MEZ - Multilingual development. A longitudinal perspective


Interest in the question of whether growing up multilingually has an inhibitory or beneficial effect on one’s education rose sharply in Germany following the results of the large international comparative school performance surveys. On the one hand, multilingualism appears to cause disadvantage. On the other hand, however, there are indications that multilingualism can serve as a good basis for successful (language) learning. The aim of the MEZ study is to identify conditions under which multilingualism can successfully develop or not. We wish to lay the groundwork for the development of alternative courses of action that will increase educational opportunities for young people growing up multilingually. At the same time, MEZ aims to contribute to social cohesion among a linguistically and culturally heterogeneous population. We believe that strengthening the linguistic resources and potential of young people, including their multilingualism, makes an important contribution to improving their educational success and participation in society.

The project is not only aimed at migrants but also concerned with successful multilingual development for pupils from monolingual German families. They also encounter multilingualism, which is investigated as part of MEZ: All pupils in Germany learn at least one foreign language in addition to German, and many learn a second or even third foreign language at school. Multilingualism is therefore an intended goal for all children and young people in Germany. The results of the MEZ project should therefore contribute to a better understanding of the various language skills of all young people and how they may be used for educational success.

This longitudinal investigation of students from monolingual German and multilingual (migrant) families will generate findings on (a) the linguistic and non-linguistic factors which positively or negatively influence multilingual development processes and (b) how this relates to academic development. The added value of longitudinal observation lies in the fact that development processes can be traced and causes uncovered.
MEZ is an interdisciplinary study, making it possible to address the complexity of the research question via complementary theoretical and methodological approaches. Cooperating researchers represent intercultural education, educational psychology, English, Romance and Slavic linguistics.

What is investigated?

In the MEZ study, two parallel starting cohorts from 7th and 9th grade are followed to the end of 9th and 11th grade, respectively. Four measurement points take place during that period. The participants include students with Russian or Turkish as their heritage language as well as a monolingual German group. The study examines the development of skills in German, in the heritage languages (Turkish and Russian), as well as in English (as the first foreign language) and, for some pupils, French or Russian (as the second foreign language). Additionally, general educational developments are observed. Tests for language and for non-verbal cognitive skills are implemented, as well as questionnaires for pupils, school principals and parents. These surveys are carried out in paper-pencil format over two school days at the participating schools. In addition, a one-off online or telephone survey is conducted among those pupils who leave the education system during the course of the study.

Language tests are used to assess receptive (reading and listening comprehension) and productive (written) skills in German, in the heritage languages Russian and Turkish, in the foreign languages English and, where applicable, French and Russian. The background questionnaires are used to collect detailed information on the educational and vocational orientation of the young participants. Further contextual, personal and linguistic factors that influence language development and educational achievement (e. g. migration biography, language use, motivation, various social aspects, school programmes) are recorded. Peer networks are also investigated as a potential influencing factor on language and educational development.

Data from a subsample of around 140 German-Russian, 160 German-Turkish and 120 monolingual German-speaking students undergo in-depth linguistic analyses to identify transfer between the relevant languages. In this part of the study, particular attention is paid to spoken language, in particular the realisation of individual sounds and speech melodies, which are responsible for the perception of differing accents in the target languages. In addition to freely written texts and a word order test aimed at grammatical interferences, extensive oral data are collected (via e. g. test to reproduce the melodies of different sentence patterns). Phonological awareness tests and language biographical interviews are also conducted. A particular strength of the resulting corpus – when compared with other studies – is that it contains comparative data in all the students’ languages. In addition, an extensive oral subcorpus of partly controlled (experimental) and partly natural (spontaneous) language data accrues. This makes it possible to study aspects of lived multilingualism that have otherwise received little attention, such as the potential advantage German-Turkish pupils may have in acquiring French intonation. The combination of linguistic, biographical and motivational information allows conclusions to be drawn on the interaction of the different languages in the context of multilingual learning processes.

Expected outcomes

By summer 2018, the four planned survey waves were carried out in cooperation with IEA Hamburg (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement). Measurement point 1 took place in early 2016, measurement point 2 in autumn 2016 and measurement point 3 in early summer 2017. The fourth and last wave took place in early summer 2018.
Upon completion of the second measurement point, the MEZ sample had increased from approx. 1,800 to around 2,060 students from a total of 75 schools. All learn English at school; around 850 of them also learn French, and 70 Russian. A total of 943 attend a grammar school (Gymnasium). We can report that around 55% of the MEZ students grew up speaking just German; 29% have a German-Turkish background, and 17% German-Russian.
Working papers that detail the survey data and project findings are available on the project website: The schools involved in the study are regularly informed of significant findings from which it is already possible to derive insights into similarities and differences between the groups, as well as students’ strengths and weaknesses in the various assigned tasks.

Implications for educational practice

The expected practical benefit is primarily to gain better basic information on the conditions that foster or hinder multilingual development and, thereby, school-based learning. This can in turn provide a basis for shaping school activities, as well as advice for parents and the students themselves. In particular, information on the mutual influences of the different languages possessed by the pupils will be useful for the design of educational processes. So called ‘transfer’ between languages could be used systematically for teaching and learning. The study will also provide information on the strategies deployed by students themselves when making connections between their languages. Such strategies can be of disadvantage if they lure learners onto the wrong track. However, they can also be supportive when they are systematically developed – but this requires expert support in the classroom. Such findings can be integrated into teacher training as well as material development and teaching design. Furthermore, by identifying motivational factors in language learning, students can be guided in career choices – for example, by looking at the perceived benefit of multilingual skills in the transition to vocational training or the labour market.