What early years language acquisition programmes can achieve 

by Tanja Kiziak, Vera Kreuter, and Reiner Klingholz

Complete German Version


Following Germany’s poor showing in the international PISA study of educational achievement, there were vocal demands from both policymakers and the public to improve programmes for German language acquisition in the early stages of education. The idea behind these demands was to nip language deficits in the bud before they lead to more serious educational deficits and hence wasted opportunities once children start school – a situation that Germany, with its shrinking population and shortage of skilled professionals, cannot afford.

The need for early language acquisition programmes for children is high in Germany: between a third and half of children from migrant backgrounds exhibit language deficits at pre-school age, as indeed do 10 percent of children whose native language is German. Without extra help these children will therefore have difficulty following school instruction.


The population with a migrant background: unused potential


It is already the case that a third of under-six-year-olds have a migrant background, and in some large cities the figure is even as many as two thirds. Immigrants represent great potential for our aging society, because they have three demographic characteristics as a group that distinguish them from the established population: comparatively few of them are old and many of them are children or young people capable of gainful employment. They could thus at least partially help to compensate for Germany’s demographic problems. In too many cases, however, those capable of working fail to become members of the workforce. In part because of insufficient support, immigrants are on average worse qualified and more often unemployed than native Germans. In other words, their potential is currently not being fully utilised.

But it is not only the proportion of immigrants that is growing. In big cities the proportion of parents with a very low level of education is also rising. Both are risk factors that make language deficits more probable: parents with a low level of education do not offer their children sufficient – or the right kind of – linguistic stimulation necessary for unimpeded language acquisition. Children also lack linguistic stimulation, at least for learning German, in families in which the parents speak little or no German. In these cases, it is emotionally desirable for the child to acquire the parents’ language of origin, at least within the family. Moreover, speaking German with parents whose command of the language is poor would in any case not enable these children to acquire mother-tongue level language proficiency. It is therefore important for these children to have regular contact with German outside the family from an early age.

If children attend day-care for several years before they start school, they will receive sufficient stimulation from the carers and other children to compensate for their language deficits – as long as the conditions for this are favourable. However, children from a migrant background and sectors of the population without much education are much less likely to attend day-care or kindergarten than other children, and if they do so it tends to be at a later age. Because of demographic and social changes, it is by no means guaranteed that children in day-care will receive the “total immersion” they would require to learn German easily and quickly.


For many children day-care does not offer “total immersion” in German

On average roughly one child in three who speaks little or no German at home attends a day-care centre in which more than half the children do not speak German at home either. This linguistic segregation at day-care centres becomes problematic when most of the children speak the same (non-German) language. In the worst cases, even after attending these day-care centres for several years, the children still do not speak sufficient German, because everyday life scarcely demands proficiency in German.

Therefore great hopes are being pinned on special language support programmes and courses. There are now a variety of approaches being taken to address this problem, which can be roughly divided into two groups: first of all, a variety of training courses and material are offered to carers at day-care centres to help them encourage group language acquisition on a day-to-day basis. Second, there are a number of concepts that address children’s language needs in small groups. These are conducted either by specially qualified external personnel or by day-care carers who have been trained to perform this function.

Disappointing findings point to room for improvement

So far only three of the programmes offering special language courses have been evaluated in studies with rigorous academic standards. The findings were disappointing. In most cases the children attending these courses did not acquire language better or more quickly than those in the control group. It would nevertheless be premature to conclude that special language acquisition programmes at day-care centres are fundamentally useless. First of all, the evaluation processes themselves are still in their infancy, so that they sometimes raise more questions than they can answer. Secondly, the low success rate may be partly attributable to the fact that the programmes evaluated were not conducted in an optimal way in the day-care centres, partly because of political constraints: the programmes did not begin until pre-school age and hence too late for optimal language acquisition; they were not well integrated into the regular day-to-day activities of the day-care centre; and the people running the courses required more professional support and mentoring.

The Discussion Paper looks at a range of approaches that researchers and practitioners have identified as important and promising for early language acquisition at day-care centres. These include systematic reference to the child’s first language, continual sharpening of day-care personnel’s language awareness, and help for individual children tailored to their specific level of language development. Last, but not least, the recognition that language acquisition takes time.

From the perspective of language acquisition, structural changes in the day-care of small children would also seem to make sense, but are politically difficult to implement. Making kindergarten attendance compulsory from the age of three as well as a free first year of kindergarten for three-year-olds would be helpful, so that language acquisition programmes reach as many children as possible as early as possible. By establishing quotas for country of origin, one could ensure that day-care groups are linguistically mixed. Other useful approaches include networking projects, for example between different day-care centres or between day-care centres and old people’s homes, as well as schemes for volunteer reading mentors. All of these could help to overcome the isolation of day-care centres in which the majority of the children do not speak German at home.

All the studies indicate that investment in very early education pays off particularly well. This applies especially to language acquisition programmes, for small children learn languages more easily than anyone else.


The Discussion Paper was produced with the support of the Siemens Stiftung.



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