Promotion of Bilingualism in the School Environment. A Comparison between Germany and the US

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2013 18 Pages

Didactics - English - Pedagogy, Literature Studies


Table of Contents

I. Introduction on Bilingualism

II. The Treatment of Bilingual Students in the German and American Educational Systems
Bilingualism in Society
Bilingualism in Schools: Promoted or Discouraged?
Educational Success of Bilingual Children

III. Conclusion

IV. Works Cited

I. Introduction on Bilingualism

No one can say for sure how many people are multilingual, but a reasonable estimate is that at least half of the world’s population is in this category. Multilingualism is thus by no means a rare phenomenon, but a normal and common occurrence in most parts of the world.1

This statement by Saville-Troike might some surprising to some, given that in many Western societies, the ability to use two (or more) languages is seen as something ‘special’ - however, I intentionally do not give away whether this characterization of ‘special’ is seen as something positive or negative. The fact is that in many of those same societies, whether being ‘special’ is good or bad depends on the languages that are spoken by that bi- or multilingual person.

An individual in the United States who has grown up with English as their native language and has learned German, French or Spanish on a more or less proficient level is certainly viewed as accomplished, especially with regard to the stereotype that Americans are too ‘lazy’ to learn any other languages but English because of its status as a lingua franca. In Germany, if a student wants to achieve a secondary school degree that enables them to go to university, they have to meet foreign language requirements that include having learned one language over the entire period of secondary school, plus a second foreign language over the period of three to five years. The modern languages offered usually include English, French, Spanish or Italian, aside from ‘classic languages’ like Greek and Latin.

On the other hand, ‘special’ can mean problematic, causing both the student and the educational institution unwelcome trouble that would be avoided in a strictly monolingual society. But, as we see in the above quote, most countries in the world are not set out as monolingual societies, due to histories of moving borders and migration movements of people, among other reasons. Large portions of the population in the U.S. are of Hispanic origin, their first language being Spanish, whereas Germany can show for a diverse society with many native speakers of Turkish, Russian and other languages. Children with this kind of background often grow up as bilinguals, if their parents are able to teach them the ‘target language’ at home, or they become bilingual once they enter the school system2, with it being a given that the development of either the L1 and/or the L2 might be affected throughout a child’s school career.

In this paper, I will be focusing on the treatment of bilingualism in schools both as a ‘problem’ and a ‘benefit’, thereby analyzing the notions of “immigrant bilingualism” and “elite bilingualism”. It is interesting to me how bilinguals are perceived in German and American societies in general, something that I have already alluded to in this introduction, and how they are perceived in the school environment. I will also be looking at programs and schools that promote bilingualism in both countries and different languages, as well as the reception of bilingual students in ‘normal’ schools. Finally, I will explore some of the research done on the success of (mainly immigrant) bilinguals in the school environment: whether and in which situations or subjects their bilingualism helps or hinders students during their educational career.

II. The Treatment of Bilingual Children in the German and American Educational Systems

In the following three sections of this paper, I will be focusing only on certain languages spoken by bilinguals in the U.S. and Germany, although I am aware of the fact that both cultures are much more diverse in reality and that there might be more nuances to the debate than those that I have portrayed here. For the United States, I am concerned with children and young adults who have Spanish as their L1 (regardless of whether they were born in the country or not), given the fact that it is one of the largest immigrant groups and shows high numbers of Spanish/English bilinguals. Because of the demographic situation in Germany, I have not reduced my studies to bilinguals speaking one and the same L1 with German as an L2, but rather refer to the bilingual society as a whole. Nevertheless, the notion of “elite bilingualism” which I will address shortly, is far more pronounced in Germany than in the U.S., which is why a distinction between languages that are spoken by “immigrant bilinguals” or by “elite bilinguals” will be necessary at that point. Referring to these concepts, I will start by looking at the status of bilingualism in both American and German society, which will then be narrowed down to the perception of bilingualism in schools and its treatment. Again, there are differences among the two countries that are significantly connected with society’s perception of bilingualism. Finally, I have asked myself the question of how bilingual children fare in school, and whether there are instances where knowing two languages (often on different proficiency levels) come either as a help or a hindrance in these students’ school career. At this point, I am especially interested in the influence bilingualism has on the teaching of the L2 (German in Germany, English in the U.S.) and additional, formally instructed foreign languages.

