‘Multilingualism is an enrichment, not a deficit’: raising bilingual kids in Germany

There was a time when bilingualism was regarded suspiciously. But experts point out far more benefits than disadvantages for children raised with more than one language.

‘Multilingualism is an enrichment, not a deficit’: raising bilingual kids in Germany
Children at a German-Italian school in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

Years ago, when my children still wanted to go to playgrounds, I spoke to my son, dangling from the jungle gym at a Berlin playground, in my native English language. An elderly woman sitting at an adjacent bench said to me in German: “You should speak to him in German, otherwise he'll get confused.”

As my gut instinct suspected, the woman was not only nosy, she was wrong. Language experts agree that children are capable of learning more than one language without being confused – this was one of the first conclusions in a Florida Atlantic University study on multilingualism in children's language development.

Another conclusion from the study was that immigrant parents should not be discouraged from speaking their native language to their children.

“Children in immigrant families who can speak their parents' heritage language have better family relationships and stronger ethnic identities than those who cannot. Good family relationships and strong ethnic identity are positively related to other desired outcomes, including academic achievement,“ write the study's co-authors Erika Hoff and Cynthia Core.

Advantages of bilingualism

Bilingualism may have been considered a disadvantage many moons ago, when the woman on the bench had small children of her own, but today bilingualism is widely considered among experts to be a great benefit to children who are lucky enough to be raised with two languages.

In Germany, every ninth child born in 2015 was binational, according to the Federal Statistical Office.

“Multilingualism is not a deficit, but an enrichment,” Claudia Maria Riehl, director of the German as a Foreign Language Institute at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich told the Goethe Institute in an interview.

“We know from neurology that the brain areas required for a certain language are more compactly organized in multilingual children. This basically means that for each newly learned language, fewer brain areas have to be activated. Moreover, multilingualism seems to favour the ability to control attention. Multilingual children are better able to 'switch' between different requirements because they practise this mechanism by constantly switching between two or more languages.”

Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist who has spent nearly 40 years researching bilingualism's effect on the brain, calls bilingualism “brain exercise.”

“If you have two languages and you use them regularly,” Bialystok told The New York Times in an interview, “the way the brain networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what's relevant in the moment.”

Bilingualism – the norm?

Eleven years since the playground incident, and with my children attending a bilingual school, I barely flinch when I hear various languages inserted into one family's conversation. Denglish can be heard in my house and around the school; nowadays most of the children we encounter are truly bilingual.

Other families at our school juggle with even more than two languages.

Middle-schooler Toninho, who has an American father and a Japanese mother, speaks both English and Japanese fluently. He also speaks German since they moved to Berlin in 2012.

“He'll have to start taking French or Spanish soon,“ says his father Tony Laszlo, an American author who speaks Japanese and Mandarin, as well his native English, of the school's curriculum.

“To help prepare him for that journey, we have exposed him to Esperanto, a constructed language largely based on Latin, in a simplified form.”

“He has gained fluency quickly, mostly by playing card and board games, learning how to solve the Rubik's cube and to juggle. For fun, I had him take a short Latin quiz recently. He did surprisingly well, so I suspect that the Esperanto is helping him along.”

Practical tips  

Tanya Lucas, a Berlin-based speech therapist who works with bilingual children and has three bilingual children of her own, says there are some basic approaches to follow to make raising young children with two or more languages easier.

  • OPOL

“Stick to the one person one language rule: OPOL. Children will sometimes choose to reply in only one language – this is normal. Bilingualism develops in a dynamic way depending on input and opportunity.”

  • Chatter matters!

“Follow the child's focus of attention and communicate what they are doing and what is happening with simple language and in slightly longer sentences than what the child is using.”

  • Make language fun

“Sing, rhyme, and read age-appropriate books (in your mother tongue). Do expect bilingual children to reach language milestones (first words, sentences, more complex sentences) at the same time as monolingual children.”

For members


Inquiry calls for free after-school care for 6-9 year-olds in Sweden

Children between ages 6-9 years should be allowed admittance to after-school recreation centers free of charge, according to a report submitted to Sweden’s Minister of Education Lotta Edholm (L).

Inquiry calls for free after-school care for 6-9 year-olds in Sweden

“If this reform is implemented, after-school recreation centers will be accessible to the children who may have the greatest need for the activities,” said Kerstin Andersson, who was appointed to lead a government inquiry into expanding access to after-school recreation by the former Social Democrat government. 

More than half a million primary- and middle-school-aged children spend a large part of their school days and holidays in after-school centres.

But the right to after-school care is not freely available to all children. In most municipalities, it is conditional on the parent’s occupational status of working or studying. Thus, attendance varies and is significantly lower in areas where unemployment is high and family finances weak.

In this context, the previous government formally began to inquire into expanding rights to leisure. The report was recently handed over to Sweden’s education minister, Lotta Edholm, on Monday.

Andersson proposed that after-school activities should be made available free of charge to all children between the ages of six and nine in the same way that preschool has been for children between the ages of three and five. This would mean that children whose parents are unemployed, on parental leave or long-term sick leave will no longer be excluded. 

“The biggest benefit is that after-school recreation centres will be made available to all children,” Andersson said. “Today, participation is highest in areas with very good conditions, while it is lower in sparsely populated areas and in areas with socio-economic challenges.” 

Enforcing this proposal could cause a need for about 10,200 more places in after-school centre, would cost the state just over half a billion kronor a year, and would require more adults to work in after-school centres. 

Andersson recommends recruiting staff more broadly, and not insisting that so many staff are specialised after-school activities teachers, or fritidspedagod

“The Education Act states that qualified teachers are responsible for teaching, but that other staff may participate,” Andersson said. “This is sometimes interpreted as meaning that other staff may be used, but preferably not’. We propose that recognition be given to so-called ‘other staff’, and that they should be given a clear role in the work.”

She suggested that people who have studied in the “children’s teaching and recreational programmes” at gymnasium level,  people who have studied recreational training, and social educators might be used. 

“People trained to work with children can contribute with many different skills. Right now, it might be an uncertain work situation for many who work for a few months while the employer is looking for qualified teachers”, Andersson said.