Education and Language

“Multilingualism is the Norm” – An Interview with Stefan Jeuk

Children and teacher in a many primary school | © Robert Kneschke -

According to latest research, mixing languages should no longer be seen as a sign of a language deficit but of language proficiency and something that can be problem-solving and constructive. An interview with Stefan Jeuk, head of the language teaching centre at Ludwigsburg University of Education.

Mr Jeuk, German schools are facing the challenge of multilingualism. What are the consequences in the classroom when a large number of the pupils are multilingual?

Nowadays, multilingual children are in the majority in many primary and lower secondary schools. According to the 2011 microcensus, on average one quarter of all pupils are of migrant origin, and this number is rising. We have all heard the calls for multilingual children to stop using their first language and to communicate only in German. Unfortunately, multilingualism these days still tends to be seen more of a problem rather than as an opportunity.

What exactly do you mean by opportunity?

There are fairly extensive studies now showing that multilingualism has no detrimental consequences for integration or for German language acquisition. There are numerous scientific publications documenting that multilingual children – assuming that the conditions for learning are favourable – are perfectly well able to acquire two or more languages to an age-appropriate standard. As a rule, such children are found to have a particularly high level of language attentiveness, which can stand them in good stead later on when for example they start learning a foreign language. Multilingualism can give them an educational advantage, provided that it is properly fostered.

Properly fostering multilingualism

What concrete possibilities are there for doing this in the classroom?

We have at our disposal a whole host of different approaches, some of which date all the way back to the 1970s and have been further developed over the decades. To give you a specific example: it is possible to enrich lessons by adding multilingual elements even in years two or three, for instance by introducing nouns and naming an object in different languages. We have found that viewing language from this perspective can significantly enhance the classroom experience for the monolingual children as well as the multilingual children.

Does that mean that you are satisfied with the current situation?

Yes and no. It is true that such approaches exist, yet the degree to which they can be effectively implemented is obviously to some extent a question of resources. By way of comparison, teachers in the state of Baden-Württemberg were given additional classroom hours to provide remedial tuition to multilingual children in the 1980s – these days they have roughly 10 percent of the time they used to have. What is more, the specific prerequisites for effective teaching of multilingual children are simply not in place in many cases. Such children really need German as a second language teaching in order to address and support their specific needs and abilities; instead, they receive teaching that is tailored to the needs of monolingual German children.

The myth of dual semilingualism

Multilingualism was long viewed first and foremost as a hindrance to effective German teaching. Why was this in fact the case?

It was assumed that multilingualism increases the risk of what is known as “dual semilingualism”. According to this theory, the child is unsettled by the different languages on offer and ends up mastering none of them at a high level. There is in fact no such causal relationship, however. How well a child learns a second language depends primarily on the quality of the teaching of this second language and not on whether other languages or on how many other languages are used by the child in his or her everyday life. On the other hand, children simply take more time to learn two or more languages in parallel. If a child does not yet speak perfect German when he or she starts school and teaching and remedial tuition (together with monolingual children) are focused solely on proficiency in the child’s second language – in this case German – an imbalance can arise.

What is your opinion about fears that the trend towards mixing languages as practised by multilingual children in particular will result in German becoming “dumbed down”?

It is important to remember that all modern languages are a mixture. Roughly 40 percent of today’s German vocabulary is non-Germanic in origin. What is more, German is in fact relatively stable. Its basic grammatical structure has changed hardly at all in the last 500 years. Anyone who talks about German becoming “dumbed down”, as a result of anglicisms for instance, should consider that many of these words are German from a syntactical viewpoint. Take the word “mailen” (i.e. to e-mail): it can be fully conjugated and can even be expressed in the subjunctive mood: Wenn Du mir nur mailtest (i.e. If only you were to e-mail me).

Multicultural German

Is the impression misleading, or has multilingualism indeed achieved mainstream appreciation?

It is true that we have observed a positive shift in recent years that has definitely brought with it a greater acceptance of migration and multilingualism in schools and society. Nonetheless, we need to look somewhat more closely: the question actually is how seriously we in fact want and are able to take the appreciation of multilingualism. Although books like Multi Kulti Deutsch (i.e. Multicultural German) by Uwe Hinrichs do not take a negative view of the “migrant” influences on the language, they nonetheless maintain that these are “deviations” from the “norm”.

What alternative view would you suggest?

We must finally accept multilingualism as the norm, as is in fact the case in just about every other nation around the world with the exception of Germany and other (European) nation states. Linguistic equality can only be achieved if minority languages are promoted and treated politically and institutionally on an equal footing with the majority language.

Stefan Jeuk, head of the language teaching centre at Ludwigsburg University of Education | © privateStefan Jeuk is an extraordinary professor at the Institute of Languages at Ludwigsburg University of Education, where he heads the language teaching centre. His work focuses on language acquisition and multilingualism, written language acquisition, teaching of German as a second language, language tuition and language proficiency monitoring, and early teaching of German.

Klaus Lüber
is a cultural and media scholar and works as a freelance author for “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, “Die Zeit”, “Die Welt” and other journals.

Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
December 2014

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