The Brain Has Room for Many Languages
It is an old prejudice: multilingualism overtaxes children and they will learn neither their own nor the other language well. Yet recent research has provided evidence for the opposite view: children who grow up multilingual in their early years are more perceptive and intellectually more flexible. Up until a child’s third year, diverse languages are “stored” in only one region of its brain. Its brain functions consequently with particular efficiency. Based on the principle of imitation, children learn several languages just as well and firmly as they do a single one. Researchers speak therefore of “double first language acquisition”.
Yet for optimum linguistic development, children need firm linguistic rules. For bi-national families, it is advisable that each parent consistently speak his or her native tongue in the child’s first 4 to 5 years – for example, the father Turkish and the mother German. The subdivision into a family language and a language of the social surroundings also fosters bilingualism: at home, the language of the parents is cultivated as the first language; in kindergarten and at school, the child learns German.
Good language, bad language?
Multilingualism as a resource for the futureMultilingual children enter a decisive level of development when they begin school. The school language, German, begins to dominate and to become the stronger language. The second native language recedes into the background. Here many language experts see a danger: the stunted development of a native tongue can lead to problems in the family – for example, problems of communication or of alienation from the child’s cultural and linguistic background. The child also loses an important foundation for the future: “To be fluent in two or more languages is an individual and social resource in contemporary Europe”, says the expert on bilingualism Leist-Villis. “The more languages a child speaks, the more means of access to different countries are open to him.”
Possibilities in the educational systemWhen at the beginning of 2006 a Berlin school with a high percent of Turkish-speaking pupils made German the obligatory language in the schoolyard, the protest particularly by language experts and politicians was considerable. How is the multilingualism of children and adolescents to be encouraged if communication in the second native language is prohibited?
Beginning in April 2006, the Goethe Institute, Inc., Düsseldorf, in co-operation with the University of Duisburg, will offer a “Tandem Course: German-Turkish” for bilingual adolescents. The targeted fostering of both languages is intended to improve the professional and general prospects of young citizens from immigrant backgrounds.
is a free-lance journalist
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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