Navigationsweiche Anfang

Navigationsweiche Ende

Select language

Early childhood multilingualism support
Prof. Dr. Natascha Müller / Romance Studies
Photo: Ramona Petrolle

Languages are subject to social prestige

Romance philologist Prof. Dr. Natascha Müller on the chances of supporting multilingualism in early childhood for our society

When a bilingual German-English educated toddler leaves the home with the words: "Ich gehe mal zum playground!", then this should not immediately set off alarm bells among parents and educators. "It may take half a year longer," the linguist Prof. Dr. Natascha Müller knows, "but by the time the children are five years old, you will see that they are competent, multilingual persons."

Linguistic confusion due to multiple languages?

She has held the chair for Romance languages at the University of Wuppertal since 2004 and has been working on the topic of multilingualism in early childhood for years. She studies French, Spanish and Italian children with two or even three mother tongues at kindergarten age. In linguistics, mixed-language utterances, so-called code-switching, are considered a special style of speech, which some say confuses children in their linguistic development. "You hear that all the time," the researcher says with a smile. "In longitudinal studies (a longitudinal study is a [...] study in which an empirical study is conducted at several points in time. The results of each wave of the study are compared. Editor's note) we have videotaped children from the age of one and a half to five years every 14 days and found that these melanges, which are very eye-catching to us as adults and also as linguists, occur at only about 5% of multilingual children." As a comparison, she cites the fact that we ourselves make verbal errors of 5% in our own native language. Therefore Müller is of the opinion that these alleged confusions actually do not exist. It is only particularly noticeable with multilingual children. On the contrary, Müller found in the research she conducted that, for example, German-Spanish children who were approached by a bilingual adult that constantly changed her language always responded monolingually. When children were systematically addressed in mixed languages, they did not respond in a confused manner. Rather, they chose a language and interacted with the adult. "They do not mix back. So I also suspect a very clear language separation that is present and demonstrable from infancy. You can say that the bilingual or even trilingual children are more rigid in language choice than we adults are," the researcher concludes.

We automatically use our native language according to the correct grammar

It happens particularly with children growing up multilingually that they express a word they do not know in one language in the other. Critics believe that grammar falls by the wayside in the process. "We have studied that, too," Müller says, "Rather, it is the case that bilingual children cannot always activate the words of both languages at the same rate. But they know the word. Now, communication is fast, there are quite a lot of processes going on in the brain, and of course children have to learn that. Sometimes it happens that they cannot access the word quickly enough in the adult language they want."
She also systematically examined grammar in mixed-language utterances and found that it was mostly applied automatically, instinctively and intuitively. Using a German-French example, she illustrates this as follows. "Table is a masculine word in German. We say 'the table`. In French it is a feminine word, we say 'la table`. 'Table' is the equivalent word in translation, but it is feminine. Now, when a bilingual child uses a French article with a German noun in a French utterance, he says 'le Tisch`", so it shows us that the German word 'table' is masculine, therefore the child marks the masculine form on the French article. Children follow the grammar, but sometimes parents and educators do not realize this because they intuitively follow the grammar rules in the mother tongue and do not consciously apply them.

World's largest collection of data on multilingual children

In 1997, Müller launched a five-year longitudinal study with meanwhile 48 children. It has developed into the world's largest collection of data on multilingual children, managed at the Wuppertal Romance Studies Center.
"We have unique language combinations, i.e., we have children who acquire Spanish-French, Italian-Spanish or French-Italian, and that really only happens through close contact with friends, with parents, etc.," the linguist explains. Even today, she maintains contact with former protégés and their parents. "Every four to six months we went to visit the parents who did the recordings for us in the Romance-speaking countries. They described their experiences and incidents to us, told us about their children's development and gave us the recordings, which we then brought to the University of Wuppertal and transcribed." It was a very personal, private project, which was evaluated by native speakers and could be reactivated at any time to this day.

