Russian and Polish heritage languages as a resource in the classroom: Investigating the role of school and family contexts for the use of heritage languages by students with a migration background

Introduction

The objective of this project was to analyse the language proficiencies and use among adolescents from Russian- and Polish-speaking families in Germany. The main research interests of the project were to determine

  1. proficiency levels in the heritage language (Russian or Polish) and in German
  2. the role of parental input for the development of proficiency in both languages
  3. language use and attitudes within the families
  4. the potentials of multilingualism as perceived by the adolescents and their parents
What was investigated and how?

A total of 45 adolescents living in Berlin, Hamburg and Leipzig, along with one parent, were tested in two waves (2014 and 2015) regarding their skills in the heritage language (Russian or Polish) and German. The skills tested included listening and reading comprehension, writing, speaking and language mediation, orthography, pronunciation, grammar and lexis. It was thereby possible to evaluate the adolescents’ proficiencies and their development during the process of language acquisition. The adolescents and their parents also answered questions concerning their personal language learning biography, language attitudes, family language policies and their use of the heritage language in everyday life. It was thus also possible to evaluate the quantity and quality of parental input in their children’s language development and the effect that this may have on proficiency levels.

Results

Adolescents from both language groups (Polish/Russian) showed well-established and well-balanced competences in German. In their heritage language, however, they exhibited a considerable degree of variation in the tested skills, especially with regard to written registers. The strongest results were achieved in oral proficiencies in the respective heritage language, including listening comprehension, with some speaking without an accent. This could also be confirmed by the adolescents’ and their parents’ personal assessments. In German, the adolescents achieved a speaking rate twice as high and a greater reading accuracy compared with the corresponding results in the relative heritage language. The difference in proficiency levels between German and the heritage language became even more apparent in the written tasks. The adolescents used fewer target-like or pragmatically adequate forms in their heritage language; the produced texts were shorter and less elaborate than in German, and displayed orthographic problems. Lexical competence in the heritage language was stronger among those adolescents who speak Russian/Polish in their families and had received formal instruction in the heritage language.

Parental input proved to be the most important factor for heritage language development, although this was not the case for the German language. Comparing the quantitative with the qualitative data allows for interesting insights into the commonalities regarding Polish and Russian heritage language acquisition and maintenance, as well as differences connected with the places of residence of the respective families.

Most of the study participants can be classified as being from well-educated families. Most of the mothers surveyed were undertaking systematic efforts to maintain their children’s heritage language. However, awareness of factors relating to language maintenance, including their own ability to influence their children in this regard, varied widely within the group. This could be seen in the families’ different discourse strategies and language policies. In the interviews, the parents confirmed that their children often act as language mediators in everyday life; in doing so, they experience self-efficacy and increased appreciation of their multilingual competences. It also became apparent that parental persuasion coupled with perseverance and effort on the part of the adolescents is necessary to attain the goal of regular attendance at additional heritage language classes.

Russische polnische Herkunftssprache Regal

Shelf of a 13-year-old teenager with books in German and Russian

What does this mean for educational practice?

We identified some of the contributing factors to both adolescents’ and parents’ positive perceptions of their heritage language and the potential that they associate with knowledge of the language. The adolescents who had received formal heritage language instruction appear to benefit especially with regard to literacy skills, and could also perceive their learning progress.

However, the potential of heritage language knowledge is not always recognised in mainstream school settings where the adolescents’ multilingualism rarely comes into play (we noted here only a few positive exceptions). Some of the adolescents were convinced that their teachers did not actually know that they speak another language alongside German. On average, the participants were able to name a significantly higher number of parallels between their languages in comparison with the teachers who were interviewed as part of the project. Although the adolescents are made aware of the risk of interferences from German during Polish- and Russian-language classes, ‘language comparison’ is not exploited as the teachers strive to establish a monolingual teaching ideology in the heritage language classroom. The results of this study may serve as a starting point for determining linguistic properties that should be dealt with to a greater extent in heritage language education and should be included in a yet-to-be developed didactic programme for the teaching of heritage languages.

The cooperation between the two teams within the project allowed for the development of innovative instruments that illustrate and document the benefits of multilingualism especially well, and that should receive particular consideration when expanding the potential of multilingualism within the framework of systematic teaching of the heritage language.