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Multilingualism in schools
Prof. Dr. Sara Hägi-Mead / Institute for Educational Research in the School of Education
Foto: Friederike von Heyden

The promotion of multilingualism in schools serves social development

Prof. Dr. Sara Hägi-Mead, Professor at the Institute for Educational Research in the School of Education at the University of Wuppertal, researches and teaches on multilingualism in schools

At least since the Ordinance on Teacher Training (Lehramtszugangsverordnung, LZV), the significance of multilingualism in German schools has been an important topic, . But yet, it is not always easy to implement. "Since 2009, there has been an ordinance that obliges all future teachers to attend a module titled `German for migrant pupils` during their teacher training in North Rhine-Westphalia," says Prof. Dr. Sara Hägi-Mead. Since 2007, she has been responsible for multilingualism in schools at the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Wuppertal. She wants to professionalize prospective teachers by filling the political decision with scientific findings that can actually be implemented in schools. "From a scientific perspective, we know that it is not just about students whose second language is German. But it is also about so-called educational language skills that all students need," she explains. There are strong differences in what children bring from home. Schools sometimes presuppose knowledge that many students do not have, and as a result are discriminated against. "My task is to counter this discrimination, and to professionalize (prospective) teachers accordingly!" The module includes the courses "German as a Second Language, Multilingualism and Interculturality in Schools" and "Linguistic and Didactic Deepening of German as a Second Language".

Dealing with silence

The professionalization in dealing with language and multilingualism in the classroom also has a nonverbal side. Hägi-Mead is conviced that this should not be underestimated. She titled an essay on this topic 'Bluntly and through the flower. When taboos are (not) addressed'. "It is about dealing with silence. When does silence take place? When is there no silence? What is being kept silent about? What is not being kept silent about? And who can decide about it?" she explains, since silence can also protect. Often, teachers unintentionally overstep boundaries by asking private questions that should not necessarily be addressed in order to achieve communication. Something like: 'Where were you yesterday?' On the other hand, there are areas in which silence can also protect perpetrators, i.e., in the area of bullying or discrimination. "These are areas where we have to take a closer look, where it is important to break the silence. It is about finding forms, or raising awareness, for these areas." The researcher knows, that it will lead to important changes in democratic coexistence, if we succeed in breaking down taboos in these cases. "It is actually mainly about the consent of the other person, obtaining this consent, negotiating it and not solely determining what is talked about." To do this, she says, you have to develop a feeling for things, and also want and allow development in the sense of empowerment.

The Dictionary of Variants

Language has always played an important role in Sara Hägi-Mead's life. She initially studied German and Russian at the University of Cologne. She honestly admits that "Russian was very difficult for me to learn as a foreign language". But she pulled through and even spent a year in St. Petersburg. After several teaching positions at various universities in Germany, she was able to join a very special, trinational research project as a research assistant in Vienna in 2012 that had never been done before: The Dictionary of Variants of German. "There are national varieties of a language such as British English, American English or Australian English," she explains, "and in the same way there are standard varieties of German. Austrian Standard German, Swiss Standard German, and German Standard German. German is a pluricentric language, with multiple centers. But commonly, even in the Duden, expressions that are specific to Germany are declared to be the communal German." The native Swiss explains it this way, "In the Duden, for example, you have something like velo, the Swiss term for 'bicycle,' or marille, the Austrian term for 'apricot.' But it does not say, e.g., in the entry Azubi, that it is a term specifically used in Germany for 'apprentice."

For a long time, there have been smaller Duden volumes with the title 'Wie sagt man in Österreich' and 'Wie sagt man in der Schweiz' for Austria and Switzerland. The Dictionary of Variants is the first of its kind. It exclusively lists standard language variants of all national centers of Germans. In addition to Helvetisms and Austriazisms, German variants are also listed, so-called Teutonisms or Deutschlandisms. This is to counter an understanding of a layman that equates everything that does not belong to the standard German of Germany with dialects. Standard German of Germany is rather one of several standard varieties, although, due to the political and economic strength of the center, undoubtedly globally the dominant one. "I was then responsible for the Austriazisms. As a Swiss who lived in Germany for many years, I could recognize those quite well."

