Education and Language

Multilingualism – tacitly valued but rarely promoted

Multilingualism offers great opportunities; © shironosov/Thinkstock


When Germans talk about multilingualism, they often mean German plus English rather than Turkish or Arabic. Children from migrant families in particular quite often grow up speaking two mother tongues and are as fluent in Turkish or Arabic as they are in German. Concepts for promoting this valuable asset are lacking, however.

It starts as early as kindergarten: in Germany, today it is considered a hallmark of quality if infants learn their first words of English there. Children are less likely to come into contact with languages such as Turkish, Polish, Italian, Greek or Romanian. But most migrants in Germany are from countries where precisely these languages are spoken.

“Languages are valued differently. If a child grows up in Germany speaking English and German, it will receive plenty of encouragement. But if it speaks a language that is less highly regarded, the child and its family often encounter scepticism,” says Anja Leist-Villis, bilingualism researcher and founder of the network Zweisprachigkeit.net. And this continues, she points out, when people reach working age. Anja Leist-Villis even uses the term vicious circle because a language’s prestige is also an important factor in the education system. “The less an education system promotes a language, the more society unconsciously assumes that the language is not worth promoting. This actually reinforces a language’s negative standing.”

Training courses for teachers

In her work, Anja Leist-Villis frequently observes that promoting bi- and multilingualism is not yet something to be taken for granted in Germany. For instance, the issue is not yet an integral part of teachers’ training. “Unfortunately,” says Anja Leist-Villis – which is why she offers her own training courses for teachers. Many training facilities and workplaces have yet to develop a concept for promoting multilingualism, she explains. But this is of relevance to everyday life at school and the workplace.

Yet the competence of people with two mother tongues is tacitly valued because they often serve as a bridge in everyday life. If we fail to make use of this, we are wasting valuable knowledge and skills. That’s also something Bernd Meyer of the Universität Hamburg observes again and again in his research on intercultural communication. In his 2009 study entitled Utilizing the Multilingualism of People with Migration Background, he devotes a whole chapter to the “consequences of failing to adequately promote job-related multilingualism”. His conclusion: companies that fail to specifically invest in workers who have a command of certain languages are wasting economic potential when it comes to conducting export business and fostering contacts with the countries of origin, but also when it comes to sales in Germany’s domestic market. Opportunities are then wasted in terms of customer retention, image and marketing.

A bridge in everyday life

One of the people who serve as a bridge is Jeyan Chalak. When the electrical engineering graduate arrived in Germany from Iraq in 1996, she experienced how difficult it can be to settle in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language and a different culture. But she soon learned German and made translating her profession. Today, Jeyan Chalak is engaged in project work at the Fachdienst Jugend, Bildung, Migration (Youth, Education and Migration Services Department) in Reutlingen. Under Section 23 of the Administrative Procedure Act, the official language in Germany is German. That’s why she helps migrants on a voluntary basis in their dealings with authorities. Not all authorities have sufficient funding to employ an interpreter or a multilingual staff member who can be brought in at short notice.

Stepping in at short notice when language skills are needed – that’s Nizar Bou-Sandal’s job. The German-Tunisian grew up bilingual and speaks fluent German and Arabic. He worked for several years as an industrial clerk before taking up a post as job adviser at the Jobcenter. “Speaking German and Arabic is a great advantage. For a while, I had a lot of dealings with job seekers from Iraq and Syria. I wouldn’t have got far with just German and English.”

Meyer, Bernd: Herkunftssprachen als kommunikative Ressource? Am Beispiel der Kommunikation im Krankenhaus. In: B. Haider (Hg.) Baustelle Mehrsprachigkeit. Herausforderung für Institutionen und Unternehmen. Edition Volkshochschule: Wien 2013, p. 123-136.
Undine Zimmer
is a freelance journalist and author of the book “Nicht von schlechten Eltern. Meine Hartz-IV-Familie” (From a Decent Background. My Welfare Family).

Translation: Philip Bacon
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
December 2014

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