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EXPLAINED: The rise in multilingual children in Germany

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

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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