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Signs at a primary school in the municipality of Ahrntal ( South Tyrol , Italy )

With bilingualism or bilingualism is the phenomenon to speak two languages or understand. The term can refer to both individuals (individual bilingualism) and entire societies (social bilingualism) . Bilingualism can also denote the relevant research direction that examines the phenomenon itself.

Bilingualism is a form of multilingualism . Bilingualism, multilingualism and polyglossy can all be used as umbrella terms for the same phenomenon (see diglossia ).


Individual and Society

The Bilingual Triangle (illustration based on Woidt 2002: 84)

When dealing with bilingual or multilingualism , a clear separation according to society, group or individual is often not possible. Scientific, institutional and political circles look at the subject from different angles. For example, the (isolated) individual, a single speaker, can be at the center of considerations. “How does a speaker cope with multiple languages? What motivates him? How does he combine the two grammars in his head? "

The individual as part of a group or society can also represent an object. This includes considerations of multilingualism and multilingual speakers in class, in youth groups or within the family.

When one sees society as a whole, language and educational policy issues (e.g. languages ​​of minorities) play an important role in addition to language contact phenomena such as Creole languages and pidgin languages .

The separation that is made here is not always possible. The linguistic psychological perspective on bilingualism can already see people when interacting with others and would therefore be difficult to distinguish from a social science perspective.

Individual bilingualism

In the broadest sense, a bilingual (or bilingual) person is someone who has grammatical and communicative skills in two languages, active and / or passive. In the narrower sense, the word bilingualism (or bilingualism ) is often only used for people who have native (or almost native) competence in two languages.

Bilingual people, who exist in many societies and social classes, have mostly learned two (or more) languages ​​during their childhood; First languages can be designated with L1. Some bilingual people learned their second, third etc. language ( second language , see foreign language ) only later; such languages ​​can be labeled L2, L3, and so on.

The differentiation between languages ​​can also be based on the type of acquisition. One can say that L1 languages ​​are learned or acquired without formal instruction or of course (hence: mother tongue, as mother tongue). "The term mother tongue is, however, controversial as a clearly defined and scientifically permissible term." The existence of (e.g. multilingual) societies, whose culture (including education and especially language education methods) is structured differently, speaks against the use of this term. The way in which one learns a language naturally is also highly controversial due to real differences.

The North American linguist Noam Chomsky suspects that there is an instrument ( Language Acquisition Device - LAD) that allows children to learn the laws of the languages ​​that the adults around them use. According to Chomsky, the functionality of this instrument degrades over time (which explains why older children and adults learn languages ​​with less success [or at much more effort] than children). There are other more or less similar approaches that try to explain the phenomenon of natural language acquisition and the relevance of age ( Bickerton's bio-program, connectionism , etc.). The observations that the ability to learn languages ​​decreases with age can be regarded as intuitively understandable.

However, various studies have not been able to provide any evidence for the existence of a natural “stop” or mechanism that is supposed to lead to a delay or even a disappearance of language acquisition skills. The existence of people who were able to acquire almost mother tongue competence even at a later age (see Romaine) also speaks against the genetic disposition of such a “stop”.

The observations are often based on the perception of pronunciation or certain mistakes - which seem to be more persistent in adults than in children. For example, an adult English learner systematically uses the number one as an article: “I see one car.” Instead of “I see a car.” And pronounces the “r” in car clearly audible, rolled (whereby certain “Englishes” also roll the “r”). Whether this “inflexibility” has to do with language learning itself or more to do with other factors is an important question that needs to be clarified. Furthermore, the reality of language acquisition / learning in children and adults is related to different conditions. Children often learn multiple languages ​​in an environment where they can hear and use them all the time. In adults, the variety of social contacts in a target language is often more limited. In addition, children's cognitive abilities and personality develop in parallel. While it seems to be commonplace and normal for a child to make mistakes all the time, adults can be seriously shaken in their self-image as an established personality. These are only a few factors that tend to influence the qualitative and quantitative acquisition success.

Above all, attention should be drawn to the fact that a separation of reasons that affect the different language acquisition behavior of children in contrast to adults is very difficult and could also have to do with an overestimation of "mistakes".

Translation and code switching

The conference interpreter Patricia Stöcklin translates between Garry Kasparov and Klaus Bednarz at lit Cologne 2007.

Bilingualism does not necessarily mean that one is also able to translate or interpret from one of these languages ​​to the other . A distinction can be made between translation skills practiced professionally and those used in everyday life. This distinction is particularly emphasized by professional translators.

Bilingual people (including professional translators) sometimes behave in which they mix their languages ​​in different ways (see code switching and references). Most speakers seem to be able to mix as well as separate their languages. Often both takes place in the same situation. Such mixing of languages ​​can only be described as problematic or even as pathological in exceptional cases , for example with so-called aphasia and other illnesses.

