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  • Writer's pictureGisi Cannizzaro

Fighting for educational equity for multilingual children in Germany

February 3, 2023

An interview with Dr. Miglena Hristozova, deputy chairwoman of the Initiative für Mehrsprachigkeit und interkulturelle Bildung (IMIB) in Freiburg, Germany. Her organization recently received the Freiburg Integration Award 2022 for their pioneer work in the field of multilingualism.

We see the possibility to create something more interactive, modern, and innovative to support heritage language programs.

It appears that in Germany, interest in heritage language education is increasing. People are starting to recognize that education in the heritage language does not have a negative effect on the development of German and that it can in fact support the development of the school language. The idea that heritage language education is something that does not have general educational value – that it just something special and extra on the side – is gradually being overcome. People are starting to ask what role heritage language education can have in the broader notion of linguistic education.

What is the current landscape of heritage language education in Germany? According to researchers, in some parts of Germany, the state has taken on some of the responsibility of supporting multilingual students with studying their heritage language. In addition to any state-supported forms of heritage language education, independent providers can also be found, for example, parents' associations, religious associations, or migrant organizations.

Unfortunately, there is no reliable data available on the number of participants attending lessons from independent providers of heritage language education in Germany. In general, there is no cooperation or coordination between the independent providers and the state school supervisory authorities. Studies that have been carried out surveying parents in Germany showed that they complain about the low availability, poor accessibility, and insufficient information about existing opportunities for heritage language education.

We spoke with one woman who is working hard to improve the situation. We had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Miglena Hristozova, who is committed to advocating for the language rights of children with a migrant background and who wants to give visibility to providers of heritage language education. We met her at the FOHLC Europe Conference in 2021, where during a networking activity she introduced her Initiative für Mehrsprachigkeit und interkulturelle Bildung (IMIB) in Freiburg, Germany, for which she is deputy chairwoman. IMIB is an organization that was started in 2016 to bring together the heritage language programs in Freiburg and to advocate on behalf of multilingual families.

As its starting point, the IMIB believes that every person has the right to follow lessons in their heritage language, which in Germany are called “native language lessons” or “HSU” (herkunftssprachlicher Unterricht). In the interview below, Dr. Hristozova tells us about how HSU is organized in Baden-Württemberg, the activities of IMIB, and the importance of being connected with people across a broad spectrum – from politicians to researchers – in order to move forward the agenda of achieving educational equity for multilingual students.

Information from this introduction was taken from an excellent overview (in German) from the Universität Hamburg website, compiled by Till Woerfel from the Mercator Institute for Language Promotion and German as a Second Language and by Ingrid Gogolin from Universität Hamburg.

We met you at the FOHLC Europe online conference in 2021? How did you find out about it?

I saw the announcement about the FOHLC Europe conference on social media and decided immediately that I needed to attend! Our organizations have so many things in common. The annual FOHLC conference is a good chance for us to ask each other, “How is it going?” and to discuss the possibility of developing something together. Our organization is very open to collaborating and staying connected. It was really inspiring to be at the conference and to see the issue of heritage language education from a perspective outside of Germany.

I believe that native language instruction (“HSU”) is an important form of supplementary language education, and I see that HSU teachers put their hearts and souls into it!

Why do you believe HSU is important?

Multilingual students in Germany grow up with two and sometimes three languages ​​from birth. When children grow up speaking several languages, parents take on a central role in teaching native languages. But everyday family life is not usually sufficient for children to develop complex language skills, such as writing or talking about topics that go beyond everyday communication. The special cultural identity of the children often remains locked within their home. I believe that native language instruction (“HSU”) is an important form of supplementary language education, and I see that HSU teachers put their hearts and souls into it!

How is HSU organized in Germany?

It is important to know that education in general is not a national/federal issue in Germany. Educational policies are determined by each state (Bundesland).

A promising development is that HSU has been recognized as a mainstream school subject in twelve out of the sixteen German states. In Nord-Rhein Westphalia, for example, HSU is “one of the tasks of the public schools and is offered at all school types in the primary and secondary school years according to the specifications of a language-neutral curriculum by teachers employed by the state (source).” The instruction usually includes five hours per week through specially developed teaching plans, both as a school subject and Abitur subject [like a “Staatsexam” subject in the Netherlands]. We see this as a good example of how the HSU educational offer can supplement the regular mainstream instruction for school children growing up speaking several languages.

But not all states have organized it this way. How it is organized depends on where you are.


How heritage language education is organized in Germany

The following information was taken from here.

There is no uniform nationwide concept for HSU. The following division of responsibilities and organizational structures exist:

  • Teaching under the responsibility of the federal state. This form is represented in twelve federal states (Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, Bremen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Brandenburg, Berlin, Saxony, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland).

  • In some of these states, state provision and consular instruction coexist.

  • In two states (Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria), HSU is offered exclusively under the responsibility of consulates of the countries of origin.

  • In Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, there is no instruction in the language of origin at all.

  • According to a survey by Mediendienst Migration (2020), the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony, and Rhineland-Palatinate have the most extensive language offerings in the 2019-2020 school year (with 17 and 23 languages, respectively). However, less than 10 percent of children and young people from migrant families are reached by such instructional offerings overall.

HSU as school subject in Germany. Red indicates recognized; Blue indicates no recognized.


How is HSU organized in Baden-Württemberg, where your city of Freiburg is located?

In Baden-Württemberg they still do not have the regulation I just described from Nord-Rhein Westphalia. The way it is organized here is based on relatively old regulations from decades ago, for migrant workers when governments assumed these workers would return to their home countries. It is the so-called “consulate model.”

