Juggling between languages

7 Feb 2022

The gateway into a new life: Linguist Claudia Maria Riehl is studying how multilingualism becomes a door opener for children and young people who move to another country.

Nine-year-old Alex switches effortlessly between English, Italian, and German — depending on who he’s talking to at the time. Born in Australia to an Australian father and Canadian mother, English was the first language the boy was exposed to daily since his birth. But it’s not the only one: Both his parents have Italian roots, so they decided early on that his father would speak to him in Italian. When Alex was two years old, the family moved to Germany. The child learned to speak German at daycare — without much effort at all. His parents faced far greater difficulty getting to grips with the new language, partly due to the fact that the ability to speak German was nowhere near as important to them in their own daily lives as it was for their son.

Children in primary school — for some of them different languages are the norm.

© Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

Multilingualism is not an issue that only affects children like Alex who live in homes where different languages are the norm. Those who move to another country — whether to study, for work, or because they had to flee their homeland — are also faced with the task of acquiring another language. And preferably learning it well enough to speak it fluently in everyday life and to understand the social subtleties that people express in their words. After all, even government integration policy sees language competency as the key to integration. Professor Claudia Maria Riehl, who heads the Institute for German as a Foreign Language at LMU, is studying how people manage to learn the language of their new home country to a good standard. She knows that context plays an important role — it makes a big difference whether people have the chance to try out what they learn in everyday situations such as at school or work, or whether they mainly use it in the more artificial setting of the language classroom. And she knows that how well learners in a new land master the language of the country they came from — both verbally and in writing — has a key influence on how successful they are at learning the new language.

“I’ve always been fascinated by languages,” says Claudia Maria Riehl. It started in school. Her first foreign language was Latin: “Almost a waste of time, really,” she comments with a wry smile. Latin is, after all, not a language that helps you communicate with people from other countries and cultures. “But then again, my knowledge of Latin has of course enabled me to access Italian and other Romance languages more easily.”

Picking up new languages is a passion that Riehl still has to this day. But what she is keen to know above all is what helps people learn languages — or even juggle several languages on a daily basis, like Alex does. So it made sense for her to take a degree in German language and literature and eventually seek work as a linguist researching questions of exactly that sort. “I was initially interested in German-speaking minorities in other countries, for example in East Belgium, South Tyrol, Eastern Europe, but also Namibia too,” says Riehl. Later, as a professor at Cologne, she began to bring the focus of her work onto the situation in Germany, looking particularly at the issue of multilingualism in the context of migration. It’s an issue she is still focusing on now she is at LMU Munich.

What makes learning German easier

There are no confirmed figures on the scale of multilingualism in Germany. But it is known that in some of the big cities, around fifty percent of children and young people come from a migration background. Scholars assume that in some of the country’s regions about half of schoolchildren, in addition to knowing German, use another language at home. Among the common questions are: How does a child learn German if they speak only their parents’ language at home up until they start kindergarten? How do school-age children learn German when they first come to Germany? And what role does their first language play in this?

“The belief that a child’s first language could hinder their efforts to learn German is a prejudice we commonly encounter here,” says Riehl. People frequently question whether it makes sense for children to be having supplementary lessons in their first language in addition to German lessons, or whether this is actually more detrimental. “Based on our research, we can say with certainty that supplementary lessons are not detrimental,” says the linguist. “On the contrary, it can even be very helpful for the child to have a good command of their first language.” That might be obvious to most people if, say, the languages are related: if the children — or even adult learners — can derive the meaning of new German words from knowledge of their mother tongue, for example, or if they use similar grammatical constructions to help them form sentences in the new language.

But even with languages like Arabic, which are not related to German, it is beneficial for learners to have a good command of their mother tongue. This is because every language trains people’s competency in writing as well as their communication skills. “If a child has already learned to write coherently in one language, they will find it easier to accomplish the same task in German,” Riehl explains. For example, if they have learned how to tell a story, how to build suspense, how to use adjectives to describe a scene, or how direct speech works, then they will be able to reproduce all of this in their German writing.

Where the linguist has observed particular difficulties, however, is in the case of children who have not been able to attend school for several years due to war and the need to flee their home country. “It is precisely this written competency that is lacking and the children then find it difficult to acquire these skills in the new language, in German,” says Riehl. Here, too, it could potentially be beneficial to first learn the missing writing skills in the native language that the child already knows, at least to speak. But this is an aspect the researcher has not yet investigated.

