Multilingualism and education

Language Ideologies in Germany and South Africa

Multilingual or Semilingual? © istockphoto/Julia Nichols

As part of the “Scholars in Residence” program, the Goethe-Institut has teamed up with the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (KWI) to support reciprocal visits by young international researchers in the humanities, cultural and social sciences. Susanne Becker of the Goethe University Frankfurt / Main and Yolandi Ribbens-Klein of the University of Cape Town are currently participating in the program 2012/2013, in the German-South African Year of Science. The scholars are focusing on ideologies of language in Germany and South Africa in their doctoral projects.

Susanne Becker initially wanted to explore what connections the children or grandchildren of Turkish immigrants to Germany have to Turkey. But during the course of research for her thesis, a new topic began to surface: “Many interviewees related how they used their language skills in Germany, but that they rarely received credit for it,” says the 31-year-old sociologist. Susanne Becker also observed that children with a Turkish or Arabic migration background found little recognition in preschools in Munich, in terms of their linguistic resources, while in the trendy district of Schwabing, by comparison, there is a plethora of bilingual preschools in which (apart from German) English, French and Spanish is spoken. She decided to take a closer look at the different ways multilingualism is evaluated.

English or Turkish? Multilingual or Semilingual?

Kapstadt, Südafrika © istockphoto/Agnieszka Gau

For her PhD project, Becker spent several months at preschools and social institutions in Munich to observe how people deal with languages and multilingualism. She conducted interviews with residents of different neighborhoods, teachers and people who are especially committed to fostering an appreciation for multilingualism. She also has collected numerous newspaper articles on the topic. Although she has only just begun an analysis of her empirical data, she is able to give a report on some early observations: “I find it interesting that over and over people construe something as a language, which, in fact, from a linguistic perspective is not one: for example, people talk about ‘African’ or ‘Indian’. Furthermore, I’ve noticed that those who have some knowledge of English or French are often spoken of in terms of being ‘multilingual’, while Turkish or Arabic is associated with being semi-lingual’, i.e., such a person doesn’t really have a command of any language.” Becker suspects that such constructions can be explained mainly through power relations that had been created within a postcolonial context: “Germany was, and is, part of a world system that benefits from its hegemonic position. This is the main reason I am planning to use postcolonial theories as a framework for the interpretation of my data.”

Insider or outsider? Rolled R or Guttural R?

As a participant of the Scholars in Residence program, Becker works together with her South African colleague Yolandi Ribbens-Klein. Taking the example of the South African town Pacaltsdorp, the 34-year-old scholar is exploring how local identities are constructed and the ways in which these identities influence how language is used. In the city, there are people who call themselves Boorlinge, which translates roughly as "locals." According to Ribbens-Klein, the Boorlingen refers to people who have been living in the city since their birth and whose families have had their roots there for centuries. People who have recently moved to the city are called Inkommers, i.e. “immigrants”. While these Inkommers only use the rolled R, the so-called Boorlinge have a command of both a guttural-R and rolled R. “When speaking with close friends or with the family the Boorlinge use the guttural-R. Because the guttural-R is stigmatized in Afrikaans as a non-standard language, they often switch to the rolled, R depending on the situation and partner. According to Ribbens-Klein, this specific sound represents a resource that people can take advantage of to reflect a particular identity: “They don’t just speak in a certain way because they come from somewhere, but also because they want to show where they feel they belong.”

Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich © LMU

Currently, Ribbens-Klein is spending two months at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich where Becker is a lecturer. The South African has participated in a reading course at the university, featuring texts by scholars from all over Africa, and she has learned a great deal, for example, from the Nigerian linguist Innocent Chiluwa of the Covenant University in Nigeria. Soon she will present her own research data to a group of doctoral students and give a guest lecture in one of their courses. In February 2013, Becker will begin her residency at the University of Cape Town. She hopes to gain a different view of her data through conversations with the scholars there. “Through its history, South Africa has a very different approach to multilingualism than Germany, even if it is not unproblematic or less racist. Today there are eleven official languages in the Constitution and it is part of everyday life to deal with a multitude of languages, while in Germany we have attempted to uphold the ideology of ‘one language – one nation.’ This monolingual environment has certainly shaped my scholarly work and the stay abroad is hopefully a chance to break out of these structures.”

Susanne Becker and Yolandi Ribbens-Klein are participating in the “Scholars in Residence” program 2012/2013 and working in the research theme “Migration and Integration”.

Janna Degener
is a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Zaia Alexander
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
März 2013

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