On this page, we would like to give you a few facts about multilingual growing up, answer open questions and dispel myths.

In many parts of the world (about 70%), several languages are a reality in a society. This means that globally speaking, multilingualism is the norm and monolingualism the exception. And even for Germany, the 2016 education report shows that about a quarter of the German population is not monolingual in German.

This statement immediately raises the question of what exactly multilingualism means and which people do or do not belong to it. However, there is no generally valid definition here, because the construct of growing up with several languages is so diverse and multi-faceted that it is not so easy to define. As Ms Hofbauer (2018) points out in her book "Sprachen und Kulturen im Kita-Alltag" (Languages and Cultures in Daycare), one question is always from which perspective we look at multilingualism. Some definitions, for example, take the linguistic level as a starting point and see as multilingual only those people who speak several languages as fluently as monolingual people (Bloomfield, 1992). In other definitions, it is sufficient to be able to understand, read, speak or write another language (MacNamara, 1967). With the perspective of putting the use of languages in the foreground, other definitions emerge, which, for example, describe people as multilingual as soon as they regularly use different languages in everyday conversations (Grosjean, 1982) or simply people who feel comfortable in several languages (Kielhöfer and Jonekeit, 2002). In the academic and social context, the second perspective is increasingly used as a basic definition and we also subscribe to this view. Riehl (2014, p.9) adds that languages are not only understood as official national languages, "but also regional, minority and sign languages and even language varieties such as dialects." We would even like to add everyday language and educational language to this list.

Thought experiment: What does "being multilingual" mean to you? Think briefly about what it means to you and what expectations you have of multilingual people. The following impulses may help you.

  • What language(s) do I speak?
  • In which situations do I use which language(s)?
  • Which language(s) do I know from my family?
  • Do I see myself as multilingual? Why (not)?
  • Do I want to be multilingual? Do I want my children to be multilingual?
  • Do I speak a dialect? Is that also a "different language"?
  • What do I think and what do I expect when a person tells me that they are "growing up multilingual"?
  • Do I find moreLanguage growing up with, for example, English "better" than with Arabic? Why (not)?
  • Do I automatically change my language when I notice that my conversation partner is multilingual? Why (not)?

Rosemarie Tracy (2008) summarises the difficulty in her book "How Children Learn Languages" as follows: "It is unrealistic to expect a bilingual to be able or willing to converse enthusiastically in all his or her languages with any interlocutors about all kinds of topics with equal fluency and rhetorical skill." (S.51). And if we are completely honest, this is also the case with monolinguals - we cannot talk about every topic with every interlocutor fluently and with rhetorical fluency. Rosemarie Tracy also points out that any discrepancies or lack of knowledge between monolingual and multilingual people are often attributed to the multilingual life situation.

However, multilingual children develop in the same way as monolingual children. Some with more challenges in language development, others with fewer. Multilingual children can be strong linguistically or have strengths in other areas of education, just as monolingual children do.

Multilingualism or, in close connection with this term, migration background, is therefore not a negative factor per se, but different influences and life situations can have different effects (cf. Chilla, Niebuhr-Siebert, 2017). We can therefore state that multilingualism is an opportunity for children and families, but not an excessive demand.

What possibilities do you have as a caregiver, whether parents/families, pedagogical staff or parent guides, to support the children in their language acquisition?

Chilla and Fox Boyer (2016) say in their book "Bilingualism/Bilingualism. A Guide for Parents": "for all children, whether growing up multilingual or monolingual, the development of language is very individual and depends on the quantity and quality of language available, the individual possibilities and the motivation from within and without.

It is important that there is regular and extensive contact with all languages and that communication situations can and may be experienced in all languages (this includes playing, reading together, songs/music and conversations). It is also beneficial if the role model function is lived, i.e. children experience that their caregivers also use media, books, etc. in all languages in everyday life. Furthermore, it is helpful for children if there is a fundamentally appreciative attitude, children are allowed to use their languages in conversations and see themselves represented in their multilingual reality in the educational institutions.

