Multilingualism and education

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Introduction To The Focal Subjects

"Multilinguals And Education" – Multilingual Didactics

Multilingual didactics is a relatively recent notion in European and global linguistic didactics and in language teaching/learning research.

Sometimes it is simply used as a new term for the old foreign language didactics; but mostly it is applied against the backdrop of the research results obtained in language acquisition theory over the past 20 years. These results testify to the fact that, as the language repertoire of learners grows, they develop additional, more extensive foreign language learning skills and abilities. The knowledge gained comes from fields of linguistic science such as sociolinguistics (social multilingualism and individual plurilingualism), psycho- and neurolinguistics (how do we store which languages and where, how do we process them and how do we retrieve them?) and applied linguistics (how do we develop learning models from this knowledge which can then be implemented in teaching models?). There have been tests related to this work with projects such as DaFnE (German as a Foreign Language after English at the Council of Europe's Centre for Modern Languages), EuroCom (EuroComprehension at the Universities of Frankfurt, Leipzig and Darmstadt) and EaG (English after German at the Technical University of Darmstadt).

Multilingual didactics and language acquisition research

Without a sound basis in linguistics it is not possible to pursue a didactic approach which can be taken seriously. By referring to a sound basis in linguistics it will perhaps also be possible to persuade those who tend to be less convinced of the value of multilingual didactics, such as German-speaking scientists. They often even go so far as to want their own children to be educated exclusively in English and regard everything multilingual as a waste of cerebral and monetary resources. And then there are parents for example who take legal action to prevent their children being taught French as the first foreign language, wishing them to be exposed to English at the earliest possible opportunity. They may also be convinced by results from research into multilingualism and will then be happy to let their children learn a foreign language other than English first.

Examples for such arguments could include the fact that children who grow up in a multilingual environment often also exhibit higher cognitive achievements in other school subjects; PISA yielded a directly plausible – monolingual – argument for the relation between linguistic and general cognitive achievement: children who cannot read properly (i.e. coherently, drawing the relevant meaning), are also not able to solve word problems in mathematics.

German as a foreign language in Europe and the world

The recommendations of the White Paper that two foreign languages be learnt alongside the mother tongue , ideally one neighbouring/minority language and one language of supraregional communication, would appear illusory in view of actual developments. More and more countries (where they at all include more than one foreign language in the curriculum) are going over to offering English as the first – compulsory – foreign language, and to shifting other foreign languages into the domain of compulsory options or even straight options (the latest example here is Norway ). Provided the status of English as the chronologically first foreign language is not challenged, which is not likely anyway, these other languages can, in view of the language acquisition research results outlined, be promoted along the lines of: more languages encourage higher achievement levels, with the help of multilingual didactic methods the acquisition of subsequent foreign languages will be easier , more languages boost one's chances when looking for employment , more languages or customers' languages will improve sales prospects.

The aim is to offer German as an attractive second or additional foreign language and to render the notion of multilingual practical competency socially acceptable: it is not essential to master German in all fields, but rather in those required for certain situations, subjects and business partners (domain-specific). In many ways this will lessen the trepidation felt at the prospect at having to learn the supposedly difficult German language.

Download SymbolWhite Paper, European Comission, 1995 (PDF, 298 KB)

German as a second language in Germany

People with a non-German-speaking background can almost never adequately tap the full breadth of their cognitive capacity and make it available to themselves and German-speaking society because they are not capable of doing so linguistically. But this is also because the host society in Germany neither demands this of them nor gives them sufficient and systematic encouragement. Teaching conducted in German as a second language must become a constituent part of the curriculum, one which is neither relegated to the marginal lessons nor placed on the timetable as an option. The didactics and methodology of German as a second language look different from those of German as a foreign language; the same is true with respect to text books and teacher training, which means, for example, that German as a foreign language text books cannot simply be used for teaching German as a second language. The individual plurilingualism of children and young people with a non-German-speaking background could be taken more seriously and exploited (e.g. accumulating cultural experience by means of sponsorships, reading in tandem etc.). Children and young people have to learn what a treasure they carry within them and that it is worth bringing it out into the light. Adults must learn that it is worth while learning to handle the German language competently because this will lead to social involvement .

Multilingual didactics within the framework of the "Language Without Borders" project

Dealing with multilingual didactics within the Multilingualism Project is intended to

  • create public awareness of and highlight the fact that multilingualism is not a burden but, on the contrary, provides the basis for competent citizens who actively participate in social and political life and who provide the foundation of prosperity and development in society,
  • persuade those with responsibility (educational policy-makers, those who draw up the curriculum) and the general public (academics in fields other than languages, employers and parents) that multilingualism is better and more fruitful than monolingualism or a common smattering of English,
  • in the course of the work of the Goethe-Institut as one of the important centres of competence for the didactics and methodology of German as a foreign and second language in the context of a multilingual approach, initiate projects such as forms of immersion language teaching (e.g. bilingual subject teaching or teaching conducted in German), whole-language curricula, reading tandems or the promotion of self-control in integrated foreign language learning and cultural learning. This does not only concern the consolidation of German.
Prof. Dr. Britta Hufeisen – Curator of the
"Multilingual Didactics" part of the
"Language Without Borders" project

Personal details:
Prof. Dr. Britta Hufeisen is Professor at the Institute for Linguistic and Literary Science and Director of the Language Centre of the Technical University of Darmstadt. Her major research interests are in the fields of multilingualism and German as a foreign language.

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