Unfortunately, languages are subject to social prestige

There are still existing prejudices against multilingualism in early childhood in society. Müller explains that one reason for this is that different languages are subject to a certain social prestige. This has also been scientifically proven. There is little or no prejudice against languages that are close to us, which are also partly attributable to our education system. On the other hand, language combinations such as German-Turkish, German-Polish or German-Russian are more likely to be subject to the prejudice that these combinations cause problems in language acquisition. So we do not have prejudices against multilingualism in general, but against certain languages, and these prejudices should be reduced. Especially in school established languages suggest an advantage to us and we know them better. However, one must also consider and, this is also discussed in cognitive research, that one can use the language to one's advantage depending on the situation. "If a German-Turkish child is addressed in Turkish, it also responds in that language. It has the ability to always be able to deactivate a language. I can then implement this cognitive control very well in other areas," Müller explains. "From that point of view, it does not really matter which language you learn!"

The dedicated scientist primarily conducts research on Romance languages, i.e. preferably French, Italian and Spanish. In the German school population, however, Turkic or Arabic languages tend to dominate. Therefore, one may ask whether her scientific results of multilingualism studies can be applied to other languages. "The short answer to that is yes," Müller answers spontaneously. "I hear this question a lot! For the subjects I analyzed in my research project, I can say the following: we know that it works with German-French children, that it works with German-Italian children, just as it works with French-Spanish children, and so on. Why should it not work with Turkish and German?"

Learning delays and learning accelerations

One reason for the rejection of certain languages could be the monolingual structure of EU countries, where foreign native speakers come to work. They often also stay for longer periods of time, establish families, and naturally bring their languages with them. "I believe that the expectation of teachers, parents, as well as the environment for these multilingual children is overall very high. Here, you should be a little more accommodating and look at the outcome, because the bottom line is that it is going to be good. It may take a little longer because delay effects can set in." But the scientist was also able to demonstrate acceleration effects (editor's note) in both bilingual and trilingual (growing up with three languages) children. Interestingly, the number of languages acquired did not play a role.

Language acquisition only works when you are integrated into society

"You can associate a language with a person," Müller says, "i.e. the father is Italian, the mother is German. The parents live in Germany. The child hears Italian from the father, German from the mother, German from the surroundings as well. So one person, one language! It works." But an environment can also promote language acquisition. "If, for example, both parents came to Germany from Turkey, they, of course, speak Turkish with the child in the family. But outside, the child is sonicated in German," she explains. I.e., whether strict language separation by person or environment, language acquisition always works when people are integrated into society and the respective languages are being  actively supported.
"The host society must ensure that these children, if possible, already hear and speak German in the toddler group, outside the family. There are always many hours in a day where a child hears the respective language."

Why do we not use the insights of preschool acquisition in schools?

If language acquisition is so much faster in children than in adults, the question inevitably arises as to why these findings are not used more in schools. "An excellent question," the researcher confirms, and continues, "Of course, I ask myself that too. Especially in light of the fact that we are analyzing educational languages." One reason, Müller speculates, could be the fact that her research ends when compulsory schooling begins. "We study natural language acquisition and, actually, phonetic language acquisition." But the fact is, that foreign language acquisition of educational languages in school is nowhere nearly as successful as multilingual acquisition in early childhood. Foreign language acquisition in school could benefit from the findings from first language acquisition in her research. Learning materials would need to be adapted for this purpose. In the students' current learning materials, there are linguistic rules which, from the research point of view, tend to make foreign language acquisition more difficult.

Natascha Müller considers the  meaningful use of native speakers in the classroom as another worthwhile approach. "I have always wondered why the institution of school does not do this." We are growing together as an EU, an ever-increasing mobility exists, thus it would be logical to let this flow into the institutions as well. "In short, I would like to see a native bilingual German-Italian teaching the children Italian, a German-Spanish person teaching the children Spanish, and a German-French person teaching the children French. Then it would be natural."
Children who already brought these languages to school would, at the same time, be a wonderful resource in teaching them.

Uwe Blass (Interview on February 22, 2021)


Prof. Dr. Natascha Müller has held the Chair of Romance Linguistics in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of Wuppertal since 2004.