Linguistic Change

The German of Migrants: “Ethnolect” is Obsolete

There is no migrant German as such. Photo: stockbroker © 123RFThere is no migrant German as such. Photo: stockbroker © 123RFAt the 48th annual conference of the Institute for the German Language, linguistics experts engaged in controversial debate about phenomena including Kanak Sprak (German dialect spoken by some Turks in Germany) the plural of “Erdbeere” (strawberry) and other features of the German spoken by migrants.

Almost 500 linguistics experts from 27 countries convened in Mannheim to discuss the German of migrants. As most of them were probably already aware, a professor with Turkish citizenship who has just moved to Germany has just as much a migration background as the daughter of an ethnic German family from Russia or the son of Italian parents who were naturalised years ago. So the people who are referred to in Germany as migrants differ from one another in a variety of ways, including their level of education, the length of time they have been in Germany and the languages spoken in their countries of origin and in their families. And that is why there is also no one single linguistic form, no migrant German as such.

Which linguistic style is typical – and of whom?

Researchers now question the term “ethnolect”.  Photo: auremar © 123RFAlthough many migrants speak perfect standard German or a regional dialect in everyday life, quite distinct new forms of German have evidently emerged in recent years as a result of migration - the German of migrants. They are referred to as “Türkendeutsch” (Turkish German), “Kanak Sprak”, “Kiezsprache” (neighbourhood language) or “ethnolects”. These were the focus of many discussions at the Mannheim conference. While statements such as “Ischwör!” (i.e. Ich schwöre - I swear) or “Ich gehe Bibliothek” (I go library) are not characteristic of the German of migrants as a whole, they are characteristic of the language used by some of them.

“That is the very typical language use of young people with a migration background who tend to have a low level of education and who live in multicultural urban districts,” explains Arnulf Deppermann, Head of the Pragmatics Department at the Institute for the German Language and head of organisation of the Mannheim conference. According to Deppermann, recent studies suggest that what we are talking about here is not a more or less standardised way of speaking, however, and it reflects the influence of different languages of origin or family languages. Thus, researchers now question the term “ethnolect”: “The term suggests that one ethnic group is responsible. Instead, a polyethnolect is developing that is used by speakers from different ethnic backgrounds, and it also contains elements of youth jargon.”

A question of style or poor German?

Do these linguistic forms represent cultural enrichment or an impoverishment of the German language?  Photo: kjpargeter © 123RFThere are controversial discussions on the question of how to evaluate use of this polyethnolect. Is it a style used quite intentionally by young people or is it wrong German associated with an inadequate ability to express oneself, poor achievement at school and vocational failure? Do young people with a migration background speak like that because they want to express their linguistic creativity and wish to have the feeling of belonging to a group, or do they do it purely and simply because they do not have a command of correct colloquial or standard German? Do these linguistic forms represent cultural enrichment or an impoverishment of the German language? Deppermann’s impression is that further research is required. “We know that there are examples of both groups. But we still know very little about how to assess the wider picture and which aspect has a greater impact on social reality.”

Starting to learn German early on – with professional support

What will happen to polyethnolects in multicultural urban districts in future?  Photo: 36clicks © 123RFLinguistics experts are in wide agreement on another point. If children learn two languages early on and receive sufficient input in both languages, they will get along well in both languages. That is why children who speak a different language at home should be confronted with the German language at an early stage. Language diagnosis and remedial measures are available to ensure that no child gets left behind. Deppermann would like to see the expertise of linguistics experts being increasingly included in such measures. “Currently, assessments are often made by psychologists, but that leads to mistakes as they are not so well acquainted with linguistic structures.” For example: “A child might point to a picture and say, 'There are lots of strawberry'. That may mean that the child has not learnt the plural form. But the child may simply be speaking dialect. In the Palatinate region, for example, it is quite common for the plural of strawberry to sound the same as the singular. Only when you know that can you avoid jumping to the wrong conclusion and test the result using different examples.”

It is with great interest that linguistics scholars will follow future developments of polyethnolects in multicultural urban districts. Today, one can only speculate whether or not young people will give up this linguistic style as they grow older, whether the next generation will take it up and develop it further and whether certain forms may in the long term even influence standard German.

Janna Degener
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
October 2012

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