these difficult times and giving them opportunities for the future. Here, Rachel looks at an innovative early years project in Germany to support and include some of the large numbers of refugee children who have arrived in the last year.


Unprecedented numbers of refugees have come to Europe in 2015. Germany is set to receive 800,000 people by the end of the year, including Syrians and others escaping war. The refugee situation is having a direct impact on schools and pre-schools in Germany.

“We want a ‘welcome culture’ for all children, whether they are from the local neighbourhood or other countries. Different cultures bring great potential for learning and sharing. However, to achieve this we need to be able to talk to each other.” (Director, after-school centre)

The pilot project
The Technical University of Dresden has a number of international researchers. Their spouses are helped to find work by the university’s Dual Career Service (DCS).

DCS has recently worked with Dresden city council to help some of the researchers’ spouses become ‘cultural interpreters’. The cultural interpreters have been placed in three pre-schools and one after-school centre. They will help these institutions to respond to and benefit from the increased cultural diversity they are experiencing. The pilot for this initiative runs from August to December 2015.

“Our idea is, with the help of the cultural interpreters, to build a welcoming culture in our centre, where children, parents and staff value the difference and diversity of others as an enrichment for all.”
(Pre-school director)

The cultural interpreters are contracted as childcare assistants. Their duties vary, depending on their language and other skills and experience, and on the needs, interests and priorities of the school/centre.

“The children asked me ‘Why do you wear a headscarf? Where do you come from? What is Islam? What is religion?’ From these questions we’ve had some interesting discussions with the children and staff.” (Cultural interpreter)

Cultural interpreter tasks include:

  • translate messages and conversations
  • arrange regular consultations with parents, staff or children
  • work with children in a shared language
  • accompany recently enrolled children through their induction period
  • present aspects of their culture to staff, children and parents
  • run activities based on aspects of their own culture, such as songs, music, stories, clothes, festivals, food, dance, and language
  • organise events where children, staff or parents share aspects of culture
  • facilitate communication between staff and parents on general topics such as sleep, dress, food, and behaviour management.

During an induction period the cultural interpreters familiarise themselves with the children, staff and systems in the school/centre. Their specific activities are then agreed, where possible with input from different stakeholders.

“In September we had a workshop with all the staff about the role of the cultural interpreter. The staff were engaged and had lots of good ideas. It really encouraged me in my work.” (Cultural interpreter)

The cultural interpreters keep a record of their activities and meet weekly at the university, for monitoring, support and reflection.

A key challenge in establishing the cultural interpreter role has been communication, and ensuring that everyone understands the role in the same way. One cultural interpreter explained that she saw herself as a cultural interpreter above her role as a childcare assistant, while colleagues had seen her as a teaching assistant first.

Other communication-related challenges have included:

  • Opportunities to communicate with staff and parents differ greatly between institutions.
  • Some staff felt that cultural interpreters lacked understanding of how the school is organised, and consequently found their behaviour unprofessional at times.
  • All cultural interpreters are competent German speakers, but some have lacked confidence in using the language skills, inhibiting communication.
Reflections from an after-school centre

“The cultural interpreter has daily chats with parents who speak Arabic. These often begin with questions from the parents. She has also worked with me to interpret during parents’ meetings and translate letters to parents.”

“The international children require help and support with the German language. The culture interpreter encourages children with limited German to get involved in activities. She gets involved with painting and crafts, which supports the children to be creative. This can help children unload their trauma, which is particularly important for those coming from conflict-affected areas.”

“For our teaching staff the cultural interpreter is an on-site partner, which saves time and money in hiring another interpreter. Staff feel she has particularly helped with integrating children who come from conflict areas, and she has helped other staff become more familiar with Arabic culture. She actively shares her viewpoint in team meetings.”

“Some German parents were sceptical and concerned to start with. They have since realised that she is a benefit for all the children. Negative comments have stopped, and she is now accepted. Now German parents get on better with Arabic-speaking parents.” (Director of an after-school centre)

Lessons learned
Important lessons have already been learned and recommendations can be made for improving this approach in other schools/centres:

Before placements begin:

  • Increase communication between Dresden city council, the university and schools.
  • Create a basic cultural interpreter role description and share this with staff, children and families.
  • Ensure a transparent recruitment process based on agreed professional competencies.

During induction:

  • Ensure the induction programme covers organisational norms, processes and behavioural expectations.
  • Give cultural interpreters opportunities to share information about their academic, professional and personal backgrounds.
  • Ensure staff, children and families share their priorities and ideas for cultural interpreter activities.

During placements:

  • Enable cultural interpreters, staff, children and families to share ideas for activities and review outcomes.
  • Involve cultural interpreters in regular staff meetings, and in family events.
  • Train cultural interpreters in early childhood development and education theory and practice.
  • Enable cultural interpreters to meet each other.
  • Develop links between schools/centres that have cultural interpreters, so they can share learning.

Rachel is an inclusive education research assistant at Technical University Dresden. Contact:

A drawing created by refugee children © Rachel Bowden
A drawing created by refugee children © Rachel Bowden