Language is more than just communicating

by Dr Eliane Perret, special education teacher and psychologist

In the discussion about early foreign language teaching, one important topic is often lost: What about the knowledge of German? Are our young people prepared for entering their professional life and for their rights and obligations as citizens of Switzerland – a country that gives them a great say by direct democracy?

Unable to read and write

In 2003, Switzerland, under the leadership of the Federal Statistical Office (FSO), participated in an international study by the European Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).1 In this framework, the basic competencies in the areas of reading and everyday mathematics2 were collected. 5,200 persons between 16 and 65 years of age took part in the study. It was amazing when the results of the study became known in 2006: It was estimated that in Switzerland about 800,000 adults between 16 and 65 years of age have a lot of difficulty with reading and writing and they cannot understand and/or cannot write simple texts. Almost half of them were born in Switzerland and completed compulsory schooling. 71 per cent specify the respective country language as their main language. In addition, the study found that about 8 per cent (about 430,000 Swiss inhabitants) have big problems with solving simple arithmetic problems.3 If you think of the role that these skills play in your everyday life, you can imagine what this means for the fate of each individual concerned.4 Moreover, the question arises what this means for our national economy.5

The dual vocational training system is undermined

The problem of insufficient language skills becomes particularly apparent in apprenticeship, secondary schools and in universities and colleges.6 Teachers seldom complain that their apprentices are not able to speak English, but that they have – in addition to an often problematic attitude towards work – a lack of basic knowledge in German and mathematics. This is all the more important since about 60 per cent of all professions do not require a second national language or English7, while oral and written German language skills belong to the professional vocation of most professions and are prerequisites for further education. Already today, up to 30 per cent of all apprenticeships are terminated prematurely.8 To put it plainly, this means that our dual vocational system is gradually eroded – unless we do something about it. It would be urgently necessary to examine the extent to which the permanent school reforms of the last decades have focused too little on grammar and orthography in German language teaching. These miserable conditions will not improve with Curriculum 21, but on the contrary will solidify.9

First clarify

For some time now, a foreign language debate has been taking place, which occupies a lot of space in the media. The question is, when which foreign language should be learned. The Federal Council even threatens to impose two foreign languages in primary school, thus breaking the cantonal educational sovereignty. First of all, however, it would be necessary to clarify why so many young people end their school years without sufficient knowledge of German and thus not only have bad cards for vocational training but also bad conditions for foreign language acquisition. At least that should be the result of the study mentioned. It should also be clarified why more and more small children are known to have developed so called language retardations and need speech-language therapeutic support already during a young age. Looking carefully for the reasons for this lack of linguistic rootedness is therefore a first prerequisite for a genuine improvement of this situation. Answers can be found in the many research results on language acquisition and the importance of mother tongue.

Mother tongue – key to education

In recent years, various studies have shown that a solid basis in the mother tongue (= first language or L1)10 is fundamental to the acquisition of additional languages. Everyone who is fit in his mother tongue and has a differentiated vocabulary is better off, because at school content is mostly linguistically conveyed and tasks are formulated in words. To meet the requirements, it needs solid knowledge of language.
We are not born with our mother tongue, but even at an early age, parents can make a decisive contribution to whether a child masters the language. For example, it plays an important role in the development of language, whether a child has a secure attachment to its caring persons.11 In recent years, several studies have been investigating why one child already knows much more words at young age than others. An often quoted American study of 1995 concluded that children from wealthy and educated families had already heard 30 million words more at the age of three years than their peers from poorer families. Some of the children already mastered 1,100 words, others 525 words.12 Neither the social class seems to be decisive here nor is it a matter of covering the children with as many words as possible or of putting them in front of the TV for this purpose. Language is learned within a relationship, in social coexistence. What is important is whether a family is talking with pleasure, enough and differentiated. Thus, children do not only learn grammar, but they learn to think.13

Language aquisition – an impressive achievement

In order to show the impressiveness and complexity of this learning process, the most important stations are briefly presented here.14 A little child does not learn its language simply by copying his environment, but the language acquisition is a complex continuous process. Already in the first months of life, it receives basic information about the structure of its mother tongue by listening to the language of the mother (and the father). Thus, in an unconscious learning process without specific guidance, it captures the structures of the language. In the first year of life, a child acquires many prerequisites for vocabulary acquisition, for example the ability to filter out regularities from the heard sounds and to store them in its speech memory, to try out possible sounds by using the language tools and to build up relationships between words and the subject world. This is all the more astonishing as it is not yet capable of comparable tasks in other areas of thought at this age.
When saying its first words – usually it is “Mama”, “Papa” or “no” – around its first birthday – the surroundings react with great pleasure. It is now slowly increasing its vocabulary of communication and understanding (= productive and prescriptive vocabulary). In the third year of life when it speaks about 50 words, a veritable word treasure spurt begins. The child learns to speak several words every day and extends its vocabulary by up to ten words a day. At three years of age, its vocabulary of communication includes 800 to 1000 words. In the fourth year of life, focus is put on the further development of grammar. At about the age of four, the children have acquired most linguistic components they need. Even if they are able to speak without interruption and to master the sentence patterns of their mother tongue in principle between four and five years, the language development has not come to an end yet. While this process has been carried out unconsciously so far, an increasingly conscious learning process is starting now. The language is becoming more differentiated and richer in all its facets. At the age of 16, a young person should have a basic vocabulary of around 60,000 words. This is an impressive achievement and means, for example, to learn about nine additional words every day!