In most cases, language mixing is part of the normal behavior of multilingual people, who can either turn it off at will or unconsciously adapt to the situation (for example when a monolingual interlocutor joins them). During the course of their work, interpreters must, in addition to the unconscious mechanisms, take care to separate the languages ​​precisely and to control this process.

Social bilingualism

The language families of India

The already mentioned bilingual societies (or social bilingualism) are often summarized under multilingual societies. There is no clear terminology here, as contradictions often arise. A society can be described as bilingual (or multilingual) if there are two or more official languages ​​(e.g. Switzerland ).

However, there are also societies / groups that "unofficially" use one or even many languages regularly, mix them up and / or use them differently for different areas of life. When languages ​​are used in different contexts, it is called diglossia .

In connection with this topic, one also deals with language contact phenomena such as pidgin and creole languages . Concepts and definitions of what should be called a language or dialect are put to the test in societies that use numerous, often dissimilar languages. For example, around 100 different languages ​​are spoken in India that belong to four different language families (see India or Languages ​​of India ).

Scientific framework and factors

When trying to describe, investigate and categorize bilingualism, it was quite late in the science of science (see, for example: Grosjean) that there is no such thing as “perfect” bilingualism. However, this should correspond to the lack of “perfect monolingualism ”. Science distinguishes between several forms of individual and social bilingualism. Various factors are used for categorization:

  • Level and dominance of the two languages: communicative and language skills in the (two) languages; which language is 'stronger'
  • Time: Age at first contact with the languages, acquisition intervals between the languages ​​and the duration of the acquisition and the respective language contact
  • Society: the monolingual or multilingualism of the environment and certain areas of life
  • Status: Status of the language in the social environment, ideas about the dominance of languages ​​are also seen in connection with the status
  • Identity: cultural identity and the individual's sense of belonging.

More recently, bilingualism has also been dealt with in connection with the mental and neurophysiological organization of languages ​​(see also language and brain ).

Research approaches on bilingualism

Bilingualism or multilingualism can be dealt with on different levels. Very different examination methods are often used. The topic is and has been investigated in disciplines and areas such as:

Linguistics (general linguistics)

The linguistics focuses mainly on the monolingual speaker. Multilingualism research in this discipline is mainly carried out in the area of language acquisition research (see below). The contributions in interdisciplinary fields such as neurolinguistics , psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics help to develop well-controlled research methods. Concepts that regard language (s) as system (s), which in turn are subdivided into subsystems (e.g. linguistic categories), could be successfully integrated into interdisciplinary research projects (see e.g. Paradis (div. )).


In the field of psychology , developmental psychology and cognitive research are primarily concerned with language. Significant results could be achieved in the field of memory research and perception research . However, multilingualism as a standalone research subject has so far played a subordinate role within psychological fields. However, the psychological research methods are used with preference in interface disciplines, above all psycholinguistics , but also within foreign language didactics .

Foreign language didactics

The foreign language teaching is an applied linguistic-didactic research area that is primarily concerned with the teaching of foreign languages employed and therefore not necessarily the natural acquisition 'of the native language and the promotion of multiple languages simultaneously. One deals mainly with the 'controlled' foreign language acquisition. For the organization of the lessons and for testing, a division into various sub-competencies is common (for example: listening and reading). The importance of so-called literacy (reading ability) is also increasingly recognized by other research areas for successful language acquisition. Against this background, the project to promote “individual multilingualism” with the help of targeted (and thus also controlled) “foreign language teaching” (Sarter, p. C. (Potsdam, Chair for Foreign Language Didactics, 2006)) is certainly justified. Here teaching methods are mainly tested directly in practice. An increasingly interdisciplinary orientation is emerging.

Neurolinguistics & Psycholinguistics

It is difficult to draw a clear line between neuro- and psycholinguistics . The history of both fields of research is relatively different, which is why they can probably complement each other very well. Both of them focus on the multilingual individual and on what happens in the brain when speaking and understanding several languages . Long-term effects of multilingualism are also simulated in models and researched using imaging methods . Classical (clinical) research dealt mainly with pathological cases such as E.g .: speech and language disorders after brain damage (see e.g .: aphasia ) or in the case of genetic defects. Very interesting cases have also been described in which multilingual patients 'lost' their languages ​​(see Paradis, Fabbro, Green (div.) Etc.) and regained them. Research results contributed to the consolidation of observations and theories as well as new controversies in the area of ​​the localization and organization of languages ​​in the brain (see also Language & Brain , Language System ).

