Fact Check – How schools can use multilingualism in the classroom

German school portal: To what extent do children benefit from growing up multilingual?
Up to Woerfel: Basically, multilingualism is a great treasure and an important resource for participating in the globally interconnected world. It contributes to the formation of identity and is also a support tool for parents in teaching the language and family culture. At the learning level, growing multilingual leads students to achieve greater metalinguistic awareness. This is useful, for example, for learning other (foreign) languages.

Are there also any disadvantages in relation to multilingualism? What is the point, for example, of the criticism that multilingual children who have grown up do not speak a language correctly?
Basically, there is no risk of growing with multiple languages. The myth of “double semilingualism”, that is, the assumption that multilingual children who only half grow up learn the language of the family and the language of those around them, persists, but has not been scientifically proven. However, students develop different skills in different languages. It depends on the context in which the language is used and acquired.

Different vocabulary in each language

What exactly does this mean?
For example, vocabulary in the family language may be more strongly influenced by everyday topics and orality. While the language spoken at school is more related to the topics of the class. The differences between these two language areas are particularly large when there is a lack of educational opportunities in the family and pupils do not attend bilingual or native language classes.

Are some languages ​​easier to learn at the same time than others?
The language acquisition mechanisms are the same for all languages. Individual cognitive prerequisites, the time when a language was acquired and the context in which the language was acquired always play a role – for example, if a child is learning German as a second language in Germany, where German is the dominant surrounding language, or if it is German, learn as a foreign language outside of the country with a foreign language perspective. The differences also arise from whether German is learned within the family or mainly in educational institutions.

As for the different language pairs, there are differences, especially as regards the acquisition of foreign languages. Therefore, acquiring more typologically similar languages ​​can be simpler. Languages ​​such as German, Russian or Polish, for example, have a inflected linguistic structure. This means that the root of the word has changed. Other languages, for example Turkish, have an agglutinating syntactic structure, in which affixes or suffixes are attached to the root of the word.

There are also great similarities within language families at the vocabulary level. In the Eurocomprehension approach, for example, the similarities between the Romance, Germanic and Slavic language families are used didactically in the classroom.

The dominant language can change over the course of life

How many languages ​​can children absorb significantly at one time?
This cannot be limited to a certain number. It makes sense to learn as many languages ​​as possible and necessary for daily interactions inside and outside the family. In practice, there are often one or two family languages ​​and there may be another surrounding language as well. Children can grow up trilingual as a matter of course.

What should be the relationship between the language of the family and the language of the environment – must there be such a thing as a main language?
It is not necessary to regulate it. This naturally comes from the use of language. Students are relatively rarely balanced multilingual and have the same skills in all languages. As a rule, a language naturally emerges as dominant. This is the language children hear most often and where there are more opportunities to speak. But this can change over the course of life. Studies show that the home language is usually the dominant language until entry into kindergarten. Subsequently, the acquisition of skills in the familiar language slows down in favor of a sharp increase in skills in the surrounding language. At the latest when they start school, the surrounding language usually becomes the dominant language.

The school should promote the resources that students bring with them and use them in a way that achieves the school’s learning objectives. In terms of multilingualism, however, this rarely happens in an ordinary middle school.

Does it make sense for parents who speak another family language to speak German with their children to improve their German language skills?
On the one hand, it is not fair to tell parents to speak more German with their children. On the other hand, it is also wrong to advise against it, because multilingual families who have lived in a country for a long time already change a lot between the language of the family and the language of the surrounding area. The language of origin is rarely the only language spoken in a family. This is only the case with families who are brand new to a country, such as refugees from Ukraine now.

However, I would advise parents to offer their children as many language options as possible through different media – in all languages ​​relevant to interaction – for German as well as for the family language.

Promote multilingualism not at the expense of German

How can and should multilingualism be promoted and supported in schools?
The school should promote the resources that students bring with them and use them in a way that achieves the school’s learning objectives. In terms of multilingualism, however, this rarely happens in an ordinary middle school. But there are still too few mandatory educational policy concepts and requirements.

What concepts have proved valid?
The principle of bidirectional immersion has proven its worth in bilingual teaching. So far, schools in Germany have rarely used them, although their effectiveness has long been proven.

What is “Two-Way Diving”?
In addition to the official language, bidirectional immersion models also take into account the different familiar languages ​​as part of the language of instruction. The aim is that not only pupils who grow up multilingual learn the language of instruction – in this case German – but also that pupils who grow up monolingual can acquire knowledge of another language.

Studies have shown that teaching two languages ​​simultaneously according to the principle of bidirectional immersion has no disadvantages for the development of German skills. Only newly immigrant pupils who only started learning German when they started primary school need relatively more time.

Other concepts are based on dual literacy from the beginning of school. In German-speaking countries, for example, there is the concept of KOALA (coordinated literacy in the first grades). Again, a study with Turkish-German children showed that dual literacy did not come at the expense of German, but that pupils were able to develop their written skills in their native language.

Create multilingual products in the classroom using digital media

How can the promotion of multilingualism be in the classroom?
In bilingual subject teaching, translation approaches have proven to be successful: teachers instruct students in the classroom didactically to use their home language in the classroom. Pupils who speak the same family language, for example, form language tandems, which first exchange information on a task in a common source language and then solve it in German. Digital media can also be useful here. Students can, for example, create multilingual products such as multimedia books or podcasts through collaborative work.

Teachers should have knowledge of how languages ​​work, what are the particularities of German and what the pitfalls might be.

To what extent is it necessary for teachers to be multilingual and master the students’ home language?
In the bilingual area or in mother tongue lessons, teachers require a high level of proficiency in both the children’s home language and the language of the environment. On the other hand, teachers who work in a school without a specific bilingual program do not necessarily have to speak the language of origin. However, you should have knowledge of how languages ​​work, what are the particularities compared to German and what the pitfalls might be. And they must be able to design learning opportunities in a didactic way in a way that promotes the language of instruction and includes the home language. This is a cross-cutting task. Teachers need these skills in all subjects.

Multilingualism should play a more important role in teacher training

Does teacher training adequately prepare for this?
In some states, such as North Rhine-Westphalia or Berlin and Brandenburg, this is already anchored in the curriculum and the topics of multilingualism, language training and German as a second language are mandatory components of the course. Other federal states have a lower degree of obligation. In Bavaria, for example, “Teaching German as a Second Language” (“DiDaZ”) is offered only as an additional and optional subject.

However, it is also clear that addressing multilingualism should be a continuing education topic for teachers and should continue to develop.

What about refugee students from Ukraine? Are there any points that deserve special attention here?
It is beneficial if newly immigrated pupils are offered the widest possible range of German language courses. As a rule, they do not receive it in collective accommodation and only at a reduced price in the reception classes. From the point of view of language acquisition, it would make more sense for children to have access to mainstream education as soon as possible. This was recommended by the Standing Scientific Commission of the Conference of Ministers of Education in its statement on support for children and young refugees from Ukraine. The younger the students, the more important this is, because younger children are better able to fall back on the mechanisms of first language acquisition.

In addition, they regularly come into contact with children who already live in Germany. Regardless of the “language bath”, this also allows them a bit of normality.

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