Multilingualism in kindergartens

Children can deal with a second or even third language.
Children can deal with a second or even third language. | Photo (detail): © Robert Kneschke -

The early years are particularly well suited to language learning. However, in many institutions, the basic conditions still leave a good deal to be desired.

In all parts of the world there are kindergartens and day-care centres in which children can learn German as a second or third language before they go to school. Some come, as it is, from German families, others are sent to a German-speaking kindergarten, because the parents want them, for example, to study later in a German-speaking country.

Of the approximately three million children attending day-care centres in Germany and not yet attending school, approximately 550,000, about 18 per cent, speak a language at home other than German (as of March 2016). In large cities such as Berlin or Hamburg, the proportion is almost 30 per cent. It is in these cases, in particular, that the need for early language training is usually high.

Total immersion or language support sessions

Research has proven that a child's brain is attuned to multilingual language development and can therefore deal with a second or even third language. What children need are “talking role models”. The so-called “immersion model”, which is also the approach many bilingual kindergartens have adopted, is often regarded as the silver bullet to multilingualism. The immersion model ensures that the language to be learned is consistently used throughout the day and for all occasions alongside the mother tongue. “The children are linguistically ‘thrown in at the deep end’ every day. Ideally, they are given a qualitatively and quantitatively rich language grounding in both languages, as the adults linguistically accompany their own actions and talk a lot with the children. This is how they learn how to cope with various everyday situations in a language,” explains Petra Gretsch, a professor at the Department of German Studies, at the Pädagogische Hochschule Freiburg (Freiburg University of Education). At around 1,000 (as of 2014), the number of bilingual day-care centres in Germany is actually rather negligible, although it tripled in the years 2004 to 2014, according to the Verein Frühe Mehrsprachigkeit an Kitas und Schulen (Association for Early Multilingualism in Day-Care Centres and Schools).

When children learn German as a foreign language in a traditional day-care centre abroad, they usually do it in time-limited language support sessions. They are introduced to the new language by means of songs, rhymes, short stories and small language routines. The aim is for the children to reproduce and imitate them, in order for them to become more linguistically aware and to enjoy language learning.

Good foreign language teaching requires staff and materials

Both the immersion approach and the classical method of learning a foreign language in support sessions are based on the assumption that, in addition to the German-speaking educator, there are some pedagogical staff who speak the second language. The native speaker staff members speak with the children in the second language, while also conveying the culture of the country. They are always present in the Immersion Model, whereas in the classic foreign language learning situation they usually only get together with the children in the classroom for a few hours. In addition, materials such as children's books should be available in both languages.

Most centres in Germany are not geared to teaching German as a foreign language. However, they are attended by many children who are in the process of learning German as a second language. Contrary to the concepts of the immersion approach or early foreign language teaching, these children are generally not supported at all by the centres when it comes to the language they speak at home with their families - which can also make second language acquisition more difficult

Linguistic support via digital means

Being spoken to personally cannot be replaced by any computer or smartphone. Nevertheless, the use of digital media for language promotion in the day-care centre is being discussed. The non-profit association, Zentrum für kindliche Mehrsprachigkeit (Centre for Multilingualism in Children), for example, also provides learning materials in digital form – called KIKUS (German abbreviation for children in cultures and languages). “The language learning software enables, for example, our picture cards to be projected onto the wall and can even be aurally reproduced for listening practice and that is interesting for larger learning groups – for example, in refugee accommodation,” explains Eva Götz. It is also motivating when working on a PC or laptop. And the parents can learn with their children. Since the first digital version of KIKUS was published in 2012, more than 16,000 users have already registered in more than sixty countries, according to Eva Götz. An eight-language version is now available.

German studies professor, Heidi Rösch, from Karlsruhe University of Education prefers a mixture of methods when it comes to teaching German, “You can also systematically introduce subjects such as sentence structure or the use of inflections to younger pre-schoolers. This should be done in a playful way. When practicing prepositions – like “on” – you could climb onto a table, for example. In addition, one should also look at picture books with the children and, for example, talk about the visit to the zoo, i.e. work immersively with them.” The expert also emphasises the importance of having pedagogical staff who are linguistically aware. “They should have a high affinity for language, for example, have learned a foreign language themselves and also reflected on it.” And it is important to create language-learning situations in the day-care centres: “The educator should use language as the main medium of communication and motivate the children to use it both actively and creatively.” A targeted promotion of multilingualism even at pre-school age is important in many respects: it can improve the children’s self-esteem and their feeling of belonging, their school performance and, in the long run, also the prospects for their later career and future.