Language acquisition research

In the language acquisition research , the emphasis is often on the dichotomies innate vs. non-innate and learned vs. acquired. Above all, monolingual , but also bilingual language acquisition is researched on the basis of long-term studies and / or sophisticated experimental methodology. The aim is to explain phases of acquisition and the acquisition of grammatical components.


In the area of sociolinguistics , the emphasis is often on effects that manifest themselves at the level of groups / societies and their multilingualism. The individual is viewed against the background of social structures and mechanisms. In connection with language change and language contact research , significant results could be achieved here. Research in these areas draws on long and established traditions (cf. Romaine, 2004, de Bot (div.), Seliger, 1991). The research into endangered languages (and thus often their protection), the investigation of language levels such as Creole and Pidgin languages (see also New Englishes ) are mostly carried out in the context of sociolinguistics. Sign languages are also researched here. The concept of translation is also discussed in connection with the sign language interpreting and represents a challenge to common speech and language theories An edge concept of sociolinguistics -. With increasing importance for bilingualism in general - is Language Attrition (as an analogy, there is no well-defined term in German, ' Speech degradation' [cf. decay of speech , loss of speech ]), a phenomenon that has so far only been observed and described, but could not be proven, fits best . Here, one or more languages ​​are not pathologically 'forgotten' (see the interdisciplinary studies by Köpke, Schmid (div.)).

Philological research

Language-specific and said cultural research focuses on bilingualism frequently in connection with the language mediation ( translation , interpreting ), with the Foreign ver mediation (z. B .: language learning ) socio-political research on the social / plane (z. B .: language contact, language standardization etc.) u. v. m. Comparing texts in different languages ​​(including spoken ones) and expressions in comparable situations help to identify key typological, semantic and cultural differences. One also deals with the role of individual speakers in multilingual conversational situations.

Distinguishing factors

Cameroon - a multilingual country. Today's English and French influences including the pidgin forms come from the colonial times


With regard to psychological motives, some scholars such as Lambert, Gardner and later also Zoltán Dörnyei have proposed the dichotomy instrumental and integrative in order to differentiate between the forms of second language acquisition. Associated theories were not very influential. For the sake of completeness, attempts are made to outline the terms more precisely:

In this sense, instrumental bilingualism refers to the acquisition of a second language in which the second language is learned primarily for useful reasons. An intention to perfect this knowledge or to place oneself in a wider cultural area does not have to be present.

It is said that integrative bilingualism is defined in such a way that the acquisition of the second language takes place against the background of becoming a member of the target culture. This can also be related to learning to speak this target language 'perfectly' - presumably following the example of monolingual members of this cultural area.

Note: This distinction is very problematic for many reasons. One of them is the long-established and widely recognized knowledge that language acquisition is a multifactorial phenomenon (Romaine, Carreira, Schmid, Köpke). The concept of motivation is also a very vaguely defined concept, which is why great caution is required here with regard to generalization and predictability (see also Carreira). In addition to adult foreign language learners, bilingual speakers also include children whose motivation to acquire their second language is certainly not directly consciously integrative or instrumental . It is also very difficult to distinguish between individual motivations and collective influences, so that a categorization of second language acquisition using the terms instrumental or integrative is almost impossible. Here, there are mostly separations based on other factors such as when , where and in what way etc. the target language was acquired or learned. The problem with this dichotomy is that it tries to compare different types of motivation and does not take into account factors such as age, etc. Just compare a three-year-old child of a 'mixed' couple who is learning the languages ​​of both parents to a 35-year-old businessman who is learning the basics of Chinese in order to better communicate with Chinese business partners. The terms also turn out to be inadequate in the area of ​​descriptive research.

Differentiation according to the degree of control

One might think that simple language tests should be able to distinguish the level of mastery well, but this is a factor that is difficult to measure. The monolingual perspective often conveys the image that a language is inseparable from understanding the language , audibly by listening, visually when reading, as well as from oral and written language production . Furthermore, only that which is used in every conceivable area of ​​life is regarded as language - from the monolingual point of view. Simplifications using the dichotomy vs. receptive productive have proven to be inadequate, since productive (active) processes also take place in supposedly passive language processing, for example during the reading process.

Terms that are mentioned in connection with the degree of control are "symmetrical" vs. "Asymmetrical", "active" vs. “Passive”, “dominant” etc. (cf. forms of individual bilingualism).

The rough observation remains that bilingual speakers also have different levels of command of their languages ​​depending on areas of life. On the social level, this can be expressed in such a way that z. For example: there is a language that has to be officially learned, which, however, only takes place in a rudimentary form and often only for certain areas of life, and next to it a language that is fluent and usually used every day in many situations.

Isolated vs. social bilingualism

(See individual and social (or general) bilingualism) In isolated bilingualism, one describes isolated phenomena of multilingualism, e.g. E.g. individual individuals who speak other or more languages ​​than their environment. In social bilingualism, the correspondence in multilingualism between an individual and the other members of the group is shown.

