Heritage Language Instruction at School – A Valuable Resource

published 26 September 2019 updated 26 September 2019

by Yasemin Can-Nizamoğlu

In Germany, the debate about the whys and wherefores of (school based) heritage language instruction (HLI or in German »Herkunftssprachlicher Unterricht«) is not over. In some German states heritage languages are taught via teachers directly employed by or sent by the consulates of the foreign countries (the so called consulate method) or alternatively via a public provision – or a mix of both. Either way, HLI remains marginal within the German education system. This piece will address why it is so marginal and what the arguments are for its support.

Heritage language instruction finds itself within a dilemma - supporters on the one side use the 'Interdependence' hypothesis of Jim Cummins (see Cummins, 2000)[1] as the basis for an institutional embedding of HLI for students with a mother tongue which is different to the country's / state's official language. The 'Interdependence' hypothesis argues that instruction in one language will, if certain conditions are fulfilled, effect learning in the other language. Critics of this approach who support a monolingual school argue that the time that needs to be invested in learning the heritage language should be invested in learning the official host country language. There are few empirical studies to support the 'Interdependence' hypothesis (see Wenk et al, 2016)[2].

Linguistic competencies connect in different ways. But the question of how they connect is unclear. It is however clear, that attending HLI doesn't have negative effects on learning German and that “it leads with certainty to a further development of the family language, which is additional language qualification” (Reich 2014, pg. 7)[3] There are strong arguments that the positive effects (on learning German) only occur when particular conditions are fulfilled – amongst these being: agreeing on teaching methods and cooperation between staff, quality standards, and the recognition of the HLI as a subject.

Regardless of the desirability of more research, heritage languages should be recognised as a valuable resource. Students with mother tongues other than German, bring “specific language and cultural resources with them, which should be recognised as a treasure not just for themselves, but for the whole community.”(Bremer / Mehlhorn 2018, pg. 11)[4].

Challenges and Problems in Practice – an example:

The challenges and problems shown up in a study conducted in Munich in 2013, are exemplary. The interview with a HLI teacher indicated that the conditions for the HLI were very unhelpful.

The instruction was on Friday afternoon which led to poor attendance. As the attendance was voluntary, the students preferred to enjoy their free time – particularly in the summer. The HLI offer was a double lesson (i.e. 90 minutes) in the school once a week. There was a wide range of ages in the group according to the teacher interviewed. One group consisted of students from grades 4 to 7, who also had a range of language competencies. Some of them had started the HLI that year – others had participated for a number of years.

The heterogeneity of the teaching group in terms of age as well as linguistic competency was a significant challenge for the teacher. The teacher worked completely independently in terms of the curriculum planning and selection of teaching materials. This was based in the difficulties of the textbooks used in the HLI. The planned content of the curriculum could not, nowadays, be fully covered within a school year. This is partially because the students do not attend regularly but also because the teacher ensures a variety of activities within the lessons. Without this variety, the students wouldn't attend the lessons at all.

In Bremen we can observe the same problems 5 years after the Munich study. In the context of the seminar “Der schulische Herkunftssprachenunterricht” (Heritage Language Instruction at School) (SoSe 18, Universität Bremen) which I offered, students observed HLI in schools to get an idea of how it was delivered and spoke with teachers on the courses. There were similarly unhelpful conditions – the example discussed above was not an exception, but rather a systematic reflection of general problems for HLI. These conditions make participation for the school students not particularly attractive. The initial question in this piece – why has HLI got such a marginalised position – is based in the fact that we are only on the way towards acceptance of multilingualism. This is shown by current media coverage for example the Bild (a German national tabloid) had an article with the headline: “only one of (these) 103 children speak German at home.” The supposition that only German is the language that everyone speaks at home is not really thought through. More than a third of families in Germany are multilingual. From that, growing up with an additional language to German is hardly an exception but rather normality - and this will grow in significance. The first important step would be the recognition and acceptance of heritage languages and multilingualism.

Recommendations ...

Heritage language instruction needs to be reformed - that's certain. Support in terms of educational policy and research is necessary to achieve this. Participation for students should be made part of an attractive offer. For example, student motivation could be enhanced by taking away the 'informal group' nature of the lessons, instead valuing their participation by awarding grades like in other subjects. This would also require a curriculum with set standards. In addition, in-service training for teaching staff with regards to linguistic diversity within the teaching groups is important. The HLI should be carried out in close cooperation with the teaching of German. Simultaneously the institutional connections between support in the student's first and second languages should be strengthened. (Woerfel 2013)[5]. The interaction between families, schools and research is equally important in achieving this as the recognising and using a natural multilingualism (ebd.).

... and Perspectives:

The struggle against the marginalisation of HLI has passed an important milestone with the establishment of a network for "Herkunftssprachlicher Unterricht"[6]. This network is a German wide organisation which plans to broaden research particularly in terms of the role and function of HLI. There are also positive moves afoot in some states. In the Saarland, for example, the consulate model will be taken into the state government sector and extended from the current Italian and Turkish, to include Arabic and Russian. Nord-Rhein-Westfalen has added two new languages to make a total of 22 - including Aramaic and Zazaki. We can hope that these positive developments continue and that heritage languages will be supported.

At the time of writing, Yasemin Can-Nizamoğlu was an academic staff member of the German as a Second and Foreign Language Unit, Area 10, Department of Language and Literature - Universität Bremen. Ms. Can-Nizamoğlu is now employed at Cologne University (Unversität zu Köln).

[1] Cummins, J. (2000): Language, power and pedagogy. Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

[2] Wenk, A./Marx, N./Steinhoff, T./Rüßmann, L. (2016): Interlinguale Förderung von Schreibfähigkeiten bilingualer Schülerinnen und Schüler. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung 27 (2), 151-179.

[3] Reich, H. (2014): Über die Zukunft des herkunftssprachlichen Unterrichts. Überarbeitete Fassung eines Vortrags bei der GEW Rheinland-Pfalz in Mainz am 31.01.2012. https://www.unidue.de/imperia/md content/prodaz/reich_hsu_prodaz.pdf [15.11.2018].

[4] Brehmer, B./Mehlhorn, G. (2018): Herkunftssprachen. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto.

[5] Woerfel, T. (2013): Interaktionen im multilingualen Spracherwerb- Nachteil Bayern? Vortrag, 3. Diskussionsforum Linguistik in Bayern »Interaktionen«, 25./26.02.2013 Universität Bamberg.

[6] https://www.kombi.uni-hamburg.de/netzwerkhsu.html

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