Multilingual Lives, Monolingual Institutions

Picture copyright Ⓒ Anna Becker

In the latest blog post inspired by author Olga Grjasnowa’s book talk “Die Macht der Mehrsprachigkeit” and Prof. Deniz Göktürk’s German and American Studies seminar on “Cultures of Migration,” Anna Becker (Berkeley Senior, Interdisciplinary Migration Studies Major) critiques the disjuncture between ethnoculturally diverse student populations and the lack of high-quality multilingual education in Germany and the United States, calling for policymakers to use a framework of inclusivity to promote the success of both nations’ multilingual young generation.

In the latest installment of “Archives of Migration,” a conversation with Olga Grjasnowa, the author of Die Macht der Mehrsprachigkeit [The Power of Multilingualism] (2021), a point made by Yasemin Yildiz (author of The Post-Monolingual Condition) stood out to me. She states that the disconnect of educational institutions with the lived realities of their student populations is evident in their organization of language studies, specifically in Germany. The discussion explored examples of such disjuncture. These disjunctures are also evident in the American education system, as well as in a legacy of discriminatory language policy, which reflects particular anti-immigrant sentiments that dictate which “foreigners” and their language expressions are socially accepted.

Grjasnowa discusses recent statistics in Germany and her experiences with children, stating that many children in German schools already speak three to four languages and that standard monolingualism and even bilingualism are no longer the norm. This reflects the diversifying ethnocultural society in Germany. Indeed, 20.8 million people in Germany have a migration background (Migrationshintergrund) as of 2019 (25% of Germany’s population)[2]. There has been an institutional acknowledgment of the diversifying ethnic-cultural demographics in Germany such as the implementation of Schwerpunktschulen (Berlin’s Turkish and German biliteracy ‘focus school’ programs) starting in the1980s. In Germany’s Microcensus survey in 2017, a question asked respondents what they believed to be the languages of Germany’s population[3], thereby acknowledging that German might not be the standard and default language in the country. Even so, Grjasnowa states that Germany is “behind in its conversation” and its politics, specifically that the country has just begun the conversation on multilingualism, despite the normality of children knowing three to four languages when beginning school. For example, most schools in Germany only begin second language education in grades six or higher. Even then, the languages taught are often limited to English and German, illustrating the low priority of multilingual education[4]. German educational institutions have yet to fully allow their structures to transform in accordance with these demographic changes that will continue to diversify.

Yildiz draws a parallel between German educational institutions’ neglect of multilingual education to a similar situation in the United States. She describes the setting of her children’s school in the U.S., in which many of the students are bilingual, yet the school system is similarly structured to not begin second language education until six or seven years after. Statistics from 2015 show that out of the “40 million elementary school students in the United States, [….] no more than 3 percent […] are receiving some form of bilingual education” (Goldenberg, Claude & Wagner, Kirstin [1]). As a result, specialized private language immersion schools exist for parents seeking a bilingual education for their children. The privatization of foreign language education in the United States is an example of the public education system’s disconnect from the lived reality of their student populations (as of 2016, 22% of school-aged children know two or more languages). 

An anecdotal example of this disjuncture is my own second language education at a charter high school in Redwood City, CA. There were only three non-AP Spanish classes (levels 1 to 3) offered during my first two years of high school. These were the minimum required second language classes for college admissions in California. The majority of students in my school were bilingual native Spanish speakers, yet the school’s limited Spanish classes did not accommodate their higher levels of Spanish proficiency, and they had to take the same Spanish classes as the non-Spanish speakers or opt to test out with a challenging standardized AP Spanish test. Hearing from them, I remember it was a frustrating experience. The school’s class offerings and curricula did not reflect the school’s linguistic demographics. The quality of the Spanish courses was dismal, and there was a general lack of academic rigor in these courses. To me, this situation exposes the low priority for second language education at the high school level, even though more than a quarter of Californians (aged five and above) speak Spanish. Thus, bilingual and multilingual education should be an important focus for the education system, both for accessibility and a general representation of diversity within the population. 

It is important to recognize these institutional disjunctures as politically intentional. As Grjasnowa states, “It is more about who is speaking the language and less about what language they are speaking” (emphasis added). She explains the difference between her experience as an Erasmus student in Warsaw, Poland, and her childhood experience in Germany. Grjasnowa was read as “expat” during her time in Poland, while in Germany, she was recognized as a “foreigner” or “émigré.” Due to these differences in perception, native citizens of Poland had a friendly and welcoming reaction to Grjasnowa’s attempts at speaking Polish, while in Germany, she felt “shame” when speaking German, a product of the frequent criticism and discouragement she received by those claiming that she spoke “improperly.” 

I think this holds true in the U.S. political repertoire, in which prevalent anti-immigrant (especially Mexican and Central American immigrants) sentiment influences policymakers and contributes to the way Spanish education is organized in the school system. The actual language is less the focus. Rather, anti-immigrant politicians and their supporters discriminate against the use of Spanish as a way to target specific immigrant populations. This is evident in the discriminatory language policies that have shaped the U.S. from its first naming and persisted into contemporary America. Examples include Texas Senator John Tanton’s “Defending English Only” Language Law and the “Anti-Bilingual laws”[5] that were only recently repealed in Arizona, both of which aligned with other nationalist right-wing movements. These laws targeted the Spanish-speaking immigrant community and are explicitly racist in nature.

Such monolingual policies dictate institutional structures, impact the educational and emotional experience and academic success of multilingual students, oppose an inclusive interpretation of multiculturalism, and fail to acknowledge the strengths of diversity within society. Those with the ability to participate in elections should support policymakers and leaders who use a framework of inclusivity to create policies and standards within educational institutions that reflect shifting ethnocultural demographics. This would ensure that programs are implemented to provide bilingual and multilingual students with opportunities for success and growth within these institutions.


  1. Goldenberg, Claude & Wagner, Kirstin, Bilingual Education; Reviving an American Tradition. American Federation of Teachers, (2015). 
  2. Buckley, Elizabeth, “The Development of Bilingual Education in Berlin’s Primary Schools” (2006). Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. 366.
  3. Astrid Adler/Rachel Beyer, Languages and language policies in Germany / Sprachen und Sprachenpolitik in Deutschland. 2017.
  4. Ibid.
  5. *Anti-Bilingual Education” laws were enacted under a racist proposition 203 which was heavily financed by anti-immigrant millionaire Ron Unz in Arizona. In 2019, these laws were repealed.

About Qingyang Freya Zhou

Qingyang Freya Zhou is a PhD candidate in German Studies, with a Designated Emphasis in Film Studies, at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on the intersections between socialist internationalism and postcolonial studies, particularly the literary and cinematic interactions between Germany and East Asia during the Cold War and beyond.
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