Language – a bridge to the fellow human beings

However, language aquisition is not simply an intellectual achievement, but it is most decisively linked to the relationship to the fellow human beings. Our language connects us with our fellow human beings. We can express our thoughts, feelings and intentions linguistically and communicate them to others. It is important for a person’s quality of life and way of life to speak the language and to be able to employ the language. Therefore language and language skills are important for the entire personality development and they depend on many psychological aspects. For this reason, the psychology, starting from a personal image of man, began to deal with these questions early on. In the first half of the last century, for example, the Viennese psychologist Alfred Adler pointed out the importance of language as a dialogical link between people: “The development of man’s language [...] requires this contact between human and human. It has emerged from this intimate bond and, moreover, it is also a new bond between the individual and others.”15 It is not possible for a child to learn a language (even if it has the necessary biological requirements) without a language environment. It needs fellow human beings. In most cases the mother is the child’s first “conversation partner”. She takes up the dialogue with the child and keeps it up alone for the time being. She builds a bridge to the child and creates a first common world of experience together with the child. She needs empathy and intuition to do so and to interpret and respond to its behaviour. In this way, the child learns developing concepts and rules itself and thus creating the basis for its language acquisition. For the mother, it is not primarily about teaching the language to the child, but the positive emotional relationship with the child makes a mutual understanding possible. For the first time the child learns to differentiate social roles, for example as the father speaks in a different way to the child than the mother. Also, the child begins to become increasingly rooted in its culture and to identify with it by the language. It is only in the third and fourth year of life that the mother takes the role of a “teacher of language”. She repeats, for example, the sentences of the child in the correct form without directly correcting it. Thus she offers the opportunity to transform the already existing sentence patterns into correct ones. It is the interpersonal relationship that makes the language acquisition possible, which can never be replaced by media.

The mother tongue – emotional home

The mother tongue is important for language acquisition and personal development of a person. It is more than simply a language because it is involved in the relationship to one or more people who should give the child an emotional home. Therefore, mastering the mother tongue in all its subtleties means more than simply to perceive it in its communicative function. It is part of the speaker’s personal history. The mother tongue requires special care and should be mastered well and differentiated by every human being. It must have an outstanding significance in the education process of children. In our schools, however, for many children German is not the mother tongue. Today we have many children who speak a different language at home. We easily forget how multi-lingual Swiss schools are – more and more different cultures and nations meet in the classrooms. In the compulsory school (pre-school to secondary level), the share of foreign children was 24.4 per cent in the school year 2012/2013 according to the Federal Statistical Office (FSO). The number of pupils without a Swiss passport is growing steadily, ten years ago it was still 21.7 per cent.16 This is only an average value, in many places we have school classes consisting of at least half or of almost exclusively foreign-speaking children. This includes children meanwhile having a Swiss passport, but whose mother tongue is not German.
In other words: Spoken and written German must play a central role in school and be endowed with corresponding lesson numbers.

Taking root in culture and language

In connection with early foreign language teaching, it is always pointed out how easily children learn new languages. This applies, however, only to small children, in whose families two different languages are spoken or those who have a family language other than German. But here also rules are applied. The language to be acquired must be tied to certain persons who use their language consistently. This takes a lot of consequence; only then a child will really have the chance to learn two languages without mixing them and ultimately not being at home in any language.17
It must not be forgotten that in Switzerland many children learn their native dialect first. The dialects are an essential feature of Swiss culture and impressive in their regional varieties. High German differs from the dialect in vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar. In Switzerland, unlike other German-speaking countries, it is not a sign of lack of education or a low socio-economic status. The dialect brings Swiss children together with their numerous foreign comrades and helps them to feel at home in our country and in our culture and to integrate them. In various national referendums it was stated that the dialect would remain the primary language of instruction in the kindergarten, and that High German should not become the language of instruction.

Native language forms the basis of foreign language acquisition

As multiple studies have shown, solid knowledge of one’s mother tongue would be essential to successful foreign language acquisition. Mario Andreotti, professor of Linguistics and author, recently noted on the subject: “Those able to present arguments, to understand texts and to structure essays in their native language, are able to transfer that advantage to their use of foreign languages.18” This was in response to the claims made by Prof Simone Pfenninger, who was able to prove that the often used phrase “The earlier, the better!” is only true if a child moves to a new country or if it is raised bilingually by its parents and if the foreign language learning within its natural social environment isn’t comparable to the one taught in school. Accordingly, in her study that was conducted independently from teaching material publishing houses, the successes of early language learning were relativised significantly. Regrettably, those responsible for publishing Pfenninger’s study results buried them until now19. Unfortunately, it is not the first time within this language discussion that critical voices are mocked and less favourable results are ignored. As early as 1997, Ernst Buschor and his lobby decided to start with mandatory English lessons in the second grade of elementary school. The decision was made after a one-day-visit to the United States.20 He overturned the course of language lessons had been in place for the Canton of Zurich, and prevented a joint approach by all cantons. The following attempt to introduce English into the schools drew poor results. Various independent studies pointed to the false assumptions surrounding early foreign language learning in schools.21 Yet, inspite of those facts, early English and early French learning were introduced comprehensively and with tremendous financial efforts. This particular approach neglects the importance of one’s native language as a foundation for learning a foreign language.

