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Machines of the future

Second-language support for children: the sooner, the better.

Text: Samuel Schlaefli

The sooner children from immigrant backgrounds can benefit from care outside the family, the more quickly they will learn to speak German, which in turn means they will be less disadvantaged once they enter school. These are the findings of a long-term study conducted by Basel developmental psychologists.

Basel-Stadt is a canton with a very strong immigrant presence: More than 100 languages are spoken in the city, and most children living here do not speak German at home. The canton recognized years ago that this was going to have far-reaching implications for playgroups, kindergartens and schools. “Research findings on early intervention were conclusive already at that time,” says Alexander Grob, Professor of Developmental and Personality Psychology at the University of Basel: “The sooner children from socially disadvantaged groups receive help with second language acquisition, the easier they will be to teach later on, and the social and economic burden on society will be lightened accordingly.”

Trail-blazing local project

Using advice from former head of the ministry of education Christoph Eymann, Professor Grob called into being a project entitled “Mit ausreichenden Deutschkenntnissen in den Kindergarten” (Starting Kindergarten with Adequate German Skills). Parents living in the canton of Basel- Stadt are — based on law —expected to fill out a questionnaire on their children’s proficiency of German 18 months before the children enter kindergarten. The questionnaire is now available in the ten languages most widely spoken in Basel. Where necessary, a cross-cultural communicator helps with translating and filling out the form. If the answers given point to a second language deficit, the child’s parents are obliged to send their two- to three-year-old to a playgroup or day care center that provides second-language support integrated into daily learning. The minimum attendance is two half days per week for a year.

Decisive role of life context

“What surprised me most was that as many as 75 percent of children for whom German was not a first language were in need of support,” Grob recalls. “One in two spoke and understood hardly any German at all.” Another finding was less than surprising: The earlier and more frequently a child attended a child care facility, the better their command of German ultimately became.

“What is unique about the Basel project is the early stage at which intervention occurs,” says Grob, whose research group accompanied the project with an extensive longitudinal study over eight years. Every year, 18 months before their children start kindergarten, around 1,800 parents receive a letter asking about their children’s language skills. Over four years, the team selected subsets of around 120 children each and then monitored their respective progress for four years. A total of 586 children took part in the study.

Over the course of the study, the researchers collected data on the children’s learning progress at four different stages: at pre-Kindergarten age (3.3 years on average), at the beginning and end of kindergarten (4.8 and 6.2 years, respectively) and at the end of their first year in elementary school (7.3 years). In addition to the children’s German skills, their individual life context was assessed, including the amount of support received from parents, playgroup workers and teachers. For instance, researchers would observe how parents communicated with their children and check how many children’s books were available in their homes, and in which languages. They also took an interest in how teachers evaluated the children’s German skills and levels of social integration and self-competence.

“Up to the age of about six, children are able to learn a language without even making an effort; they simply pick it up,” he remarks, before adding, “But this works only if the child is exposed to the right kind of life context.” These conditions are the intended aim of Basel-Stadt by making formal child care with second-language support mandatory for some children.

Heike Behrens, Professor of Cognitive Linguistics and Language Acquisition Research at the University of Basel, explains that findings from psycholinguistic research confirm the importance of early intervention: “During the first three years of life, conditions for language acquisition are ideal in that a lot of developmental changes coincide and feed into each other.” She adds that there is evidence that a language deficit at this stage is extremely difficult to overcome later on. However, she stresses, age is not the only influential aspect, with language acquisition depending on a number of other positive factors.

Grob’s study shows that one of these preconditions is what is known as parental acculturation: The higher the degree to which parents from an immigrant background identify with Switzerland – in other words, the more motivated they are to integrate and the more confident they are of being allowed to stay in the country – the steeper their children’s learning curve will be. If acculturation fails to occur, by contrast, then the children’s second language acquisition is adversely affected even if the parents speak German at home. It thus seems that the reassurance of having found a permanent new home is of greater importance to a child’s second language acquisition than the language spoken in the family.

This has political relevance, especially for the treatment of refugees: “Being prepared to welcome immigrants entails more than just giving them the opportunity to learn German,” says Grob. “The host country also needs to reassure them that it will be beneficial in the end.” He goes on to say that allocating public funding to German courses for refugees is therefore worthwhile only if the participants can see some chance that they will be allowed to stay in Switzerland in the long run.

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Potential value of bilingualism

The Basel model of a “selektives Obligatorium” (selective obligation) represents a requirement for children to attend childcare facilities with second-language support. This model has come to be regarded as an example of best practice, both nationally and internationally. For instance, the canton of Lucerne and the cities of Chur, Zurich and Schaffhausen have all adopted the questionnaire created by Grob. In Basel, the questionnaire is being translated into Tigrinya and Arabic to accommodate shifting geopolitical realities. In addition, Professor Grob and colleagues from other universities are planning a further long-term study on metacognitive competence in bilingual children. The aim is to test his hypothesis that children who grow up bilingual find it easier to see things from the perspective of others. “If this is borne out by our research, then we can’t afford not to promote bilingualism,” he stresses: “In increasingly polarized societies, building up social and emotional skills is enormously important.”

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