Education and Language

Better Chances with Multilingualism – An Interview with Claudia Maria Riehl

Promoting multilingualism instead of curbing it | © lassedesignen - Fotolia.com

The assertion that multilingualism among immigrants is an obstacle to successful integration is still doing the rounds. More German and less mother tongue, as the blanket demand goes. This approach, however, contradicts the latest research findings.

Mrs Riehl, recently German politicians discussed the demand that immigrants should also speak German at home. What do you, as a linguist, think of this idea?

There are many reasons why this idea is absurd. It more or less goes against everything we in the field of multilingualism research agreed on a long time ago. The aim was clearly to curry favour with certain voters and only much later did they realise that what they were actually demanding was in fact not so wise after all. 

The logic behind the proposal is apparently to edge out the mother tongue so that the capacity to learn the German language is enhanced.

And it is this particular logic that is utterly wrong, according to all the things we know today. For multilingual children in particular it is absolutely imperative that they grow up with the language their parents speak. It is not just a matter of learning vocabulary or grammar. Children learn about the world around them through the language of their parents. This is why it is also so important that everybody has the opportunity to speak to their children in the language they speak and understand best. If the mother tongue has been properly learned and internalised, it is easier to learn other languages.

So multilingualism is definitely an advantage!

Exactly that. Multilingualism is not a deficit, but an asset. There have been many surveys that have shown that multilingual children definitely have the edge over monolingual children when it comes to their communicative and linguistically strategic abilities. The field of neurology has also proved that the areas of the brain required for learning languages are more compactly organised among multilingual children. This basically means that for every new language learned subsequently less brain space has to be activated. Furthermore multilingualism seems to have a positive effect on a child's ability to control his or her attention. Multilingual children are better at “switching” between various demands, because, by constantly changing from one language to another, they have trained the mechanism that enables them to do this.  

Nevertheless you cannot deny the fact that many multilingual children have problems with the German language.

Yes, you are right of course, but that basically has nothing to do with multilingualism in itself. Many children with an immigrant background come from socially deprived families whose level of education is lower than average. It is also often the case that these children do not even learn their mother tongue properly, because the linguistic competence of their parents is also often lacking. These children indeed then often have a hard time learning German.  

What measures could be taken to counteract this?

By promoting multilingualism instead of curbing it. We should provide bilingual instruction as early as in kindergarten, in order to support those children in particular who do not have the possibility to acquire a flawless command of their own mother tongue at home. These children have to be given the chance to grow up in both languages. Only then will they be able to enjoy the benefits of multilingualism.

To what extent is this already being put into practice?

There is a whole series of exemplary programs, both on a national as well as on an international level. Take, for example, the concept realised by the Staatliche Europaschulen (state-run European Schools) in Berlin – they offer bilingual lessons throughout, right from the first grade. In North Rhine-Westfalia there are a few primary schools that offer bilingual lessons. The approach they use is considered by many experts to be ideal – one third of the class is made up of monolingual pupils who only speak their mother tongue, another third of bilingual pupils and the last third of monolingual pupils who come from German families.

So we are in a fairly good position to face the challenges?

No, I am afraid the examples I mentioned are exceptions and furthermore the situation varies from one federal state of Germany to another. In Bavaria, for example, the availability of bilingual instruction still leaves a lot to be desired. It would be ideal if the linguistic training of children were to continue throughout their schooling. For example, if a child had attended a German-Italian kindergarten, he should also have the possibility of going to a bilingual primary school and later to a secondary school.

If I could come back for a moment to the proposal mentioned above that immigrants should speak German at home. Might it not also be viewed as a symptom of the fear of failed integration – a fear that is, in fact, not unjustified?

It is of course quite understandable that people are afraid of a parallel society, afraid of a partitioning off of certain social groupings. On the other hand, it has to be said that since the children of the first wave of immigration were born immigrants have been part of our German education system and are still being socialised by it. As a rule it is usually the case that German takes preference over the mother tongue and not the other way round. Those people who are striving for successful integration via linguistic competence should therefore not try to curb the use of the mother tongue, but, on the contrary, they should promote it even more. And what is more, they should promote it not only among immigrants, but also in mainstream society.

What do you mean by that?

We want to prevent any form of cultural partitioning. The mother tongue, however, is part of people's cultural identity. If action is taken to curb it, it will provoke tendencies like partitioning. If, on the other hand, they were to advocate the mainstream population learning immigrant languages – at least the basics, then they would be effectively counteracting this trend. In the end it is all about mainstream society becoming more open to other languages and other cultures. Multilingualism is not a handicap for immigrants with integration problems, it is one of the basic requirements of a modern society.

Claudia Maria Riehl | © Claudia Maria RiehlClaudia Maria Riehl
is head of the Institut für Deutsch als Fremdsprache (Institute for German as a Foreign Language) and the Internationale Forschungsstelle für Mehrsprachigkeit/IFM (International Research Centre for Multilingualism) at Munich University. She is a co-signatory of the IFM's linguistic statement on the CSU party's policy draft on the subject of “Integration through Language”.
Klaus Lüber
conducted the interview. He is a cultural and media scholar and works as a freelance author for “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, “Die Zeit” and “Die Welt”.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
February 2015

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