Political consequences – direct democracy and mother tongue

Switzerland’s direct democracy is a political system that is widely admired in other countries because Swiss citizens get a greater say. However, it also requires a lot of them. They have to work through partially complex voting papers, read up on the arguments to the subject matter and be able to appropriately weigh the pros and cons to an issue. Therefore, elaborate language proficiency far exceeding application-based language proficiency (e.g. like those necessary for PISA tests) is required. The citizens also have to be able to see through linguistic manipulation attempts and propaganda techniques and to correctly evaluate empty figures of speech that are often used by lobbyists. Being rooted in one’s own mother tongue is essential to this process of forming an opinion and to making it count on a voting ballot – especially when deciding on the role the German language is to play in our primary schools.    •
(Translation Current Concerns)

1    International Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL)
2    Reading of coherent texts, reading of schematics/diagrammes, general computational competences, and problem-solving skills
3    In 2003 and 2006, two surveys were conducted in Switzerland within the framework of the ALL (International Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey) study in Switzerland. The publications of the results for Switzerland have been published by the Federal Statistical Office and are available on the portal., downloaded on 20 December 2016
4    cf. Fuhrer, Kilian. Der Falschschreiber. Mein Umgang mit dem Buchstabensalat. 2011. ISBN 978-3-033-02742-8
5    cf. Büro für Arbeits- und sozialpolitische Studien BASS AG (Ed.). Volkswirtschaftliche Kosten der Leseschwäche in der Schweiz. Eine Auswertung der Daten des Adult Literacy & Life Skills Survey (ALL). Bern 2007., downloaded on 20 October 2016
6    cf. ETH beklagt tiefes Schulniveau. In: 20 Minuten of 29 July 2012., downloaded on 23 October 2016
7    cf. Donzé, René. Das sind die schwierigsten Berufslehren der Schweiz. In: NZZ am Sonntag of 5 April 2015. www., downloaded on 23 October 2016
8    idem
9    cf. “Keine taugliche Vorbereitung auf die Berufslehre mit dem Lehrplan 21”. Leaflet of the interest community “Eine Schule für unsere Kin­der”., downloaded on 20 October 2016
10    In the following, the term “mother tongue” is used because it includes the aspect of relationship. In addition to the mother, other early reference persons are, of course, included.
11    cf. Korntheuer, P.; Lissmann, I. & Lohaus, A. (2010). Bindungssicherheit und die Entwicklung von Sprache und Kognition. In: Psychologie in Erziehung und Unterricht, 57, 1, 1–20
12    cf. Hart, B.; Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.” Spring 2003., downloaded on 20 October 2016
13    cf. Streeck, Nina. Reden ist Gold. In: NZZ am Sonntag of 19 April 2015
14    The following statements are mainly based on: Geissmann, Hilda. Welche Bedeutung hat der frühe Wortschatz für den Spracherwerb? In: SAL-Bulletin. No.140, June 2011, pp.19  Schneider, Wolfgang; Ulman, Lindenberger (Ed.) Entwicklungs­psychologie. Weinheim-Basel 2012. ISBN 978-3-621-27768-6
15    Adler, Alfred. Wozu leben wir? (1931). Frankfurt am Main 1976, p.42
16    Widmer, Michèle. Wo es die meisten fremdsprachigen Schüler gibt. In: “Tages-Anzeiger” of 26 May 2015., downloaded on 30 October 2016
17    Schweizerische Hochschule für Logopädie. Mein Kind lernt mehr als eine Sprache. Kindlicher Spracherwerb. (flyer)üre%20mehrsprachig%202012%20web.pdf, downloaded on 30 October 2016
18     Andreotti, Mario. Frühenglisch ein schulischer Leerlauf. In: St. Galler Tagblatt of 21 September 2016
19     cf. Burri, Anja. Wenn Forschungsresultate den Politikern missfallen. In: NZZ am Sonntag of 18 September 2016
20     cf. Liebe, Gisela. What are the reasons for English at an early stage in Switzerland? In: Current Concerns of 16 August 2016
21     The Zurich Board of Education commissioned an advisory report from Prof Dr Otto Stern from Zurich University of Teacher Education that was meant to preemptively counter critical arguments against the introduction of early English acquisation. The advisory report by Prof Stern was questioned by his expert colleagues for being an insider’s advisory report “from the public sector for the public sector”. Prof Dr Rudolf Wachter, comparative linguist at the University of Basel, wrote up a counter report refuting Stern’s arguments.