Do Children with a Migrant Background Develop Language Deficits in Their First or Their Second Language?

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Introduction

The issues of globalisation and hence immigration are ever-increasing topics in Europe. Only recently it was stated that every second student is supposed to have sufficient knowledge of at least one foreign language at the age of 15. An action plan formulated by the European Commission for the years 2004-2006 shows the importance of languages as means for integration and cultural awareness. “It is a priority for Member States to ensure that language learning in kindergarten and primary school is effective, for it is here that key attitudes towards other languages and cultures are formed, and the foundations for later language learning are laid.” (Commission of the European Communities 2003: 7)

With reference to the educational system it is demanded that two other languages should be learned in schools under the heading of the ‘life-long language learning’ programme. Although today’s countries are already coined by bilingualism and multilingualism the development and maintenance of different languages is still emotionally debated within politics and societies (cf. Meisel 2004:1). This is especially the case in child language acquisition because it is assumed that different language input could negatively influence the cognitive mechanisms and that the children could be trapped between two or more unsteady developed languages. Referring to the situation of children with a migrant background the arguments on the one hand claim that the maintenance of the family language is threatened and on the other hand that the proficiency of the majority language is insufficient to interact within the environment and to proceed academically (cf. ibid.). Recalling the European Commission it is stated that because of the globalisation the knowledge of more than one language is seen as a basic skill and the competence to communicate in languages apart from English takes on an important role. Since children with a migrant background are usually raised with various language, for instance, the family language (minority language), the language of the host country and further languages at school, they bring along apposite characteristics to become multilingual and to fulfill the goal set by the European Commission. However, these different language contacts in various settings also provide difficulties. The input from the close environment like relatives and neighbourhood shapes their language progress. As a result the children with migrant backgrounds happen to enter primary school with serious disadvantages (cf. Driessen, van der Slik & de Bot, 2002: 176). Thus Stanat et al. (2010) reported in their presentation of the PISA tests and the compared results

Introduction

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from 2000 – 2009 that within Europe children with a migrant background still have considerable lacks in majority language competences compared to their monolingual peers. Because these results are often seen as consequences of insufficient language proficiency, this paper scrutinizes the bilingual development of children with a migrant background with the goal to find out how maintenance of the minority language and acquisition of the majority language are best achieved. The question is whether children with a migrant background develop language deficits in their first or second language and if so, why this happens. Thus factors which influence language development are examined whereas age as a main factor is particularly focused next to home language and formal educational impacts. Finally, it should be considered if there is something like linguistically balanced bilingualism and if it could be compared to monolingual language proficiency. The examination paper at hand looks at cases of bilingual children who are exposed to a minority language at home and a majority language in society by birth or in early or late childhood. Furthermore the children’s linguistic development is scrutinised throughout various analyses to show if probable language...
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