Multilingualism, migration society and changes in our schools

The starting point of my thoughts are observations made in teacher education at the university level in Berlin (English) as well as data published in 2018 by the Statistics Office of the region and the local Ministry of Education. On the one hand, the body of student teachers is getting more varied; on the other hand, 32.5 per cent of about 3.7 million inhabitants of this city-state have a migration background.

Migration and multilingualism in schools

This also shows in the composition of school learners, since 38.7 per cent of them now have this biography. Differences occur both at the level of school type and the various boroughs of the city. Thus primary schools exhibit 44.3 per cent of pupils with a non-German heritage language and integrated secondary schools (= ISS) 40.6 per cent; whereas grammar schools are attended by 26.3 and private schools by 23.3 per cent of learners with this linguistic background (at the Freie Waldorfschulen this proportion is even down to 6 per cent). In the boroughs of Mitte and Neukölln some 67 per cent of the school population have a migration background; but at the other extreme in Treptow-Köpenick and Pankow it is only about 12 per cent. The remaining boroughs lie somewhere in between.

The European language policy

The European language policy (administered by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg) takes receptive intercomprehension (i.e. reading and listening) as the primary point of departure in its documents. Thus it concentrates on the large (and related) Indo-European language families (that is, the group of Germanic, Romance and Slavonic languages: cf. the EuroCom-projects), leaving the promotion of the learners’ heritage language mainly to the family and/or consular instruction. Sure, the European Union (= EU) is geared towards multilingualism, since every citizen of the EU should be fluent in 1 + 2 languages: the dominant language of the country plus the speaker’s heritage language or (respectively) one or two foreign languages. Up to now, however, the EU does not consider languages which are different from the European languages (belonging to the type of inflected languages: all knowing – to different degrees – conjugations and declinations). What is absent then in European language policy is the existence of non-European languages, for example agglutinating or tone languages.

The monolingual habitus continued

Learners with these heritage languages sit in our classes in front of every teacher, which is to say that the groups of learners are getting more and more heterogeneous (with regard to linguistic, cultural and religious matters). However, neither their first languages nor (as a consequence) their identities are sufficiently honoured. To be realistic, no teacher can speak or write those 200 languages which are supposed to exist in Berlin. But isn’t it just as realistic to state that neither teacher training nor teachers’ staff rooms are cleared of the cemented modes of thought governing the ethnically uniform nation state? We live in a migration society, globalization has set in: time for language policies to be reasonably adapted to transnational reality. Nevertheless, what we observe in our classrooms and textbooks for foreign languages is the “monolingual habitus” (Gogolin 1994). European languages are predominantly taught in isolation from each other.

Preparing future teachers

To my mind this gives rise to the following demands: As far as I can see this must be stopped. Student teachers must be prepared (mainly in the linguistics section of their training) for the basic principles of non-European languages (including their writing systems). This will appeal to language awareness, an ability that should not be banned from the education (and practice) of future teachers. Maybe we find a way to make sensible use in the foreign language class of competent student and practising teachers with a different (= non-German) heritage language. My conclusion: A migration society must open itself to multilingualism in the educational system. Particularly the foreign language curriculum will have to change.

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Copyright © 2018 Wolfgang Hallet