One thing she is certain of is that, “Children who have a good command of their mother tongue also do better in German.” Any nurturing of competency in one language will ultimately benefit the child’s overall language competency. And that’s not all: Scholars have long since proven that multilingualism improves mental flexibility. That is because switching between two or more languages requires well-developed cognitive control functions — which are reflected in much more than just verbal skills. The brain’s executive functions are also strengthened, these being the mechanisms generally responsible for processes of attention control.

Children who have a good command of their mother tongue also do better in German.

© Christian Beutler/Keystone/Laif

A new home after fleeing the war in Syria

It is therefore justifiable for language acquisition to be considered the Holy Grail of integration policy. But not all language acquisition is the same. To what extent children and adult students can learn the language of a new country well enough to actually use it in everyday life depends on many factors.

This is something that Riehl recently studied together with her fellow scientist at LMU, Katrin Lindner, and Canadian colleagues at the University of Toronto. The researchers wanted to know whether there were differences in how migrants who fled the war in Syria learn the respective national language in Germany and in Canada. They interviewed 15 Syrian children between the ages of 9 and 15 — nine living in Toronto and six in Munich — and their parents about their language habits: Do they tend to use their native language or the language of their new country in their everyday life?

The picture that emerged was one of immense differences between the respondents in Canada and in Germany. In Canada, the Syrian families stated that they spoke predominantly Arabic or Kurdish at home. And they encouraged their children to use their respective mother tongue among themselves. The parents stressed that it was important not to forget the mother tongue and to keep it alive. The desire for children to speak Arabic well was even stronger in Muslim families as this is the language of the Qur’an. So religious motives also play a role in the use of language. But it was important to the Christian families and the Kurdish speakers too to use their first language at home.

The respondents believed that English was something the children would learn in school and playing with their peers anyway. The parents too were very committed to learning English and improving their language skills — both in language classes and at work. Overall, the researchers concluded that all the families were committed to integrating well into the society of their new adopted country.

Multilingualism for a modern society

The Syrian families in Germany, on the other hand, demonstrated different preferences in their language use. They too used their mother tongue among themselves. But the children preferred to speak German to each other — which seemed to suit the parents: They insisted on how important it was for the children to master the language of their new home. The adults themselves had more difficulty with German than their children. And they also had a much harder time with language acquisition than respondents in Canada did, and overall showed no marked tendency to integrate into German society — their children, on the other hand, fitted in very well. “It’s an incredible achievement on the part of the children here: They are even acting as linguistic and cultural messengers for their parents,” says Riehl.

So what is behind this discrepancy between Syrian refugees in Canada and those in Germany? “One explanation is the serious differences in the everyday conditions the refugees live in,” says Riehl. Syrian newcomers to Germany live in collective accommodation centres for long periods of time and have no opportunity to work. For many of them, this means they are mainly in contact with people from their home country. They learn German in language classes, but they rarely have the chance to use the language in interactions with native speakers. “That is where they would learn the subtleties of the language,” says Riehl. “Including when a certain phrase or expression is appropriate and when it is not.”

In Canada, on the other hand, refugee families quickly get allocated their own apartments and a work permit. This helps adults and children alike to start using the new language in their daily life and to learn the cultural nuances. Thus, language for them does not remain merely theoretical, it actually becomes a tool for accessing a new society with all its norms and customs, and ultimately for integrating into that society. “We have to get past this pigeonholing, this ideology that views languages as closed systems,” says Riehl. As she points out, “Multilingualism is not a handicap for immigrants with integration problems; it is one of the basic requirements for a modern society.”

Prof. Dr. Claudia Maria Riehl is Chair of German Linguistics with a focus on German as a Foreign Language and Director of the Institute for German as a Foreign Language at LMU. Born in 1962, Riehl studied German philology, Latin, and Italian at the Catholic University of Eichstätt, where she also received her doctorate in German linguistics. After earning her habilitation at the University of Freiburg and holding a series of academic positions at the Universities of Freiburg, Kiel, and Prague, she was appointed Professor of German Linguistics at the University of Cologne before joining LMU in 2012.

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