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EXPLAINED: The rise in multilingual children in Germany

Around 100 languages circulate around school yards in Germany. We look at the push to recognize the value of multilingualism at home - and in the classroom.

EXPLAINED: The rise in multilingual children in Germany
A volunteer works on teaching reading in German at a school in Naumberg. Photo: DPA.

Most people have only one. Seymen, age three, and Ensar, age seven, have two. They speak Turkish with their parents and grandparents and German in school and with their friends.

The children jump from one mother tongue to the other, and back, without any problem. 

READ ALSO: 'Multilingualism is an enrichment, not a deficit': Raising bilingual kids in Germany

“Sometimes we drive to Turkey to visit our grandma and grandpa,” explains Ensar in German, and then argues about something with his brother in Turkish. 

Ensar, Seymen, and their mother Aslihan. Photo: DPA.

“I am already three and in Kindergarten,” says Seymen proudly, flipping through the pages in a German-language children’s book and then whining about something in Turkish. His mom is supposed to play with him now. 

“Our method is: to speak Turkish as much as possible at home, German consistently outside of the house,” describes their mother Aslihan Bakkal, whose older son Ensar also attended an English-speaking preschool. 

“To grow up speaking multiple languages is a benefit, an enrichment. The children will therefore also grow up in two cultures,” she said. 

Even so, bilingualism is not always easy for Seymen and Ensar. They go through phases where Turkish is more popular, then German. Their mother Bakkal, fluent in Turkish and German, says:

“Linguistic demands are made of them in Kindergarten and at school. I don’t want to put them in a bind. Perfect German is the priority.” 

International Mother Language Day 

This dictionary entry shows dialectical variations for the word 'Muttersprache' in German. Photo: DPA.

The promotion of linguistic and cultural diversity is exactly the focus of the International Mother Language Day on February 21st, established by the United Nations. 

Over 100 languages are circulating around school yards in Germany, says Stefanie Bredthauer from the Mercator Institute for Linguistic Research and German as Second Language.

READ ALSO: The German words we use everyday – that are actually French

Different languages have been brought to Germany by migrants for decades. “From that, one can assume that approximately a third of students grow up being bilingual or multilingual,” she notes.

There are regional differences, depending on the amount of immigration in the area. North Rhine-Westphalia – Germany’s most populated state –  is one of the hotspots when it comes to linguistic diversity, according to an expert at the University of Cologne. 

Enough room in the head?

Apart from linguistic geniuses, is there room for two mother tongues in a typical child’s head? Can both function beside one another without error?  

A student with a German-Esperanto dictionary. Photo: DPA. 

Bredthauer argues that it is rare for someone to master two languages with the same level of competence and range of vocabulary. 

So is it better for one to concentrate on one mother tongue? 

Bredthauer finds the approach to shift the focus to one language to be typically German, but argues that, “The education system should recognize the potential of multilingualism and systematically use and promote it.”

Neighbours like France or the Netherlands are further along than Germany in recognizing the value of multilingualism. 

‘Use children as experts’                             

Children work in many languages at this international school in Magdeburg. Photo: DPA. 

All languages should be valued equally, warns Bredthauer. Language is also identity, and learning has a lot to do with motivation.

She observes that “children who have also enjoyed speaking another language outside of German suddenly refuse to do so when they enter school because they have a different mentality”.

In Bredthauer’s assessment, there is far too often the impression that only German is the desired language. Whether Arabic, Turkish, Polish, or Russian, teachers should include all languages that the students bring from home – and use the children as experts. 

READ ALSO: Children who don't speak German 'shouldn't be allowed to start school'

‘At home in many languages’

Being at home in many languages is a valuable resource, notes the Dortmand educational researcher Nele McElvany. It can open up orientation to another country and professional opportunities later in life. 

The following is important for bilingual language acquisition: The earlier the better. 

Children are particularly capable of learning in the first years of life. “Those who are competent and at a high level of bilingualism often started with two languages very early on and were practically socialized in both languages,” McElvany elaborated. 

