Encouraging Multilingualism

Wilfried Griebel is a psychologist at the State Institute of Early Childhood Research in Munich. His research focuses on transitions from preschool to the formal school system. He is the author of numerous books on children’s transitions from one phase of schooling to the next.

What aspects of your research do you find particularly fascinating?

How families cope with changes as they interact with educational institutions affects children’s lives and their right to education and participation in society. I’m interested not only in pure research, theory and methods, but also in their relevance to society. As a member of the Bavarian section of the German Child Protection Association, I advocate for children’s rights.

Among other things, you were involved in writing the Transition to School and Multilingualism curriculum, which promotes multilingualism among children whose home language is different from the language spoken at school.  What advice do you have for teachers seeking to help children make a successful transition to school?

Communication and participation by everyone involved, particularly the parents, are very important. The languages spoken by families need to be recognized and taken seriously. It annoys me when people make generalizations, based on tests, about the “linguistic competence” of groups of multilingual children. It is often assumed that the performance of these children in the language spoken at school is indicative of their overall linguistic competence. In fact, however, multilingual children are more proficient that we might think, and when teachers are better informed, they are less likely to discourage these children by underestimating their potential.

What recommendations would you give parents who want to help their children make the best possible transition to school?

They should find out as much as they can about what the school expects of their children and of them as parents. This means maintaining good contact with teachers and other school personnel, as well as with experienced parents. Another important thing, although it may seem surprising to mention in this context, is for parents to make sure that their children are in good health.

Researchers and experts from Sweden, the Netherlands, Latvia and Romania, as well as Germany, contributed to your book. What can Germany learn from other countries?

The most important thing, in my view, is this: We need to understand that schools can be different from what we in Germany are familiar with and regard as immutable. In the Netherlands, for example, schools for younger children are quite different from the German model. Linguistic minorities that have emerged for reasons other than immigration in such countries as Latvia and Romania often require a different approach and a different attitude toward multilingualism. In Sweden, every language is regarded as something to be valued, and multilingualism is supported by offering instruction in foreign languages, including the languages spoken in children’s homes. Swedish schools promote active learning – viewing children not as passive receptacles of knowledge, but as active participants in shaping their own lives.