Multilingualism and education

A Head Start: Bilingual Kindergartens

It is quite clearly too late if children only start learning their second language in school  Photo: Rich Legg © iStockphotoIt is quite clearly too late if children only start learning their second language in school  Photo: Rich Legg © iStockphotoChildren who grow up with two languages have better cognitive skills than their monolingual peers. However, they should learn the languages as early as possible, at home or in a bilingual kindergarten.

In most countries, children generally grow up with several languages but in Germany it is an exception. However, it has been scientifically demonstrated that bilingual children have better cognitive skills. “They can complete tasks demanding a great deal of attention better, learn to read more quickly and learn a third language more easily,” says Dr Claudia Riehl, Professor of Linguistics and Head of the Centre for Language Diversity and Multilingualism at the University of Cologne.

Mum’s language and Dad’s language

Many bilingual kindergartens are the result of parents’ initiatives  Photo: Ling Xia © iStockphotoRiehl favours early bilingualism of the kind often seen in mixed-language marriages. The child hears both parents’ native languages from the outset, with each parent speaking just one language. “It is important that the parents do not mix languages,” says Riehl. “The child has to know which language to speak to Mum and which to speak to Dad.” Ideally, the children will then have two perfect native languages. But even at the age of three or four, children are still able to learn a second language well, for example at a bilingual kindergarten.

Many such kindergartens are the result of parents’ initiatives. One is the Spanish-German kindergarten Treinta Lobitos in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, a city quarter that is home above all to a well-educated middle class. Most of the children come from German-Spanish families. Since German is the main language spoken at home, the aim of the kindergarten is to familiarise the youngsters with the second language. The 32 children are divided into two groups, and each is supervised by one German and one Spanish-speaking early-years teacher. The one person one language rule applies here too.

Language of origin and language of environment

In Germany, many children have no contact at all with German  Photo: Peter Galbraith © iStockphoto“Some children already have a passive vocabulary in Spanish when they come to us at the age of one and a half,” says early years teacher Maria Torralba. When they start to speak themselves is an individual matter, however. “We do not force the children.” Some will always reply to the Spanish early years teachers in German, while others start to speak Spanish after a short time. When talking amongst themselves, the children communicate in German. “Gradually, they talk to each other more and more in Spanish,” says Torralba. “The Spanish parents have been speaking Spanish more consistently lately. That rubs off on the children.” Maria Torralba is not concerned that some will never speak much Spanish. “We are aiming to arouse an interest in other languages. If the children associate happy memories with Spanish, they will also accept other languages and cultures better later on.”

In Germany, many children are growing up with another mother tongue, such as Serbian, Turkish or Vietnamese, and have no contact at all with German until they start school. “It is quite clearly too late if they only start learning their second language then,” says Claudia Riehl. “The children cannot speak their mother tongue properly and cannot speak any German at all.” That leads to double semilingualism. These children therefore need help early on. The best way to provide it is bilingually, as offered by the Turkish-German kindergarten of the Association to Promote Foreign and German Children in Berlin-Kreuzberg, a city quarter where 40 per cent of the inhabitants are migrants, and half of these are of Turkish descent. “The children come to us at the age of two and have not had any contact with German yet,” says Edith Giere, one of the kindergarten’s directors. Almost all of the 90 children come from Turkish families. They have never occupied themselves with the benefits of bilingualism before.

Demands are made on parents, too

Education in Turkish is important to help the children to learn German  Photo: fatihhoca © iStockphotoThe children are divided into five groups, each supervised by one Turkish and one German early years teacher. The children are not confronted with German suddenly like in a normal kindergarten, but are introduced to the new language gradually. The German early years teachers also understand Turkish and can accommodate the children's individual needs. But they do so in German. “At first, the children do not understand them, but at that age, how you talk to a child is more important in any case,” says Nurgün Karhan, who co-directs the kindergarten alongside Edith Giere. For her, learning a language has much to do with sympathy and appreciation, and it is a process in which the parents are also involved - in Turkish. “That builds up the parents’ trust,” says Edith Giere. “And the children see that their mother tongue is accepted.” That builds their self-confidence and promotes language acquisition.

How well they ultimately learn German depends to a very great extent on the parents. If they help their children in Turkish, these children are quicker to learn German. “Unfortunately, only very few do so,” says Karhan. So the early years teachers try to teach the parents that education in Turkish is important to help the children to learn German, as is contact with the German environment. The kindergarten’s early years teachers attach particularly great importance to that. Visits to the swimming pool, to music school or to the library are on the agenda, and have been for 25 years. The concept is a success. “Although almost all the children are Turkish, they speak German among themselves at the age of five,” says Nurgün Karhan. “At the age of six, they all speak German well and are well-equipped with the skills they need for school.”

Katja Hanke
is a philologist and freelance journalist.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
November 2009

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