This distinction could be used when describing minority languages ​​or when differentiating between foreign language acquisition (outside the target language country) vs. Second language acquisition (in the target language country) can be useful. With the help of statistical considerations and a careful selection of the populations, an attempt is made to find clearly separated results.

Problems of definition and mix-ups between isolated or individual or social and societal bilingualism can arise (see discussions in Weinreich, Romaine, Bloomfield, Ervin & Osgood etc.). The problem of these terms can be illustrated quite well using the following example: E.g .: Turkish / Kurdish / German bi- / trilingual individuals in Germany - is this isolated or social bilingualism?

Social functions

This distinction is mainly used to describe multilingualism in societies. Languages ​​can fulfill certain functions in this, whereby these can be more or less clearly delimited: e.g. E.g .: language A for formal oral discussions vs. Language B for informal, family situations, vs. Language C for prayers, vs. Language D for formal written language matters. Such social language phenomena seem to be more or less mandatory or free. Social forms such as diglossia (cf. language register ) are placed in this context . See u. a. Romaine, Weinreich.

Degree of specialization / focus

If speakers are able to keep two linguistic systems separate depending on the situation in use, then one can conclude that the languages ​​have a high degree of focalization. In the case of a lower focalization, one expects that the two languages ​​cannot be separated so well, which can result in frequent mixing (cf. the terms transfer or interference ). It should be noted that such separability of languages depending on the situation at one and the same individual differ can.

Terms such as ordered or disordered reflect a certain perspective and expectations regarding the language systems. Language-cognitive concepts or psycholinguistics should provide information on this. Studies of the neurophysiological correlates of several languages ​​show that the separation is difficult to pin down in the brain as well. A high focalization (see also Fabbro, Paradis), on the other hand, can be observed quite well (see imaging method (medicine) , psycholinguistics , neurolinguistics ).


Particularly in connection with minority languages and the formation of new languages ​​(see Creole , Pidgin ), observations were categorized with the aid of dominance and status terms (see e.g. standard language ). The social dominance relationships between languages ​​also often have an influence on the acquisition and use of languages ​​by individuals. Related to this is the concept of prestige and the institutionalization of languages ​​in a society.

Legal status

These include terms such as official language , official language , official language , school language etc.

Language policy influencing factors

Multilingual societies can try to control language relations within certain limits (see also below). Depending on the situation, the aim is either to integrate both languages ​​and e.g. B. to legally recognize or to weaken one of the languages ​​to the advantage of the other.

Forms of individual bilingualism

Multilingualism research provides various theories on individual multilingualism. Attempts to identify and categorize forms of bilingualism are also related to some theories. Frequently, phenomena of social bilingualism are compared with individual phenomena. The following categories are often used in the literature. What makes up individual categories is initially only described by the categories themselves. In reality, the associated phenomena are so individual and often multifactorial that any classifications should be viewed as tendency and diffuse. To get an idea about the diversity and ideas about multilingualism, they are definitely useful.

The following categories usually address aspects of the type of acquisition and the point in time when a bilingual came into contact with the languages ​​- to put it cautiously -. Some researchers postulate a connection between these categories and the result, i.e. language proficiency or the level of communication skills.

Simultaneous early bilingualism

Simultaneous early bilingualism ( bilingual first language acquisition ) is when a child, when learning to speak, comes into contact with two languages ​​'at the same time', for example when each parent speaks a different language with the child. From the simultaneous and early encounter with the two languages ​​one tries to make predictions about how this will affect language acquisition as a development process and as a result in the form of pragmatic competence or communicative skills . Some researchers also speculate about structuring processes and the result of the language systems in the brain.

There have been observations that an early and simultaneous acquisition of languages ​​leads to a delay in the development of language production , which is then quickly compensated for. It is believed that children exposed to both languages ​​at an early age are often able to express themselves equally well as adults in both languages.

Influencing factors

Several other factors seem to have an influence in addition to the early time of acquisition and the simultaneous acquisition. Both context-dependent and context-independent performance differences are spoken of. The personal development process seems to play an important role here. On the other hand, this can hardly be seen in isolation from external factors such as social influence etc. There is a tendency to say that if the individual continues to have the opportunity to use both languages, and if he can also participate in different linguistic contexts, the motivation to actively use both languages ​​is mostly retained and with it the desire to explore other language areas to discover. Since the respective languages ​​are rarely used equally in every context or with all speakers, this makes it difficult to compare the respective competencies / skill levels and the respective development levels. It is said that there is no congruence of pragmatic competence.

