Minorities and multilingualism
Multilingual, multicultural and cosmopolitan

Multilingualism was the focus at the international minorities conference.
Multilingualism was the focus at the international minorities conference. | Photo (detail): © Kerekes Zoltán - Goethe-Institut Budapest

For minorities, multilingualism and a multicultural identity can provide a wealth of resources and point the way forward. Videos from the Schaufenster Enkelgeneration project highlight the benefits that young adults in Germany’s ethnic minorities believe that their multilingualism gives them.

In July 2017, a two-day international minorities conference entitled Deutsch als Minderheitensprache im Kontext der europäischen Mehrsprachigkeit – Perspektiven und Herausforderungen (That is to say: German as a minority language in the context of European multilingualism – prospects and challenges) was devoted to the subject of multilingualism. Staged by the Goethe-Institut Budapest in cooperation with Andrássy University Budapest and the National Self-Government of Germans in Hungary, the conference focused on the opportunities for and challenges of promoting the language of German minorities in the areas of education, culture and youth work. Alongside teachers of German and experts in further training, decision-makers and youth association representatives of German minorities from 16 countries of Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia took part in the event.

Key conclusions drawn at the conference were that schools in minority regions should be better interlinked in future to allow them to be promoted more systematically and in a more synergetic way, and that they should increasingly offer bilingual lessons. Participants agreed that the focus should be on fostering early German learning in nursery and primary schools, supra-regional further training for teachers of German as a minority language and more widespread content teaching in German. At the higher education level, they believe that it is particularly important to publish curricula, share and use teaching materials and introduce funding programmes for students.

Today’s situation –  Schaufenster Enkelgeneration

In the video portraits of the Schaufenster Enkelgeneration project, adolescents and young adults in German minorities explain how they deal with their multilingualism and talk about the role that the German language still plays in giving them an identity. In the videos, members of the “grandchildren generation” of German minorities from nine different countries explore questions such as the following: How much is the German language used in everyday life nowadays? How important do young people – whose grandparents already saw themselves as belonging to German-speaking minorities – believe that the German language is in terms of their own lives and identities? Do they regard their own multilingualism as a valuable asset and as something that is useful in modern-day Europe?

The portraits showcase the entire spectrum of emotions: everything from a self-confident declaration of belonging to Silesia and use of Transylvanian Saxon as the “family language” to a cosmopolitan and cross-border bicultural and bilingual identity or indeed a recognition that their own cultural and linguistic roots are remembered to only a rudimentary extent. While the young adults acquire a biographical framework thanks to their cultural and linguistic roots, they have nonetheless become part of a multilingual Europe and are conscious of their own multilingual heritage. 

History of the German minorities

At the behest of their rulers, peasants, craftsmen and merchants of German origin began settling in the eastern and south-eastern regions of Central Europe and in the Russian Empire from as early as the twelfth century. By establishing villages and towns, they helped make a new home for themselves there and created their own culture. To this day, the descendants of these people are still to be found living as German minorities in the countries of Central Eastern and Southeast Europe and Central Asia. A number of examples reveal that they can look back on a turbulent and emotional history:

While approximately 1.2 million Germans were living primarily in the north of Kazakhstan until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the figure today is only around 200,000. In 1940, they were forced to relocate from the European parts of the then USSR on Stalin’s orders. Growing nationalism and the difficult economic situation after the collapse of the Soviet Union prompted the Germans in Kazakhstan, as well as those living in Kyrgyzstan, to leave their countries again.

Poland’s borders were redrawn during the course of its history, often arbitrarily. Germans had already settled there in the Middle Ages, particularly in Silesia, Pomerania, Brandenburg and Prussia. Following the Second World War and the westward shift of the Polish border, the Germans were expelled or resettled in the Federal Republic of Germany from the mid-1950s.

Promoting German minorities

Focus will be placed in future on German learning in nursery and primary schools. Focus will be placed in future on German learning in nursery and primary schools. | Photo (detail): © Jörg Müller - Goethe-Institut On behalf of the German government, local branches of the Goethe-Institut have been promoting the German minorities in Russia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Georgia, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Republic of Moldova since 1998, first and foremost through language courses, further training for German teachers and cultural programmes such as a reading tour by children’s book author Annette Weber and a workshop about producing teaching materials relating to the subject of identity. The central focus of all of these activities is to impart knowledge about Germany and its culture, and to convey a contemporary image of Germany. In addition, language assistants are deployed each year, spending nine months supporting local teachers of German at partner institutions in Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. They also conduct a variety of language and culture projects at various places around the regions where German minorities live so as to paint a vivid picture of Germany and to get children and young people interested in Germany and its culture outside the school setting.