Multilingual education

What exactly is language?

Language is more than just a means of communication. It is the foundation of our existence, a tool that enables us to express our needs and desires. We use it to shape our opinions and express our individual view of the world. However, language is not only self-reflection, but also a bridge to others. It is the medium through which we communicate, connect and locate ourselves in a shared world.

Even as small children, we absorb the sounds, words and structures that surround us. Language development is a lifelong process that is never complete. We are constantly shaping, refining and expanding our language, adapting it to new situations, contexts and needs.

Language is therefore not just a tool, but a living part of our existence. It grows with us, shapes and reflects our thoughts, feelings and experiences. Through it, we express who we are, how we see the world and how we move through it. Language is therefore not just a means to an end, but a central component of our being.

What does first and second language mean?

Language acquisition in early childhood is a fascinating process that largely takes place subconsciously. Even in the earliest stages of life, children acquire linguistic actions and meanings, as well as formal categorisations. Interestingly, a child’s first language (the so-called mother tongue) can consist of two different languages. Despite this complexity, children are able to distinguish between the two mother tongues from the very beginning.

The idea of bilingualism often raises questions, especially with regard to possible negative effects on general intelligence development. However, research shows that the human brain has sufficient capacity to process multiple languages. In fact, bilingualism has no demonstrable negative effects on a child’s cognitive development. Rather, it offers a variety of benefits, such as improved cognitive flexibility, better social skills and increased cultural sensitivity.

In fact, it turns out that bilingualism not only expands language skills, but also enriches thinking and perception in a variety of ways. Children who grow up in a bilingual environment develop a deeper understanding of different perspectives and a greater openness towards different cultures. Bilingualism is therefore not only an enrichment for the individual child, but also for society as a whole.

Models of multilingualism

Multilingualism is practised in many families. There are different models and types of multilingualism, none of which is better or worse per se. Every family has individual abilities as well as cultural and linguistic backgrounds that need to be taken into account when deciding on a particular form of multilingualism.

A frequently used model is the ‘One Person, One Language’ method. Here, the parents speak different mother tongues, with one language corresponding to that of the social environment. From birth, the parents communicate with the child in their mother tongue, which helps the child to distinguish between the two languages and develop an awareness of their differences. What is important here is the consistency of the parents, who stick to their mother tongue.

Another model is the ‘Non-Dominant Home Language without Community Support’ or MLAH model. Here, both parents speak the same mother tongue, but it is not the majority language of the social environment. The child therefore first learns the parents’ mother tongue and only learns the majority language later, for example at nursery or daycare centre.

There is also the ‘Double Non-Dominant Home Language without Community Support’ model, in which the parents speak different mother tongues, neither of which corresponds to the majority language of the social environment. Here too, the child grows up according to the ‘One Person, One Language’ principle and only learns the majority language outside the family.

In the ‘Non-Native Parents’ model, both parents speak a well-educated foreign language with the child, while their mother tongue corresponds to the majority language of the social environment. This can be practised according to the ‘One Person, One Language’ principle or through the ‘Time and Place Strategy’.

The ‘Time and Place Strategy’ can be applied to all types of multilingualism. Parents create a framework in which the child predictably comes into contact with a certain language, either at certain times or in certain places. Consistency in speaking the foreign language is crucial here so that children can trust that a certain language will be spoken at certain times or in certain places.

How can parents support children’s language development?

Parents and carers play a decisive role in promoting children’s language development. It starts with recognising the child’s initiatives and responding to them. When a child makes sounds or tries to express themselves verbally, it is important to respond and maintain the interaction.

Another important step is to imitate the child’s sounds. By repeating and imitating their child’s sounds, parents encourage them to continue communicating and developing their language skills.

Naming actions and feelings is also very important. By naming their own actions and feelings and using the appropriate words, parents help the child to develop an understanding of the meaning of words and expand their vocabulary.

Everyday situations offer numerous opportunities to promote language development. Whether changing nappies, feeding, dressing or brushing teeth – parents can use these situations to talk to their children and help them learn new words and expressions.

Reading aloud, storytelling and singing are other effective methods of promoting children’s language development. Reading books aloud, telling stories or singing songs not only teaches new words and expressions, but also stimulates the child’s imagination and creativity.

Overall, it is important that parents create a positive and supportive environment in which their child can develop their language skills. By recognising children’s initiatives, imitating them, naming actions and feelings, accompanying everyday situations with language and reading aloud, telling stories and singing, they make a significant contribution to promoting children’s language development.

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