The path to multilingualism

By Laura TomassiniLex KlerenMisch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

It has been part of Luxembourg's identity for generations and determines the everyday life of many people: multilingualism. Learning one or even several languages seems the most natural thing in the world, especially for children, and yet there are factors that strongly influence language development, among them the mother tongue.

Breakfast with mum in Portuguese, maths, history and biology in German and French, playing in the playground in Luxembourgish, dinner in English and the bedtime story from dad in Swedish. What is a snap for many children and is mastered without much of an effort by most can be a real challenge for some, because growing up multilingual holds opportunities, but also many hurdles. Especially the youngest members of society often have a hard time finding their way among all the vocabulary. Luxembourg is not an isolated case when it comes to the use of multiple languages.

"Multilingualism affects very many nations worldwide. Of course, there are large monolingual countries like the USA or the United Kingdom, but if you look at countries like Africa or India, it is normal that many different languages are spoken by the population there, " explains Prof. Dr. Pascale Engel de Abreu from the University of Luxembourg. Together with her team, the cognitive scientist and developmental psychologist has been researching the topics of language development and multilingualism for several years, with a focus on the role of children's mother tongue(s).

Literacy in a foreign language

According to the researcher, what's special in this country is the fact that literacy is not taught in the national language. "We actually learn in a foreign language and that is considered normal here because it has always been that way, but it is not equally easy for every child, " Engel de Abreu says. The issue starts even before school enrolment – at home, because for many parents, multilingualism in their own home, plus that which takes place in public care structures, is a big challenge that causes uncertainty, she explains. "Many parents do not know in which language to read to their children. Moreover, it is not easy for them to maintain their first language alongside the national languages, " says the researcher.

Multilingualism is also a challenge for the children themselves, which not everyone masters equally well – the common cliché of the spongy child's brain that absorbs everything without further ado only partly corresponds to reality, says Engel de Abreu. Language development is like everything else in life: for some it is easy, for others it is a problem. "While some children say their first word at twelve months, others say it at five, and others say it much later. Each of these cases is normal, because there is a lot of variability in language acquisition, " says the researcher.

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