Multilingualism in teacher training

How can teachers take advantage of multilingual potential in their classes? And how can trainee teachers best be prepared for linguistic diversity in the classroom? Theorists and practitioners in Germany and Europe are looking into these questions.  

When Germany welcomed its first “guest workers” back in the 1950s, the children of the migrants were taught in their native languages at German schools. That said, such classes were provided in a rather slipshod manner, and were not linked to the normal curricular lessons. As a didactic concept, multilingualism long played a role in foreign language lessons only, if at all.

Ever since the shockwaves generated by the Pisa study, individual states, universities and educational institutions in Germany have been increasingly developing approaches designed to better reflect the linguistic diversity at German schools and the multilingual abilities of individual pupils: the idea is for children with a native tongue other than German to receive the support they need to achieve the level of language proficiency – in both German and their native language – required to study at university. To this end, their native and family languages, as well as any foreign language skills they may have, are to be valued in and incorporated into lessons. What is more, pupils are to acquire proficiency not only in everyday language, but also in academic or technical language.

In a research programme entitled “Promotion of Children and Young People from Migrant Backgrounds”, known as FörMig for short, the Bund-Länder Commission for Educational Planning and Research Promotion (BLK) for example developed a model for continuous language education that fosters the academic language skills of children and young people from nursery school to university. Although the concept has already been successfully applied in practice in individual projects, there can be no talk of any systematic – let alone widespread – implementation.

“Nowadays there are numerous successful projects, ranging from early-years education through to adult education. However, rather than merging the concept of continuous language education with the patchwork of successful projects to form one overall strategy, many projects are sadly not continued”, says Elisabeth Gessner from the Forum Lesen in Kassel.

Learning to value and use multilingualism

Nonetheless, the issues of language education, language promotion and German as a second language are now part of teacher training and continuing education. “We have reached a point where multilingualism now plays a role within interdisciplinary teacher training”, says Professor Beate Lütke from the section “Didactics of German Language Teaching/German as a Second Language” for all teaching training courses at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Theorists and practitioners are currently discussing how best to introduce teachers and trainee teachers to the subject of multilingualism, and which aspects should be focused on here. “One important aspect is to sensitize future teachers to the linguistic requirements of subject teaching and to the teaching of linguistically and culturally heterogeneous groups of students. For example, some studies are looking at the kind of attitudes that trainee teachers have towards a multilingual student body, and at the extent to which they take the multilingual resources of their students into account when planning their lessons”, says Beate Lütke. She goes on to explain that there are already concepts in the USA for example that incorporate Spanish – the native tongue of many migrants – in lesson phases during which existing knowledge is activated and in work organization processes. In Germany, the material created by the FörMig project provides some initial examples to illustrate how this could be done.

In Sprachen – Bilden – Chancen (i.e. Languages – Education – Opportunities), a Berlin-based project run by Beate Lütke, specialists in language and subject-specific didactics have jointly developed materials aimed at improving teacher training in the area of language education and German as a second language. “Trainee teachers can use the materials to gain an impression of how pupils can be supported in expanding their language skills from everyday language usage to academic and technical language proficiency, and of the role that can be played in this context by methods such as macro- and micro-scaffolding”, explains Beate Lütke. In addition, the handouts contain examples that show how native language potential, subject learning and acquisition of German as a second language can be interlinked. The FörMig programme also makes material available for the continuing education of teachers; this relates for example to dialogue-based reading aloud, deciphering and preparation of work exercises, and written language acquisition in mono- and multilingual children.

International exchange between practitioners and theorists

The seventh in the international series of conferences entitled Multilingualism as a Chance, to be staged in Kassel by a European consortium of research institutions in July 2017, intends to intensify exchange between practitioners and theorists from Belgium, Germany, Finland, Austria, Poland and Switzerland who focus on internationalizing teacher training and on fostering multilingualism in children and young people. “Because the framework conditions differ from country to country, we are not looking for one magic formula that can be applied everywhere, but are working on an atlas of multilingualism that will be further developed during the conference in Kassel”, says consortium director Elisabeth Gessner.

Experts in Switzerland and Belgium for example are exploring how texts can be made comprehensible for all pupils by using a graduated scale of complexity. When developing such ideas, the experts specifically seek collaboration with teacher trainees of migrant origin, explains Elisabeth Gessner: “These students are the educational winners – they have successfully completed the German school system. They are showing great interest in increasing the educational success of children from migrant families and are helping to focus our attention on the potential offered by multilingualism.”