Hierarchical structures in the classroom

Hägi-Mead also always addresses the hierarchical teaching relationship created by linguistic competencies, in her lectures and seminars. "You have to be aware of this asymmetrical relationship in the classroom all the time," she says. With regard to students, who are new to a school in the official German-speaking area, as so-called lateral entrants, it is a matter of eliciting topics and communication needs, and not just reducing people to one language, German. "In the beginning, you can get along with expressions, intonation and repetition. Ultimately, the methodological approach also depends on the type of  learning students correspond to and to what they are open."

Language serves political interests

"My interest in language policy is driven by the instance that I want to show or make people aware of the interests behind it," she explains. People do not always want to hear that. If you think about German as a foreign language, look at the Goethe Institutes around the world, and know how much money is spent on promoting the language German abroad, then this commitment is also subject to economic interests all the time. "This is not always so obvious, but teachers must be aware of this and take it into account. They are part of this system and have a greater influence on it than they are aware of or would like to have. It is no coincidence which languages are taught and learned as foreign languages in schools worldwide, and which are not. These are language-political developments and decisions. They are important to be thought about and possibly reconsidered."

Then, she said, one must also think about people who bring along mother languages other than German, but which are not necessarily desired in school. In cases, where German is required in the classroom the other mother languages are completely devalued. And that, naturally has an impact on the identities of the students.


Ranking of languages at German schools


The implementation of multilingualism in German schools is subject to a certain hierarchy. "You have a subject for English, Spanish, etc.. Therefore, it is thought of in a language-specific way, which is not how it works in a multilingual mind," the researcher says. "It is divided into languages in different ways. There are languages in schools that have more value than others. If a foreign language is taught in schools, if there are grades for it, if everyone can participate in these lessons, then it has a high prestige. In addition, there are other languages, some of which are taught in the so-called language of origin classes. However, not all students can attend these classes. It is not designed for the majority society and that means per se that these classes have less prestige." At this point, there is still a considerable lack of implementation, although Hägi-Mead does not yet know of a satisfactory solution. Many imponderables of multilingualism are also due to invisibility, she says, since teachers often do not know which languages their students may also speak. "It is not just about promoting the German language," says the educational researcher, "but enabling both personal and social development through multilingualism".

Multilingualism and ist often difficult implementation


Hägi-Mead sees multilingualism as an important resource, that both in teaching and in research, aims at a socially just and constructive handling of migration-related, linguistic heterogeneity in kindergartens and in schools providing general and vocationals education. This socially just and constructive approach begins with reflecting on one's own positioning. One must be aware of one's involvement in power relations and avoid using terms that are not necessary. The term "migration background", for example, is to be seen as a deficit-oriented image, the native Swiss says. "I am never called a person with a migration background, although I have a migration background according to the definition of the Federal Statistical Office." Actually, the term only ever describes deficits, and says nothing about competencies, but is equated with them. "There it starts with the increased socially just implementation. That is already everyday racism."

Together with her team, Hägi-Mead works on concepts for language-aware teaching in all subjects. Therefore, she cooperates with subject teachers. She uses multilingual biographies of students, which they write down and make available to her. By the use of these stories she gains a picture of their understanding of and attitudes toward multilingualism, as well as opportunities for improvement in teaching. "Sometimes, we then see where there are still gaps and inconsistencies, and notice where teaching needs to address one thing or another better."

The implementation of research results into the practice are the successful results of years of work. She experiences a lot of support in the cooperation with the schools. She concludes by formulating a basic idea that would significantly promote multilingualism in schools: "We are all part of this migration society, there are not only those with and those without a migration background. We are one society. This is the idea I would like to see."


"Multilingualism means that our thoughts are not attached to a particular language, not stuck to its words. Our multilingualism is the linguistic scope of our intellectual freedom."
                             (Mario Wandruszka, Austrian linguist)


Uwe Blass (Interview on December 2, 2020)


Prof. Dr. Sara Hägi-Mead studied German and Russian for secondary education II and I at the University of Cologne and received her PhD from the University of Duisburg/Essen in 2005. After several academic activities, including the direction of the newly founded "Center for Integration Studies" at the TU Dresden, she took over the professorship for multilingualism in schools at the Institute for Educational Research of the School of Education at the University of Wuppertal in 2017.