Note: Terms such as motivation and various influencing factors should be checked through further reading. Motivation is a concept that can be seen differently from different perspectives. The importance of influencing factors is highly controversial (see further parts of this article; see Romaine, 1995)

Languages ​​in the brain

Regardless of how early simultaneous language acquisition of several languages ​​(compared to monolingual and also compared to consecutive acquisition of several languages) affects the child's general (language) development and (language) skills, it is also interesting how the underlying structures in the brain develop. The researchers are controversial about how multiple languages ​​are organized in a brain. It is speculated that languages ​​are organized differently in early acquisition than in late acquisition.

For example, research is being carried out into whether children separate their two languages ​​in “their heads” early on (separate development theory; represented by Jürgen Meisel, for example) or whether the two language systems (lexicon and grammar) are not yet differentiated in the first phases of language acquisition is given ( fusion theory ; cf. e.g. Volterra and Taeschner). There are various ideas and publications for this. The psycho- / neurolinguist Paradis (diverse) speaks of the subsystem hypothesis, which states that the languages ​​of a multilingual person (in general) are embedded together in a general linguistic-cognitive system. They form two subsystems, which in turn can be divided into an unlimited number of subsystems (e.g. phonetics as a subsystem).

Note: The subdivision into systems ("in" the brain ) is initially a purely analytical method. Such systems do not have to be localizable in a narrow area in the brain. Neurophysiological studies provide evidence for the 'existence' of more or less delimited systems (see publications by Paradis; Fabbro, Green).

Consecutive bilingualism

Consecutive bilingualism is when a child acquires his or her languages ​​one after the other . One can see it this way that the child first “internalizes” a single language (see language acquisition theories ) before starting the other. There is a tendency to say that children who acquire their second language before puberty in a “natural environment” (see “learning”) have a good chance of speaking it without an accent, “error-free” and with a high level of competence. In other words: It is predicted that children whose acquisition of a second language began before puberty began have comparatively high communication skills.

Note: Studies on the age factor are still not completed (see below) and are highly controversial. The “ accent ” deals with research in connection with the acquisition of phonology - or phonetics - and prosody . Previous studies are not conclusive enough for a concrete and, above all, such far-reaching statement. Finally, there is a lack of explanations on the phenomena in which an “accent-free” acquisition was “successful” at a late age, and the ability of actors to acquire “accents” (see also terms such as identity and considerations related to language acquisition ).

Subtractive and additive bilingualism

When an individual neglects their first language (i.e. their mother tongue) in favor of a new language, this is called 'subtractive bilingualism'.

The subtractive bilingualism can e.g. B. occur where a person lives in a cultural environment where their first language is a minority language and at the same time has a lower status than the language spoken by the community. This is the case, for example, for French-speaking people in Canada (outside Québec ) or for members of linguistic minorities in European nation states ( France , Italy , Germany ...).

The attraction that a higher status group exerts on an individual can lead the individuals to neglect their first language (mother tongue) in favor of the more prestigious second language, solely in order to identify with their target group.

If someone learns a new language in childhood (without losing the first language (s)), one speaks of “additive bilingualism”.

Note: These definitions are used in language research , but are controversial in social psychology and should therefore be used with due caution.

Later bilingualism

This type of bilingualism can develop when an individual in adolescence or adulthood moves into a social environment with a different language and acquires the language there through contact.

Such bilingualism often develops, for example, when a person emigrates to a country with a different language . The linguistic imbalance can be much higher compared to early bilingualism. However, bilingualism can be developed to such an extent that the person can use both languages ​​with a very high level of competence in most contexts.

Since later bilingualism can often arise in connection with the job and other, relatively clearly delimited situation contexts, clearly delimited sub-competencies develop here particularly often. An interesting phenomenon is known, for example, from the professional practice of scientists who have to fall back on foreign language literature. As a result, you can often read very complex texts in one or more languages ​​without being able to speak them (fluently).

Bilingualism by non-native speakers

Although raising children in a non-native language of their parents is controversial (“bilingualism of non-native speakers”, “non-native bilingualism”) and is even viewed by some authors as harmful to the child, it is a means in some monolingual countries - and Eastern Europe (e.g. in Poland) became fashionable. For children who are deaf and dumb, studies found that children were able to learn sign language at their mother tongue level (through the environment), even if parents were not deaf and did not speak sign language as their mother tongue. Such studies are taken as an indication that even non-native speakers can raise children in a language at an almost native level. In general, little research has been carried out on the bilingualism of non-native speakers; a literature review can be found in Szramek-Karcz, 2016.

Forms of social bilingualism

If one wants to differentiate between forms of social bilingualism, political, religious and historical aspects must be taken into account. These include terms such as language vs. Dialect , multilingual culture or multilingual society, administration , institutionalization, norms / standardization, language contact terms such as Kreol and Pidgin , language-political aspects in which terms such as diglossia appear, etc. v. m.

