Why do we fail to identify a ‘multilingual advantage’ among bilingual heritage speakers? Insights from Germany and Norway

A number of studies indicate that it is easier for bilinguals to learn a further or foreign language. But is this always true? Can we argue for a general bi- or multilingual advantage?

In the E-LiPS and MEZ projects at the University of Hamburg, we compared bilingual learners of English with their monolingual, German-speaking peers. Whether in grammar tasks, writing or oral storytelling, we could observe that both groups perform in similar ways. That is to say, the bilinguals are neither ‘better’ than the monolinguals, nor the other way around. Any differences we found appear to be related to other factors and not to a monolingual vs. multilingual upbringing.

The bilingual students referred to here are typically called heritage speakers. They are mostly highly proficient in German, yet the skills these students have in their heritage language are often less advanced and can range from mere perceptive skills (understanding) to being able to fluently speak and write in the language. Considering the ‘multilingual advantage’ found in other contexts, these young adults should – in principle – outperform the monolingual German students in the English language classroom. Yet, this does not seem to be the case.

One possible explanation is that English-language instruction in secondary schools is largely centered on a monolingual audience and is not adapted to multilingual realities. Germany is far from exceptional here, and we find comparable situations in many European countries. As part of the project Acquisition of English in the Multilingual Classroom, English teachers in Norway expressed generally positive attitudes towards multilingualism but that they simply do not know how to bring this to the classroom. Some insights into this mismatch come from semi-structured interviews in which these teachers specifically asked for guidance on how to work with multilingual students. At the same time, however, they were skeptical about implementing changes, one reason being that they themselves do not speak all of the languages of their students.

A critical task is to prepare language teachers for multilingual classrooms by providing them with hands-on materials and strategies. It is necessary to create an open atmosphere where every language is valued and accepted, even when not shared by everyone. This may help the multilingual students to become aware of their potential resources and to use their whole linguistic repertoires in learning further foreign languages at school.

Eliane Lorenz

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