Multilingualism and education

Multilingual Families: Bridges between Cultures

Open borders, holiday travel, periods of work or study abroad and the presence of migrants and refugees are bringing about a steady rise in the number of binational partnerships.

As a result, an increasing number of children in Germany are growing up bilingually or multilingually. According to figures from the Association of Binational Families and Partnerships, more than 22 percent of all children born in Germany in 2003 had a "migrant background". This means that at least one parent is foreign. This also means that speaking more than one language is part of everyday life for almost a quarter of children in Germany.

The Linguistic Scientists' View

Most of those affected by it regard the chance to grow up right from the start with two or more languages as a benefit. After all, it is easier to learn another language as a child than it is later in life. Also, as it learns a language a child imbibes values, traditions and behavioural rules, so that a child growing up bilingually will ideally be able to feel at home in two or more cultures.

Despite this, many people in Germany are sceptical about the idea of children acquiring more than one language. For example, it is often assumed that a multilingual upbringing overtaxes the child and could impair its development. There has long been a prejudice that someone growing up in two languages is not fully at home in either.

Professor Jürgen Meisel of the Centre for Multilingualism in Hamburg has spent decades working on multiple language acquisition in childhood. He sees many concerned parents who are worried that any "unusual features" in their children may be related to the fact that they are growing up bilingually. Jürgen Meisel can allay most such fears. For example, if a child has a stutter, the causes are not usually related to its living in a bilingual environment.

In fact, linguistic studies have shown that children do not generally have any difficulty with learning two or more languages at the same time. The opposite is true: the human linguistic ability, says Professor Meisel, is a multilingual facility. Research findings have demonstrated that even two-year-olds growing up bilingually are able to cope with two language systems. They have also shown that the children can switch from one language to the other without difficulty and do not make any more mistakes in speaking than children being raised monolingually. This is confirmed, for example, by the study into "The influence of language in bilingual first-language acquisition: Italian-German", in which Professor Natascha Müller, who now lectures at Wuppertal University, observed children growing up bilingually.

Pointers for Parents

Even if children have a natural ability to speak more than one language, parents should pay heed to a few points when bringing up their children. Here, the easiest aspect is to follow the strategy of "one person – one language". Each parent should, where possible, speak his own native language with the child. Also, the "family language" should be the one not spoken in the country the family lives in, in order to ensure that the child comes into contact with both languages to an equal extent. However, it is wrong to attach too much weight to the purely quantitative aspect of linguistic input. After all, learning to speak also has an affective side: if children notice that they are not being well received with their second language – e.g. at kindergarten or amongst their friends – they reject this language.

The best approach to perfect bilingualism or multilingualism has yet to be found. It is true that the "one person – one language" strategy has worked well. But there are also completely different ways to achieve the desired goal – although it should be noted that studies do suggest that children can cope better with bilingualism if they experience "prestructured speaking situations" providing them with an orientation: for example if they can rely on speaking German every morning and Spanish every afternoon. This does not aim at a complete mastery of two languages in all areas of human life. The type of bilingualism achieved by a child depends mainly on the conditions in which bilingual learning takes place.

What Help Does the State Provide?

The importance of promoting language acquisition by children has now been recognised in Germany. However, state measures are primarily oriented towards the promotion of German skills, e.g. amongst migrant children. For example, the Youth Ministry in North-Rhine/Westphalia has been supporting language courses at kindergartens fsince 2003.

If parents wish to offer their children a space for play and learning in a different language, they generally have to take the initiative themselves and join forces with others sharing the same aim. An example is Spanish parents in Bonn: the parents' association organises Spanish lessons, sewing, dance and sports courses, and information evenings and seminars. In addition to the language, the members are equally interested in passing on their cultural heritage. After all, their children should not forget their Spanish roots. Because one thing needs to be clear: growing up bilingually does not mean having to opt for one or other of the cultures, but living in and with both.

Antonia Loick
works as an editor and journalist in Cologne. Cleeves Communication UnitZwei

Translation: Andrew Sims
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2005

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