Bilingualism and educational issues

Bilingualism and intelligence

In the 1950s and well into the 1970s, some researchers claimed that being bilingual led to underdeveloped intelligence. Such studies are now viewed as inadequate: immigrant children from the lower social classes were compared with monolingual children from the middle class; the examinations were often only carried out in L2.

Lambert and Peal first showed in 1962 that bilingual children scored higher on linguistic and non-linguistic intelligence tests than monolingual children. However, the researchers could not say whether the well-developed bilingualism was the reason for the higher intelligence or vice versa. Feldman and Shen (1971) and Lemmon and Goggin (1989) found in studies that bilingual children can handle language tests better because they understand sentence structure and grammar better.

Current research shows that "there are rather slight cognitive gains, especially in the area of ​​conscious use of language".

An article by E. Bialystok at the University of York also showed that bilingual people do not lose cognitive abilities as quickly in old age as they do in monolinguals.

Language acquisition deficits and academic achievement

A study at the University of Lausanne ( Intégration scolaire des enfants migrants , 2000 ) has shown that children who immigrate to Switzerland are less successful in teaching than native-speaking children. In addition to social issues, a lack of language skills were also given as a reason. The authors came to the conclusion that four factors play a role: If the other language is regarded as insignificant, if the child comes from a lower social class, if it is over 10-12 years old and if the child's mother tongue is neglected by the teachers, so this can lead to delayed learning. The study therefore advises promoting the first language and the integration of the culture of immigrant children; Teachers should be aware of how difficult it is for children to learn a new language and therefore react more sensitively.

In 2002, the educationalists Hans-Joachim Roth at the University of Hamburg and Hans H. Reich at the University of Koblenz-Landau, together with others, published an “Overview of the State of National and International Research” with the title Language Acquisition of Bilingual Children and Adolescents . Among other things, they describe the case of children of migrants in Germany who have developed the minority language very highly before starting school , but learned German to a lesser extent. The scientists assume “very cautiously” that the learning of the L1 slows down, while the L2 overtakes the learning of the other language; On average, however, such children do not reach the level of monolingual children.

Bilingualism is therefore often seen as one of the main reasons for the often relatively poor academic performance of immigrant children. Here, of course, one has to differentiate between children of immigrants who were born in the new country and who have often learned the local language from birth, and immigrant children who only learn the local language when they move to the new country, sometimes only as adolescents. However, these problems can be countered with targeted school support, so that bilingualism ultimately leads to greater language skills in the children.

In countries like the USA , the problems of immigrant or bilingual children are summarized under the term Limited English Proficiency . Special educational measures do not focus on promoting both languages ​​and thus the child's language skills. Efforts concentrate exclusively on mastering the national language.

Bilingualism and migration as multifactorial phenomena

At this point, some important aspects of the state of research and the factors involved should be pointed out.

Problem description

When considering language skills and the school performance of migrants and migrant children, there is speculation about a more or less strong connection between learning a second language and poorer results in school. This is a problematic relationship as it can hardly be isolated from the other factors. There are numerous examples of successful second language acquisition - also among older children (with a migration background) - as well as examples of very good or even outstanding school performance among them. Furthermore, it is considered to be proven that intelligence and language are not (directly) related (see this page). An article in (February 15, 2005) reports on a current study on brain-damaged patients, the results of which indicate that "to grasp mathematical principles [...] language is not necessary". On the other hand, there is a lack of indisputable instruments for testing educational results. Research projects have only recently started on this.

The reasons for language difficulties and, on the other hand, poor school results for migrants and migrant children are likely to be complex.

Linguists emphasize that mastering your own mother tongue is crucial for being able to learn a new language faster and better. They therefore also consider mother tongue teaching in schools to be essential.

Migration background (origin and history)

The stories of individuals (including groups / families) who have emigrated can be very different. There are very traumatic backgrounds with flight from war, deaths of close relatives and major crises in the country of origin. All of these co-factors certainly have a significant influence on a person's linguistic and general development. The migration backgrounds of so-called emigrants and / or economic refugees are usually less dramatic. There is also a migration background in the case of adoptions. In some cases the stay should only be temporary. A return may not be desired or not possible in the foreseeable future. There are many more different backgrounds conceivable, and their influence on the individual can be very great. In connection with less dramatic backgrounds, negative experiences can have an unnoticed effect on further life.

Status in the target country

Even personal crises on site with loss of status, confusion regarding their own identity and affiliation should have very strong influence on performance. Identity problems and stress are known to lead to deterioration in performance.

