Multilingualism and the arts

Multilingualism and “Crossover” Lingualism – The Creative Potential Of Writers Whose Mother Tongue Is Not German

Books. Photo: Gerd Altmann, Copyright:, Copyright:

Over the past few years “Migrantenliteratur” (literature written by immigrants living in German-speaking countries) has attracted more and more attention and recognition from readers, critics and academics alike. The particularly creative potential of these writers is to be found in their multilingualism and the transculturality that comes with it.

To speak of a mother tongue in connection with multilingualism is actually – if only the term were not so deeply rooted in everyday parlance – a paradox. In most people’s view the term mother tongue is something unique that infers some kind of analogy between the speaker and the biological mother, of whom there is only one for everybody (at least up until the advent of in vitro fertilization). The everyday term of mother tongue therefore excludes right from the start any bilingualism and multilingualism (plurilingualism) – it is part of a monolingual language concept.

The realm of linguistics prefers to use the term first language. It is indeed possible for a human being to have two first languages, provided the parents spoke two different languages – and this is in fact the case with a few of the authors of what is called Migrantenliteratur in Germany. If the speakers ultimately achieve native-speaker quality in both languages, then we can speak of a genuine or – as Harald Weinreich puts it – “coordinated” bilingualism.

The first generation – betwixt and between

Gastarbeiter 1963. Foto: Ludwig Wegmann, Copyright: Deutsches Bundesarchiv, The overall more common form of bilingualism is however the one that can be attributed above all to the pioneers of Migrantenliteratur – back then in the 1970s and 1980s it was known as gastarbeiter literature or foreigner literature. The acquisition of their second language took place at a much later point in their lives, in most cases in adulthood, and above all took the form of a “controlled” learning of a foreign language. Working as an immigrant in another country and a prejudiced, social approach on the part of the locals in the host country added even more to the authors of this generation developing a certain feeling of being betwixt and between and this manifested itself on both a linguistic, as well as subject level. Examples of this are succinctly described in Irmgard Ackermann’s book, In zwei Sprachen leben (i. e. Living in Two Languages), from the year 1983.

There are in most cases several languages involved in the linguistic background of these young authors, who are either the “second generation” of gastarbeiter families or who came to German-speaking countries in the wake of the fall of the Wall and the more recent wars in former Yugoslavia. The former were confronted with English as a compulsory foreign language in the German-speaking school system, in the school systems of the former East Bloc it was mostly Russian, and in the Balkans multilingualism was a routine part of everyday life.

On top of basic multilingualism – now “crossover” lingualism

It goes without saying that for authors with a non-German first language the basic principle of multilingualism (both active and understanding) also applies – as was so simply formulated by Mario Wandruschka at the end of the 1970s, “A language is a lot of languages all in one.” Two things were implied in his statement: Firstly, that every speaker, even within the realm of one language, speaks several languages or, more clearly, is linguistically competent on several linguistic levels. They are thus able to differentiate between dialectic, colloquial and standard linguistic forms, to actively shift register, to vary style levels, to develop their own ideolect (the specific language used by an individual), to recognize specialised language (technolect) and, if necessary, adopt it, and finally to develop an understanding for the language of literature (poetolect), maybe even create their own. Secondly, Wandruska’s statement meant that a language should never be viewed as a perfect, homogeneous “mono-system”, but more as a dynamic “poly-system”, in which there are all kinds of things going on all the time - not unlike the nucleus of an atom – for example, interpenetrations, osmoses, symbioses and hybridisations.

Cultural and, therefore, linguistic overlapping and interferences have always been a part of the development of the German language. Even Goethe’s plea for more multilingualism in his Maximen und Reflexionen, “Those who do not know foreign languages, know nothing of their own.”, can also be interpreted in this sense. In some recent research projects Wandruschka’s multilingual register competence has been morphed into the term “Quersprachigkeit” (crossover lingualism); this is the title of a book by Gundula und Günther List that examines trans-cultural linguistic practices and the multiple use of languages within one social group, like the immigrant community, for example.

Hands-on linguistic experiments

Feridun Zaimoglu. Photo: Hans Weingartz, Copyright: zeigt sich, dass sich in den Werken einiger der zugewanderten Schriftsteller und Schriftstellerinnen durch die Quersprachigkeit eine Vielzahl von kombinatorischen Möglichkeiten ergibt, die oft, auch weil sie Erwartungshaltungen zuwider laufen, vorerst befremdlich wirken. Auf den zweiten Blick erkennt man aber gerade darin – es handelt sich da oft um sprachspielerische Experimente – einen Teil des kreativen Potentials dieser Autoren und Autorinnen. Feridun Zaimoglu, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Dragica Rajčić und Alma Hadzibeganovic wären hier als Beispiele zu nennen.

In the works of some of the immigrant writers it has come to light that this “crossover” lingualism in fact provides a variety of possibilities for combining various ideas and elements which at first often seem disconcerting as they do not fit in with readers’ expectations. At second glance, however, the reader soon realises just how much potential these authors have –what they are dealing with is a case of a hands-on linguistic experiment. Feridun Zaimoglu, Emine Sevgi Özdamar, Dragica Rajčić and Alma Hadzibeganovic are just a few examples of this.

A highly praised contribution to the German (literary) language

In this context it might also be worth mentioning the efforts made in the fields of cognitive science and brain research that have been focusing on multilingualism - with the aid of imaging techniques. They have come to various conclusions; for example, that people who learn several languages early in life only need to use one area of the brain, i. e. multilingual activity taking place at the same time and overlapping, whereas people who learn languages later in life have to use several areas of the brain. This could in fact be the beginning of an empiric approach to the connection between multilingualism and creativity.


Irmgard Ackermann (Hrsg.) (1983): In zwei Sprachen leben. (Living In Two Languages) Reports, Stories, Poems by Foreigners. Published in Frankfurt/M. by dtv.

Mario Wandruschka (1979): Die Mehrsprachigkeit des Menschen. (Multilingualism and the Human Being) Munich, Zurich: Piper.

Gundula List u. Günther List (Hrsg.): Quersprachigkeit. Zum transkulturellen Registergebrauch in Laut- und Gebärdensprachen.(“Crossover“ Lingualism – The Use of Transcultural Register in Spoken and Sign Language. Darmstadt: Stauffenburg. (= Tertiär. Drei- u. Mehrsprachigkeit. Bd 5.)

Katharina Stockert (2009): Mehrsprachigkeit in den Kognitionswissenschaften. Ein Abriss. (Multilingualism in the Cognitive Sciences – An Outline) In: Inst No. 17 (to be published in July 2009)
Michaela Bürger-Koftis
lectures in German Literature at the University of Genoa and does research on Migrationsliteratur.

Photo “Bücher” © Gerd Altmann / PIXELIO

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
June 2009

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