The so-called "double semilingualism": a linguistic opinion

02.12.2010

In the public discussion, especially in educational policy contexts, one often finds the statement recently that children who grew up with two languages often developed a "double semilingualism", i.e. they could not speak either of the two languages "correctly".
There is no factual basis for such an assumption: the so-called "double half-language" is a popular myth based on a misinterpretation of language and linguistic diversity. It rather reflects the social evaluation - more precisely: devaluation - of a certain linguistic usage than linguistic or grammatical facts.

We know from linguistic research:

  • Growing up with two or more languages is not a problem for children. Multilingualism from childhood on is the norm in human societies: The majority of people today are multilingual. Growing up with only one language is the exception, not the norm.
  •  Multilingual children do not behave like "double monolingual" children. They have a special language profile where the two languages can have different specialisations - for example, one language for the informal and family sphere, one for the more formal public sphere. They often show a more innovative use of language, e.g. through language games, the change from one language to another, new foreign words or grammatical innovations. The multilingual situation makes children more communicative and flexible and can make it easier for them to learn foreign languages.
  •  Language occurs in many variants (e.g. informal colloquial language, youth languages, dialects, speaking in formal contexts, written language). We all not only master one variant, but also have a linguistic repertoire from which we select according to the situation (e.g. colloquial language or SMS with friends, more formal speaking in an authority, written language in a formal letter). The use of language also differs according to social strata, i.e. different linguistic variants can develop in different social strata.
  • Grammatical peculiarities of dialects and other linguistic variants are often misunderstood in public perception as "mistakes". This is especially the case if a variant is typical for speakers of lower social classes. Standard German (so-called "Hochdeutsch") is only one of many variants of German. Although it has a special social prestige, it is not grammatically "better" than other variants. A construction like "my mother's hat", which is possible in many German dialects, is grammatically more complex than the standard form "my mother's hat". In colloquial language, in sentences like "She wants to talk to Paul like that", I can mark the important new information in the sentence with "like that"; something that I can only clarify in standard German by emphasizing. In Kiezdeutsch, sentences like "Danach ich fahren zu meinem Vater" (After that I go to my father) open up an additional possibility to package information that we don't have in standard German - the time ("after that"), which provides the framework for the event, can be at the beginning here together with the subject ("I"). This grammatical possibility is not alien to German, it already existed at earlier language levels. In the course of language history it has been lost and is now revived in Kiezdeutsch.
  •  Competence in the standard language should remain a school goal. This in no way forces us to take action against new urban dialects and youth languages that are as rich and colourful as other German dialects. In many areas of Germany where the use of dialects is still very pronounced, one can live well with this situation. Baden-Württemberg even advertises the fact that you "can do everything except High German". Dialect use does not necessarily lead to economic disadvantage.
  • The language of the school, which is based on standard German, is particularly close to the language usage of the middle class. Children from other social strata, both monolingual and multilingual, therefore regularly perform worse in the "German" test: they are less familiar with the standard German of the middle class. However, their linguistic competences also include competences in variants other than standard German (and also, for example, in standard Turkish). This therefore does not mean that these children are "half-linguistic" or "cannot speak any language correctly". It means that their competences in the standard language of the school still have to be promoted. However, such support can only be successful if we objectively appreciate the linguistic competences of children and do not lose sight of them by misjudging them.

Prof. Dr. Heike Wiese, Prof. Dr. Christoph Schroeder, Zentrum für Sprache, Variation und Migration, Universität Potsdam
Prof. Dr. Malte Zimmermann, Sonderforschungsbereich „Informationsstruktur“, Universität Potsdam und Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Prof. Dr. Manfred Krifka, Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, Berlin
Prof. Dr. Christoph Gabriel, Sonderforschungsbereich „Mehrsprachigkeit“, Universität Hamburg
Prof. Dr. Ingrid Gogolin, Kompetenzzentrum Förderung von Kindern und Jugendlichen mit Migrationshintergrund und Landesexzellenzcluster „Linguistic Diversity Management in Urban Areas“, Universität Hamburg
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Klein, Max-Planck-Institut für Psycholinguistik, Nijmegen
Prof. Dr. Bernard Comrie, Prof. Dr. Michael Tomasello, Max-Planck-Institut für Evolutionäre Anthropologie, Leipzig; Abteilungen für Sprachwissenschaft und für vergleichende und Entwicklungspsychologie


Kontakt:
Prof. Dr. Heike Wiese
Universität Potsdam
Lehrstuhl für Deutsche Sprache der Gegenwart
und Zentrum „Sprache, Variation und Migration“
[Sitz: Am Neuen Palais 10, Haus 5]
Postfach 60 15 53
14415 Potsdam
Tel. 0331-977 4210, 4222
Fax 0331-977 4210
heike.wiese@uni-potsdam.de