Integration problems and bilingualism

Since integration is a broad and controversial term, only aspects are to be addressed here that affect the successful integration of bilingual schools into (predominantly monolingual) schools. Considerations on this could also be transferred to integration into working life.

Misinterpretation of general performance potential

The 'controversy' is known from gifted research that under-demanding leads to poorer performance. This clearly shows a discrepancy between talent / potential / possibility and competence / performance / result. Since general performance limits can only be read to a limited extent on the basis of observable performance and even less on sub-competencies, the particular problem of general performance measurement and interpretation in connection with bilingualism (e.g. command of the national language as a sub-competence) should be pointed out here .

Advanced classes

Children who came to Germany at school age have often only been admitted to certain schools and often in separate advanced classes. These advanced classes are often found in schools in defined city districts in Germany (high proportion of migrants). These are often elementary schools, secondary schools and secondary schools. Structural arrangements for migrants and special advanced classes were rarely found at grammar schools. Older children were preferably not admitted to grammar schools - regardless of the skills they brought with them. Since the educational crises of the last few years became known and the increasing interest in multilingual teaching - which not only affects people with a migration background - there have been positive changes here. It remains to be pointed out that an unconscious handling of the performance potential of bilingual children can lead to their failure to achieve possible and desired performance goals.

Migration background

For children born in the country, other factors are likely to be predominantly responsible. There is no cut (at least geographically speaking) in the living conditions during the child's development, but here too important factors must be taken into account. In Germany, the national language is often acquired after attending kindergarten or elementary school. Families with a migration background decide in different ways how and when the relevant languages ​​are acquired and used. Several of the following strategies can be followed more or less consistently.

  • within the family a certain language is acquired and used by everyone,
  • Additional funding is used (as it is structurally and / or financially available to the family)
  • different family members each speak one of the languages ​​with the child
  • the languages ​​are used “mixed” (see different forms of code switching, questions and answers in different languages, translation).

Poor language skills or an accent and / or specific / newer forms of the national language (e.g. Turkish German ) can lead to misinterpretations of the child's abilities. (Rejecting) reactions from the environment can lead to negative impressions in the child, which in turn can lead to rejection of these areas of the outside world (e.g. school). This also shows that the isolated measurement of the length of stay is not a relevant factor. This is particularly evident when looking at résumés that show no significant development in language acquisition even after 20 years. Furthermore, the children can grow up in a largely established environment, which in recent times has often been referred to as a parallel society (note: the term parallel society is often used pejoratively). Such an environment can have various effects on identity formation, integration and language acquisition. It can support its members even if they have poor knowledge of the official language of the country; it can offer its own support for the language (s) (e.g. bilingual educational opportunities), which can have both positive and negative effects from different perspectives. When entering a state school or starting a job, it is easier to misinterpret general skills and to overlook partial deficits.


For both groups, both migrants and migrant children, attitudes towards the target country and the target language, which are partly socio-culturally anchored, are likely to be very important. For several decades, psycho- and neurolinguistic research has been discussing the strength of influence and relationships between motivation (including attention) and frequency (e.g. frequency of language use) and other factors on memory and speech memory performance (see Fabbro (div.), Paradis) (div.) and Romaine, 2004). The results indicate a much higher participation of these aspects than initially expected (Schmid, 2002; Köpke, 2002). Certain attitudes are probably less consciously learned than unconsciously experienced. It is important to note that the individual often has no conscious influence on his or her attitude / motivation, etc., so assigning blame does not make sense and would not be constructive.

Inclusion of the mother tongue

Approaches that want to integrate the mother tongue , as propagated by Butzkamp (div.), Are not the solution to all problems, but should nevertheless make an important contribution to improving the situation. A strategy that integrates all of the pupils' mother tongues into the general school program should catch those who want to take advantage of their educational opportunities despite poor 'second language skills'. It will also lead to a feeling of recognition and acceptance of the foreign culture and language on a broad level. On October 23, 2006, 3sat broadcast an example of a Swedish school on the program NANO that follows similar approaches and can very successfully convey to the students that they are welcome and have future opportunities, which in turn seems to motivate the students to learn more and to get involved.

Neurophysiology Findings

Neurophysiological arguments are often made in connection with the idea of ​​using the mother tongue as an aid to foreign language acquisition. A foreign language should be learned with the help of the areas of the brain that 'operate' the mother tongue. However, brain research could not provide any clear results that would support or refute the thesis (various publications by Paradis; Fabbro; Romaine, 2004). Brain physiological studies on translation ability show interesting results. On the neuro-functional level there seems to be more or less closed systems for each language and a special system for translation (Paradis, 1994; Paradis et al., 1982). Against the background of many established theories, these results provide rather surprising insights and should be taken into account.

A positive influence of bilingualism on the course of dementia has been shown: According to studies by York University in Toronto , the onset of Alzheimer's disease is delayed by around four to five years in people raised bilingually .