The importance of family language as an influencing factor should not be underestimated. It is particularly relevant for the development of identity because children begin to discover the world with it and are given their first opportunities to express needs, wishes and feelings and thus to form an image of themselves.

In addition, the family language shapes the knowledge children have about language, even if they cannot express it concretely. Nevertheless, they draw on it in their further learning. How society or, on a smaller scale, caregivers evaluate a language (think of the prestige of English or, in contrast, Arabic) and, accordingly, what attitude is conveyed towards speakers of this language, also shapes how successful the acquisition of another language is. (Scharff Rethfeldt, 2013)

There is also an often controversial view on the question of whether language blends are harmful. Since there is scientific evidence that the separation between languages acquired by a child takes place at a very early age, the argument that language blends are a sign of incomplete or faulty multilingualism is invalidated. On the contrary, there is a lot of evidence that language blends are part of the natural communication and identity in multilingual families and thus a sign of competent language behaviour. So, as caregivers, we can sit back and admire the children for their competencies in multilingualism and focus on their content statements to learn more about their worldview. (Panagiotopoulou, 2016; Chilla & Fox-Boyer, 2016)

Finally, a last section on the sometimes prevailing language bans in educational institutions.

To this end, we would first like to invite you to another thought experiment, based on an exercise from Ms Hofbauer's book (p.46, 2018):

Imagine that you are taking part in an intensive language course abroad. During the lunch break, you meet another German-speaking person and chat casually for a while. When the course instructor passes you, he says "But they don't speak German here". How do you feel? Why? What could this statement do to your conversation?

What does this mean for the children?

Here is a brief background on children's motivation to learn. They often learn out of two different motivations. On the one hand, because something is interesting and fascinating or, on the other hand, out of an urgent necessity, for example, to fulfil their needs. If we look at these two prerequisites for learning, it becomes clear that a language ban will not necessarily have the expected positive effect on the acquisition of German. Especially if this ban is in place without an obvious and comprehensible reason behind it. Another very important point at this point is that good relationships have a positive influence on learning. Of course, this also applies to language learning - therefore, the development of a good and sustainable relationship should play an important role.

Furthermore, it is the task of educational professionals in the educational institutions to observe the children and their language behaviour and then to reflect whether and to what extent the children have opportunities to speak German and whether changes in the structure, the offer or the approach may be necessary in order to increase the qualitative input.

Sources and references:

  • Bloomfield, L. (1992). Language. Fourth Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Chilla, S. & Niebuhr-Siebert, S. (2017). Multilingualism in the Kita. Foundations-concepts-education. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.
  • Chilla, S. & Fox Boyer, A. (2016). Bilingualism/ Bilingualism. A guide for parents. 2nd revised edition. Idstein: Schulz Kirchner.
  • Grosjean, F. (1982). Life with Two Languages. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
  • Hofbauer, Ch. (2018). Sprachen und Kulturen im Kita-Alltag. Freiburg: Herder.
  • Kielhöfer, B. & Jonekeit, S. (2002). Bilingual child education. 11th ed. Tübingen: Stauffenburg.
  • MacNamara, J. (1967). The bilingual's linguistic performance: A psychological overview. Journal of Social Issues 23, pp. 59-77.
  • Panagiotopoulou, A. (2016). Multilingualism in childhood. Perspectives for Early Childhood Education Practice. Weiterbildungsinitiative Frühpädagogische Fachkräfte, WiFF-Expertisen, Vol. 46. Munich. Online: To the PDF
  • Riehl, C. (2014). Multilingualism. An introduction. Darmstadt: WBG
  • Scharff Rethfeldt, W. (2013). Child multilingualism. Foundations and practice of speech therapy intervention. Stuttgart: Thieme.
  • Tracy, R. (2008). How children learn languages and how we can support them. Tübingen: Francke Verlag.