Individual factors are also significant, such as the quality of the language input, linguistic talent, and personality. McElvany emphasizes that: ““One must never play the languages off against each other.” 

“Bilingualism and multilingualism are increasing,” she added. “This is absolutely a relevant theme. One can and should trust children to grow up with two languages and find their way.”

Translated by Kate Brady.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

How (and when) to swear like a German

We are certainly not advocating the use of these words, but they are important to know (in case anyone uses them against you). Here are some of the German words you certainly shouldn’t use with elderly in-laws.

How (and when) to swear like a German
"Are you talking to me?" Photo: DPA

Geil

We’ll start with a word so common you’ve probably even heard some embarrassing politicians use it as they try to get down wid da kids

Geil is used to mean “cool” or “wow”. To show extreme approval, you can draw it out and say guy-el. The word literally means “horny”. It is often used in the following phrase “ej, du geile Sau”, which is a pretty crude way of telling someone you find them attractive (hey, you horny pig).

Our advice: be careful with this word! As common as “geil” is in everyday slang, it could still cause your conservative father-in-law to choke on his Lebkuchen during Christmas dinner.

READ ALSO: Nerdy flowers to alcoholic birds: the 12 most colourful German insults

Kruzifix!

This one is a shout out to all the old Bavarian men out there. “Kruzifix!” or “Sakrament!” is something you shout out in pain in the southern state if you’ve stubbed a toe or accidentally hit your finger with a hammer.

Our rule: don’t scream this word out in the presence of a priest. Avoid using on Sundays.

Mist

Here is a classic German joke for you: An American tourist driving through the German countryside is lost. He pulls up at a farm and shouts to the nearest farm hand “Hey Mister, I need some help.” The puzzled farmhand replies “Ich bin nicht der Mister, ich bin der Melker.”

The joke being – a Mekler is someone who milks the cows. A Mister would theoretically be someone he cleans out the Mist, the manure.

The word Mist, which you mutter when something has gone wrong, literally dung, is even an acceptable word for children to use and is equivalent to “flip or “darn it” in English.

Our advice: one to avoid if you’re trying to impress teenagers, otherwise safe.

Leck mich!

This is an abbreviated version of a sentence that is just a bit too rude to appear in a news publication of our standing.

It means “lick me.” Let’s put it this way, it’s not a sexy invitation to someone to lick chocolate from your chest. It refers instead to a less appetising brown substance and essentially means “f*** off!”

We don’t know what Baden-Württemberg’s former culture minister, Gabriele Warminski-Leitheußer, was saying here… but we’re pretty sure we know what she means. Photo: DPA

Schattenparker!

This word belongs to the fantastic German tradition of making up insults to throw at people based on perceived cowardly behaviour.

A Schattenparker is literally someone who parks in a shadow. Sensible behaviour, one might think. Not to the hardy German though – parking in shadow proves you can’t take the heat.

Famed members of this very manly collection are Warmduscher (warm showerer) and Frauenversteher (woman understander) – even if these should not exactly be insults. You can make up just about anything to add to the list, as this website proves.

Our advice: throw in a few original ones at Christmas dinner and German relatives will be cooing at the progress you’re making in German.

Vollpfosten

This word is the equivalent to the English expression “as thick as two planks.” You use it to insult someone’s intelligence “Ej, du Vollpfosten”, which means “hey, thicko”, or literally “you big pole”.

Our advice: One to keep in your arsenal if a driver cuts you off on your cycle to work and then fails to apologise.

“Ey, du Vollpfosten!” Photo: DPA

Scheiße

We all know the German word for shit, but one of its most appealing qualities is the fact that you can stick it to the front of just about any noun to indicate disapproval. “Der Scheißkerl” means “that arsehole”, but you can add it to anything, really. Scheißwetter, Scheißaufgabe, Scheißauto… the possibilities are endless.

Our advice: have fun with this one.

Arschkalt

A seasonally relevant one to end things. Literally “arse cold” – we’re not really sure why – but it’s a good way to hate on the long, grey German winter.

Our advice: will go down well with a Berliner if you want to show you’ve got a bit of Schnauze.

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