Bilingual teaching

Behind the term bilingual teaching there are various concepts of integrating two (or more) languages ​​into school (possibly also university) education. This usually takes the form of not only giving more intensive practical language lessons, but also using different languages ​​for subject teaching (such as geography). In most cases, individual subjects are fully or partially taught in another language. Examples of bilingual schools are e.g. B .:

In multilingual societies, several languages ​​are often taught intensively and used in subject teaching. School- leaving qualifications are also increasingly possible in both languages ​​and - if they have not already been homogenized - also legally possible for two countries.

A study of bilingual German-French teaching in the Swiss canton of Valais (by the University of Neuchâtel ) has shown that children who are taught in two languages ​​from an early age not only learn L2 faster; they also develop their “general language skills”. No deterioration in L1 was found. ( Groupe de recherche sur l'enseignement bilingue , 1994). Cummins [1981; 1984] explained this phenomenon with the Developmental Interdependence Hypothesis , which states that learning the first language develops the cognitive resources for learning the second language.

Politics and Bilingualism

Bilingual street signs in Quimper in Brittany / France

Political handling of bilingualism falls under the concept of language policy . In the Russian Empire attempts were made to enforce Russification , i.e. H. to help the Russian language dominate the language habits of ethnic minorities. The same was attempted in the Second Polish Republic. The aim there was an ethnically homogeneous state, although a third of the population was not Polish-speaking. Likewise, attempts were made in the German Empire to suppress the Polish language in the German eastern regions. In South Tyrol there are bilingual and trilingual town signs today. Starting from fascism, attempts have long been made to dry up the German language, but the language conflict has now been replaced by an institutionally differently pronounced bi- or multilingualism.

Different countries deal differently with the bilingual or multilingualism of their residents. For example, the authorities in the USA give the English language clear primacy, although the proportion of the Spanish-speaking population is increasing (see also the Marta Laureano case ).

The restrictive policy has a "tradition" in the United States. During and after the First World War, German-speaking citizens were persecuted, speaking the German language was banned, and many German-speaking Americans even changed their surnames and wrote them in English so as not to be exposed to so much persecution and repression. Before the First World War, for example, B. In Chicago alone there are still over 27 German-language newspapers.

In contrast, in Canada , Belgium , Luxembourg , Finland and Switzerland, multilingualism is actively promoted.

In recent years it has been increasingly emphasized that every person with knowledge of a foreign language can be described as "bilingual" or "multilingual" (cf. Grosjean). This is not without controversy, especially from a monolingual point of view. Depending on your perspective, it can still be very useful and useful. This change affects not only beliefs regarding the concept of language itself but also political power relations, discrimination, etc. The goal of learning to master a language “completely”, that is to say for every area of ​​life at a high level, thus takes a back seat. In Europe, the Common European Framework of Reference, originally written in 1997, deals with this.


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Web links

Commons : Bilingualism  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Bilingualism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

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  2. ^ Zurer Pearson, B. (2008). Raising a bilingual child. New York: Living Language.
  3. Laura Lozano-Martínez: Myths and challenges on raising bilingual children in English by non-native parents in Spain. In: Elia . No. 19 , 2019, pp. 235–264 , doi : 10.12795 / elia.mon.2019.i1.10 ( [PDF; accessed on May 31, 2020]).
  4. ^ University of Silesia, Sonia Szramek-Karcz: The Success of Non-Native Bilingualism in Poland . In: Lingwistyka Stosowana . tape 2/2016 , no. 17 , June 27, 2016, p. 93-102 , doi : 10.32612 / uw.20804814.2016.2.pp.93-102 ( [PDF; accessed May 31, 2020]).
  5. ^ Haugen, 1956: The Effect [of bilingualism] on Intelligence
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  7. Ellen Bialystok et al. a .: Bilingualism, Aging, and Cognitive Control: Evidence From the Simon Task. (PDF) American Psychological Association, 2004, accessed May 22, 2008 .
  8. School: The mother tongue belongs in the classroom. March 16, 2017. Retrieved March 18, 2017 .
  9. Bilingualism delays Alzheimer's disease. Study: Bilingual people are less prone to Alzheimer's. on: , February 22, 2011.
  10. Barbara Angerer: Living Apart Together in South Tyrol: Are Institutional Bilingualism and Translation Keeping Language Groups Apart? In: Georg Grote , Hannes Obermair (Ed.): A Land on the Threshold. South Tyrolean Transformations, 1915-2015 . Peter Lang, Oxford-Bern-New York 2017, ISBN 978-3-0343-2240-9 , pp. 361-380 .
  11. Common European Framework of Reference. 1997, accessed May 23, 2008 .