Bilingualism in Society

According to information provided by the US Census Bureau in 2011 (following the 2010 census), about 50.0 million people in the United States are of Hispanic origin, which makes up about 16 per cent of the whole population and therefore the largest group aside from ‘white’ Americans. Since the Census Bureau does not keep specific records about bilinguals, I have looked at the Hispanic population of a certain age group, i.e. children and young adults that have most likely received both English and Spanish input and that would, theoretically, be able to participate in bilingual programs or visit bilingual schools. In result, there are 13.6 million people of Hispanic origin between the ages of 5 and 19 (which approximately overlaps with the ages during which children young adults are schooled), making up about 27 per cent of the Hispanic population3. The German “Statistisches Bundesamt” (Federal Office for Statistics) provides us with information from the year 2011, saying that about 16.0 million people in Germany, about 19.5 per cent of the population, have a “migration background”. Of those people, 3.4 million are between the ages of 5 and 20 (about 21.2 per cent)4. Although I do not focus on a specific linguistic background of those children and young adults in Germany, it is worth mentioning that most of them (or at least one of their parents) originate from Turkey (15.8%), Poland (8.3%), Russia (4.7%), Italy (4.7%), or Kazakhstan (4.6%)5.

So far, what these demographics tell us is that both the German and the American are highly diverse societies with a presumably large number of (more or less) bilingual school-age. What they do not tell is how these people and the languages that they speak are perceived by themselves and the rest of the society that they live in. The status of a foreign language can often be determined by looking at the way it is promoted in the educational system: if we want our children to learn certain languages over others, we incorporate them into our school curricula while leaving out those that are ‘less desirable’. The fact that some languages are simply not taught in schools is probably also due to the small number of people who decide to study those languages and become a teacher, but then again, the question of which subject to study is also often one of prestige and, pragmatically, of the subjects offered by universities. In Germany, the new “Kerncurriculum” (core curriculum) for the federal state of Hesse, based on national “Bildungsstandards” (educational standards), includes suggestions for the teaching of a number of modern foreign languages, consisting of English, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian. At many universities in that same state, the only modern foreign languages that can be studied towards a teaching degree are English, French, Italian and Spanish and only a handful of universities all over Germany offer Turkish or Russian as subjects for that same degree objective6. Schools themselves decide what additional subject choices they offer their students, often depending on the number of teachers for those subjects that are available, leading to the fact that those languages, natively spoken by many in the German society, are only offered in “Arbeitsgemeinschaften” (a type of extracurricular club), if at all. And this is where we come to the important distinction between “immigrant bilingualism” and “elite bilingualism”.

In her book about bilingual pre-teens in the U.S. and Germany, Janet Fuller gives an interesting account of the status of bilingualism in those and other countries:

[...] This use of both languages [is] acceptable, however, because the mastering of English in addition to German makes a person an elite bilingual, which is an entirely different matter than being an immigrant bilingual. Elite bilingualism has a long history throughout the world. Educated upper classes have long learned foreign languages that enhanced their economic and social capital in Europe, Africa, and Asia. This practice is rarely followed in North America, with notable except of French immersion programs in Canada.7

Within the German school system, the teaching of multiple foreign languages that are considered ‘prestigious’, such as English or French, is reserved for those students in higher track, the so-called “Gymnasium” (the completion of which allows the student to enter university). Students in the lower tracks (“Realschule” and “Hauptschule”) are not required to learn foreign languages aside from a basic knowledge of English, and their options are quite limited: Spanish, for example, is not even offered as a choice in those tracks.


1 Saville-Troike (2006): 8.

2 In this paper and in my definition, the terms “bilingualism” and “multilingualism” are often interchangeable, but since I will be mainly concerned with individuals who have knowledge of two languages, I am adhering the former term.

3 Information as provided by the US Census Bureau in 2011.

4 Information as provided by the “Statistisches Bundesamt” in 2011.

5 Information as provided by the office of the “Beauftragte der Bundesregierung fur Migration, Fluchtlinge und Integration” and the “Deutschlandstiftung Integration” in 2012.

6 Among these the universities of Hamburg, Muenster and Duisburg-Essen.

7 Fuller (2012): 105.


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Title: Promotion of Bilingualism in the School Environment. A Comparison between Germany and the US