Everyone contributes to society

Bilingualism contributes to a cosmopolitan society

Prof. Mehlhorn, if you grow up bilingually, you speak two languages ​​perfectly at the same time - is that actually true?

No. The concept of bilingualism itself says nothing about the competence achieved in the two languages. A balanced bilingualism - that is, that both languages ​​are mastered equally at a very high level - is rather rare. Most bilinguals have a 'strong' and a 'weak' language. This language dominance can shift in the course of life. If, for example, Russian was acquired as the native language in the family, this language is dominant in early childhood. The longer the child goes to school, the greater the influence of German, as the child encounters the German language at every turn, not only in school, but also in everyday life. The language of origin is often pushed back in childhood and especially in adolescence, as there are only a few contact persons with whom it can be spoken at all.

W.ow are the terms language of origin and mother tongue different?

Language of origin is a technical term that is mainly used by scientists who research native languages. What is meant is a language that is acquired under conditions of limited linguistic contact in a foreign language environment, such as the example of Russian as the language of origin in Germany just mentioned.
mother tongueon the other hand, it is a term used in everyday language that is not directly defined, so that different people can understand different things by it. For some it is the language they master best, for others it is the language they prefer to speak or with whose speakers they identify more strongly. For others it is the language acquired first or the language actually learned by the mother, whereby "mother tongue" interestingly in other languages ​​also means "father language", "language of the fatherland" or "native language".
So what someone calls their mother tongue is, to a certain extent, quite individual and subjective. In multilingualism research, this term is avoided because one wants to distinguish phenomena that are being investigated from other phenomena. If speakers of origin describe themselves as Native speaker that is okay because they feel connected to the language. At the same time, the name awakens Native speaker most people expect very high language skills. These expectations are disappointed when it becomes apparent that a person can read and write very little in their native language. This can lead to stigmatization - one reason why one should be careful with external attribution Native speaker should be.

Bilingual adolescents have a great deal of spoken language skills in their native language, but often show weaknesses in writing. What can parents do to prevent their children from forgetting their native language?

First and foremost, they should continue to cultivate the language at home as a family language, because the nuclear family is often the only stable contact with the language of origin. This demands persistence and consistency from the parents, because it is usually easier for the young people to switch to German. If there is an opportunity to travel to the country of origin, the children will benefit greatly from the language. Today, relationships with other family members, for example grandparents in the country of origin, can also be cultivated using digital media. Lessons in the native language are also very helpful. Here the children are literate in their native language, learn to read and write and use the language in a wider context outside of the family. Classes in the native language often take place after a long day of class, are not relevant to grades and are therefore less prestigious than regular foreign language classes at school. That is why it takes a lot of strength and persistence for parents to motivate their children to attend these classes regularly.

What if the native language is not spoken throughout the family?

That the language of origin is still spoken in the family is a prerequisite for maintaining it. If a language is not used, it quickly rusts. One begins to forget the language. We have some students at our institute who grew up with Russian or Polish as their language of origin, stopped using them as young people and took their studies as an opportunity to study their roots and learn their language of origin again.

When do children and adolescents growing up bilingually come into contact with another language? And is it a prerequisite that the family's language of origin continues to be spoken throughout the family?

Depending on the family constellation, children can have contact with two or even more languages ​​from birth or at the latest when they enter the educational institutions of day care and school. The first foreign language, English, is then already the third language for bilingual children; usually other foreign languages ​​are also added.

Is it actually easier for young people who grew up bilingually to learn other foreign languages?

In our long-term project with Polish- and Russian-speaking families, we started from this hypothesis. We examined the bilingual adolescents during the lower secondary level over a period of four years after they had started to learn their second foreign language at the age of 12. Those adolescents who were literate early on in their language of origin, who had attended lessons in their language of origin over several years and who had developed a high level of language skills, had advantages in learning a foreign language. These young people enjoyed learning foreign languages ​​with pleasure and successfully, at the end of the project (at the age of 16) they had up to five languages ​​in their repertoire and in the interviews they told us which languages ​​they would like to learn. Those who hardly read and wrote in their first language also had less knowledge of the native language overall and learning other foreign languages ​​was not that easy for them.

Are young people even able to systematize language because of their development?

Cognitively, they are definitely capable of this. In our interviews, we found that some young people spontaneously compare between their languages. In order for this to take place systematically, however, they would have to be stimulated and supported even more in school through learning through discovery and corresponding language comparisons.

In your opinion, what are the greatest advantages when children and young people grow up bilingually?

People who grow up with two or more languages ​​can more easily immerse themselves in different cultures, appreciate other languages ​​and traditions and thus contribute to a cosmopolitan society. If both languages ​​are promoted appropriately, there are broader career prospects and greater cultural capital.

Grit Mehlhorn is professor for didactics of the Slavic languages ​​(Polish, Russian, Czech) at the Institute for Slavic Studies at the University of Leipzig. As part of a joint BMBF project, she worked with Prof. Dr. Bernhard Brehmer (University of Konstanz) carried out a long-term study on bilingual young people in Russian- and Polish-speaking families in Berlin, Hamburg and Leipzig with regard to their language skills in their native language and in German, their language use and attitudes towards their multilingualism.

Created by: Annika Schindelarz