Multilingualism of children : "Some languages are considered more valuable than others".

May 12, 2023

Children's multilingualism: "Some languages are considered more valuable than others"

Multilingualism fascinates many parents - some so much that they wish for their child to be fluent in more than just their native language. Anja Leist-Villis has been researching and writing about multilingualism and how it can succeed for years. In this interview, she explains whether it's pointless for German-speaking parents to speak English with their young child, and why some people only think certain languages are great. This article is part of ZEIT am Wochenende, issue 18/2023.

ZEIT magazin ONLINE: In your book, you quote a Greek mother who tells of a visit to a restaurant in Germany. When the son speaks Greek with her, a woman from the next table says to him, "We're in Germany here. Speak German!" On the other hand, there are German-speaking couples of parents who go to great lengths to speak only French or English with their child one weekday a week in order to teach him another language as early as possible. How do these contrasting observations fit together?

Anja Leist-Villis: That has a lot to do with the reputation of a language. Some languages are considered more valuable than others. English, French, Spanish or even Mandarin are such languages with high prestige. And with English or French in particular, parents may remember how exhausting it was at school to learn a new language and want to make it easier for their child. However, there are also languages that are generally not held in such high esteem.

ZEIT magazin ONLINE: In Germany, you could mention Turkish, Arabic, or Albanian as examples.

‍AnjaLeist-Villis: Yes, and when someone in Germany says, "I don't want to hear Arabic here," he or she often doesn't want the people themselves here either. The two are closely related, and then phrases like, "Can the child also speak German?" come up. Or, "What is the child supposed to do with the language?"

ZEIT magazin ONLINE: I like to leave out the polemical and racist undertone and ask you as a scientist: What does the child get out of a foreign language?

Anja Leist-Villis:In the case of English or French, parents probably promise themselves a general advantage later on in school. And of course nowadays it is simply useful and important to have a good knowledge of English and French. In principle, however, every language that is additionally taught in the first years of life, especially by native speakers, represents added value for the child.

ZEIT magazin ONLINE: Which one?

Anja Leist-Villis: This is how children develop the awareness that there are several languages. And curiosity. If you were to ask children, they would probably prefer to learn Turkish, for example, if there are many Turkish-speaking children in their daycare center or school. Because that way they could communicate with them in Turkish as well.

ZEIT magazin ONLINE: About one in five children under the age of 14 grows up multilingual in Germany today, for example because they live in a binational family or in a family of non-German origin. What opportunity or good fortune lies in that for these children?

Anja Leist-Villis: I find the wording a bit difficult because it is something completely normal for these families and children - neither luck nor bad luck, it is simply their reality. But if you look at it from the outside, you can see: In the first years of life, children learn languages without having to make a conscious effort or exert themselves. Later, in foreign language classes, they have to learn vocabulary and rules and practice them. Young children learn language unconsciously, intuitively. This is indeed a miracle, because they already apply grammatical rules, although according to their cognitive development they are not yet able to abstract. And they make surprisingly few mistakes. Because many mistakes are actually not mistakes at all. When a child says "I ate this" instead of "ate that," he or she is following a rule: "cook" > "cooked," "paint" > "painted" and "eat" > "ate. To use this intuitive process is of course an advantage. That's why it's always good to start language acquisition as early as possible. In addition, children who grow up with several languages usually have a higher level of language awareness, which can help them to learn other languages later on.