Multilingualism in Germany

Checking the Facts

Till Woerfel

People have always had strong emotional responses as far as language is concerned. The current debate on gender-appropriate and non-discriminatory language is a good example of that. Another example arises in the field of education. In education, language competencies are undoubtedly key. However, multilingualism is repeatedly and erroneously cited as a risk factor for educational achievement.

In spite of numerous attempts both by scholars and people working in the field to provide clarification about the topic of multilingualism, there remain a lot of uncertainty and lack of knowledge about multilingualism and growing up multilingually. In a "Fact check" (available in German), I have therefore attempted to compare established international research with current scientific findings from German-speaking countries in order to answer the most frequently and controversially discussed questions on this topic.

I summarize them briefly here.

Is it true that multilingual children are overwhelmed when they learn several languages at the same time?

  • Children who grow up multilingually are by no means overwhelmed or confused if they learn several languages simultaneously or successively in early childhood. On the contrary, they benefit from it. Studies show that knowledge of a language or experience with learning a new language benefits the acquisition of additional languages. This is also true for children and young people who only become multilingual through the acquisition of foreign languages at school. They too can use their more pronounced meta-linguistic awareness and their experience of language learning to their advantage in the acquisition of additional foreign languages.

Is it true that children who learn several languages at the same time do not learn any properly?

  • There is no evidence that children who learn several languages at the same time do not learn any of them properly. It is important to understand the factors that lead to individual differences in language development in the different languages. These include the timing of language acquisition, the quantity and quality of linguistic input a child receives in each language, and how often and in what contexts the languages are used and promoted. All of this can lead to different linguistic profiles, which may change over the course of a lifetime.

Is it true that parents promote their children's language skills best when they speak German with them at home, even if they themselves have a different first language?

  • Multilingual parents do not automatically promote their children's language skills best by speaking the school language with them at home, even if they themselves have another first language. Parents who think they have to refrain from speaking a certain language with their child sometimes create a type of artificial interaction. In general, language acquisition is supported if caregivers speak to their children in the language in which they themselves feel most comfortable. This may be more than one language, or it may be the language in which parents can best express their feelings.

Do educators or teachers need to be multilingual themselves to be able to promote children's multilingualism?

  • Yes and no. No, because monolingual educators can plan learning environments and learning opportunities in such a way that family languages can be included. One way of achieving this, for example, is through the regular and normalized use of various languages in class discussions. Teachers may also encourage the use of students' family languages when they are co-working on a task in class. Yes, because in bilingual day-care centers and schools, in bilingual and foreign language instruction, and in the teaching of heritage languages, it is essential that educators and teachers are proficient in students' family languages or the foreign language taught. Ideally, the staff themselves are multilingual and have competence in the dominant language, e.g., German in Germany, as well as knowledge of children's and young people's bilingual and multilingual acquisition processes and their characteristics.

What multilingual models have been effective at the school or classroom level?

  • The most effective multilingual support is provided by bilingual school and teaching models that include different language pairs and that employ multilingual staff. Although the effectiveness of such bilingual programs has long been in evidence at the international level, they are still rare in Germany. The examples of the school experiment Bilingual Primary School Classes in Hamburg and the bilingual State European School in Berlin (SESB) show that both multilingual and monolingual pupils benefit from such models. There is also evidence that translanguaging approaches, which allow teachers to take into account learners' multilingual resources in classroom communication, have positive effects on students' subject learning outcomes, e.g., in chemistry or mathematics.

About the Author

Dr Till Woerfel holds a PhD in Linguistics and is a researcher, speaker and trainer in the fields of language education, multilingualism and digital transformation. His work focuses on which approaches to language education are effective for monolingual and multilingual learners, and how digital teaching/learning tools can support (multilingual) learning.

He currently researches and teaches at the Mercator Institute for Language Development and Second Language at the University of Cologne.

More Info

Translation

The mural (picture above) translates to: Just you and me. Happy the whole life through. Let's live eternity.

License CC BY SA 4.0 (c Till Woerfel)

Bild von einer Antwaltskanzlei mit Schild auf zwei Sprachen
License CC BY SA 4.0 (c Till Woerfel)

The "Fact check" on Multilingualism in kindergarten and school by the Mercator Institute for Literacy and Language Education is available for download and includes more detailed answers. We encourage you to pass it on to anyone who is interested and eager to learn more on the subject.

Faktencheck Download in German

RESEARCH METHOD USED

This "Fact check" is based on a non-systematic literature review. The current state of research was determined by means of structured queries in databases, by hand search and the snowball principle. In addition, an expert consultation was carried out (see the imprint to the "Faktencheck"). All bibliographic information can be viewed and downloaded.

Bibliographic Information

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