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Languages as a ‘portable home’

According to an estimate by UNESCO, half of the world’s approximately 7000 languages are at risk of dying out. In order to raise awareness of this, the United Nations began observing International Mother Language Day on February 21 in the year 2000. We asked Dr. Monika Raml (German Didactics) to explain the significance of mother languages in an interview. On February 22, she will be giving a talk on ‘Space for multilingualism – public, institutional, individual’ at an event organized by Ingolstadt’s migration council to celebrate International Mother Language Day. As part of a collaborative project with Marmara University in Istanbul, Dr. Raml and her colleague Gülenay Ekici-Uçar conducted research on German-Turkish language biographies in Istanbul and Ingolstadt.

1. What makes a mother language different from any other languages that someone learns?

‘Mother language’ (or ‘mother tongue’) is a general term that is used by a lot of people and therefore does not have a clearly defined meaning. Often what is meant is a ‘heritage language’ – the preferred term used by linguists, also called the ‘first language’ or ‘native language’. According to our understanding of this concept, a mother language is learned from parents or other people that a child comes into contact with without specific language teaching. It is a defining feature of a speaker’s language biography and can sometimes be a dialect. It does not necessarily have to be the language that a person uses the most or becomes most proficient in over the course of his or her language biography, but it definitely has a strong emotional significance for the speaker.

Research in neuroscience and language acquisition has defined windows of time for early and late learners in which it is possible to learn a language to native level (between the ages of three and six for pronunciation; it is possible to learn to use grammar intuitively up until puberty). The reason for this is that when a new language is learned at a later age, new neural networks in the brain have to form first. By contrast, people who learned two languages in parallel during early childhood use the same neural network for both. In simple terms, this network is then available for the acquisition of other foreign languages. The good news is that it is possible to acquire knowledge of languages – i.e. comprehension – and vocabulary at any age.

Another feature of mother languages is that they are often used intuitively. Native speakers are able to form correct sentences automatically without thinking about or being able to explain the underlying syntactic structure (subject – predicate – object for declarative sentences in German and in English). Conversely, if you ask someone learning the same language as a foreign language, he or she will be able to describe the syntactic construction more analytically but may not understand metaphors or idioms.

In our edited volume on German-Turkish language biographies, Katharina König from the University of Münster shows in examples from interviews with bilingual speakers of German and Turkish that different people understand and use the key term ‘mother language’ differently: Those who arrived in Germany only a few years ago understand their mother language as a skill that is an advantage in their new environment. Those who have been living in Germany for a longer period of time or were born here primarily see their ‘mother language’ as a ‘heritage language’ and expressed worries about losing the language or a determination not to lose it. People from the second generation see German as one of their mother languages. As this indicates, the term needs to be interpreted differently in the context of multilingualism research and should not be applied to only one language.


2. English has become established as the language of global communication. What role does the mother language play in societies made up of people with many different nationalities – both with regard to the countries that people move to and the migrants themselves?

In a global world in which most people are able to make themselves understood in the lingua franca English, the mother language is primarily important for the identity of its speakers – this is particularly true of regional languages and dialects. Language becomes a kind of ‘portable home’ (in the words of Heinrich Heine), a point of reference for those who have lost their national identity.

Linguistic diversity enriches society and offers many opportunities – for individual speakers but also for society as a whole. In order for societies and individuals to deal successfully with multilingualism, several requirements must be met in terms of education policy. Firstly, bilingual learners and new arrivals must be given special language courses to ensure that they are able to participate at school or at work. Many studies that have been conducted in Germany in recent years show that being proficient in German is key to educational success in all subjects. At the same time, teachers need to draw on pupils’ multilingualism more strongly as a resource – such as through language comparison – to enable learners to make use of their awareness of language. All heritage languages and second languages that pupils speak have to be given appropriate recognition in order to strengthen their self-confidence.

The current situation is rather paradoxical: We all want to learn foreign languages over the course of our lives and we admire multilinguals, but we often give different levels of prestige to different languages: A German-Turkish pupil or a Russian-German colleague are only measured on the basis of how perfect their German is, while for bilinguals with the languages traditionally taught in German schools (English, French, Spanish, etc.) the emphasis is on their bilingual abilities. One way of combating this would be to expand the range of foreign languages taught in schools with the addition of languages such as Turkish, Polish, or Hungarian.


3. International Mother Language Day focuses mainly on languages that are spoken by minorities. Some commentators have observed that dialects that are limited to specific regions are also in decline. Is the German language becoming increasingly uniform?

Local dialects that are limited to very small areas such as individual towns have indeed been observed to be in decline – but with a shift towards regional dialects that cover wider areas.

Due to increased mobility and a stronger presence of the media in a global world where language contact is common, regional languages play a different role today – they are more a means of showing identity rather than the only method of communication as they were for speakers of earlier generations. Today, most German dialect speakers can communicate in the standard language just as well as in their dialect – often in English and other foreign languages too.

When it comes to proficiency in dialect, there is a clear difference between urban and rural areas. In our dialect research project Sprache im Fluss (Language in flux), we saw that pupils in rural areas are still proficient in dialect, although they observed that their dialect had changed in comparison with their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Pupils in schools in urban areas would like to speak dialect and still understand quite a lot, but many of them no longer use dialect as a means of communication; instead they use it – like a foreign language – in specific situations, such as in informal communication with their families or as a means of marking group identity among friends.

I am fairly confident that in a country like Germany, a federation of states with a national standard language that developed from a rich variety of dialects, there will never be a single form of the language that is used as the sole means of communication. It is precisely because we live in a global world that regional characteristics will remain a point of reference for reinforcing identity.


Dr. Monika Raml is a research associate at the KU’s Chair of German Didactics.





 Interview: Constantin Schulte Strathaus