Under this regulation, HSU is not the responsibility of the German state, but instead it is the responsibility of the countries of origin. The country of origin sends teachers and organizes the lessons, and the council administration in Germany is responsible for providing a free space. The local community is responsible for providing a free space/location for teaching.

The education that is provided by the home country and organized by the local council in Germany under this old regulation cannot provide the special kind of education that children and families actually need.

So, do the countries of origin organize HSU in Baden-Württemberg?

Not usually. When it is organized this way (the way dictated by the regulation), most of these teachers coming from outside of Germany naturally do not speak German. They are unfortunately not used to teaching children who have been raised multilingually. In other words, the education that is provided by the home country and organized by the local council in Germany under this old regulation cannot provide the special kind of education that children and families actually need.

Thus, what happens in practice is that many language communities end up establishing their own independent programs, for instance, Saturday schools set up by parents and migrant organizations.

Do the language groups independently organizing HSU education receive any support?

No, the independent organizations do not receive any support from any country. They are on their own, and they need to figure out some way to do it. These groups hardly network with each other or with German schools. Thus, HSU education ends up being rather on the edge of the general educational path of students.

So, this is why you formed IMIB? Can you tell us about your goals?

Indeed, at IMIB we see the need to connect these independent programs, to bring them together, to apply together for funding, to bring together their resources, and to organize training for the teachers. Overall, we aim to initiate a broader discussion about the positive effects of HSU as a school subject and about the regulation of HSU in Baden-Württemberg.

This is a complex issue and we need to raise awareness about it widely. It is not only monolingual Germans who think that HSU is not important for multilingual children, but also the parents of the multilingual children themselves. They are not always informed. Mainstream teachers need to understand the background of their students and see that they are not being graded equally. Everyone needs to be involved in the discussion.

Who runs the “Initiative für Mehrsprachigkeit und interkulturelle Bildung” (IMIB)?

We are a small team of three people plus a few others who help. None of us is originally German. I have lived in Germany for 20 years, but am originally from Bulgaria, and Nikoleta Wittmer is also from Bulgaria. Renata Gomide-Hank is from Brazil. Some others who help us are from Italy and Germany.

We have different professional backgrounds. I carried out PhD in Freiburg in identity research in the Balkans, and I have an additional teaching degree in teaching German as a second language. I am also chairwoman of the Commission for Family and Education in the Freiburg Migrants' Advisory Board. Nikoleta is a linguist with a Masters degree in German and English studies, with a focus on bilingualism and psycholinguistics. Renata studied psychology. What has brought us together is our interest in and concern for binational families.

What kind of activities does IMIB organize?

We have several ongoing projects:

Database/network of HSU programs in Freiburg

As a start, we want to answer the question: where are all these native language schools to be found in and around Freiburg? Our goal is to make these educational programs visible and transparent for parents and families, to network them with each other and with official educational institutions, and to draw attention to the fact that these educational offers play an important role if they are perceived and recognized as an educational resource. We have built a unique online platform dedicated to local language schools (HSU). Whether Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Mandarin, or Tamil: The HSU platform focuses on all native languages ​​for which native language lessons (HSU) are offered in the Freiburg area and the surrounding area.

We know that there should be at least 30 programs, but to start we could only connect with 10 to join our network. To us this is a sign that there is a lot of work to be done. Ultimately, we want to make the next step to get HSU and mainstream schools together, to empower them to develop projects together.

Sprachmonster project

We organized for two years in a role the so-called Action Day Sprachmonster retten die Sprachen (“Language monsters save the languages”), where attending HLE schools presented different workshops, multilingual readings sessions, book stands and other activities for multilingual children and their families. There was a special award for all the children involved: a button with the slogan “Be proud of how you speak”. The aim of this symbolic award was to give the children the feeling of being proud of their heritage languages ​​and their language identity and to strengthen them in their important role as language saviors/ambassadors. There was also a special prize for one of the schools involved in the action day (six months of free access to the digital multilingual platform Polylino) - for the school and all the children who attend the school.

Since the action took place as a part of the Intercultural Weeks 2022, it could reach a broad public and a number of visitors of around 150 children and families from different backgrounds. Our organization received the Freiburg Integration Award 2022 for this campaign and for our “pioneer work” in the field of multilingualism!

Conferences and Think Tanks

We see the need to arrange discussion rounds between HSU practitioners and representatives of schools, educational administrations, and municipal educational policy-makers, also beyond the borders of Freiburg). We also want to invite experts and speakers from research and practitioners who can report on procedures and good practices in other federal states and across Europe.

In 2021 and 2022 we organized a conference to come up with concrete solutions: we invited researchers and politicians for an “idea factory” to come up with concrete solutions for how Freiburg and Baden-Württemberg can support HSU. The results so far have been really interesting. We create documents that we then share with politicians and the local administration. Our so called “Handlungsempfehlung (Recommendation for an Action) is on our homepage, at the bottom of this link.

At our first conference in December 2021, more than 100 people registered and we were overwhelmed by the diverse input of our speakers and panelists. The ideas do not only involve creating better regulation. Good regulation is important, but it is not enough. The HSU programs themselves also need support from the ground up.

Project “Volunteers empower parents”

At our second conference in 2022, we’ve further introduced our project called “Ehrenamtliche empowern Eltern” (Volunteers empower parents), which aims to make bridges between the state educational system and migrant families/communities. We have 10 Volunteers with different backgrounds working on the project, who help refugees and “new” families to better involve and understand the German educational system. They speak Russian, Ukraine, Arabic, English or French, so they are trained to support parents in their heritage languages and help them better communicate with teachers and school stuff. Learn more.

Project Space Multilingualism

We’ve also announced the start of a bigger project – Projektraum Mehrsprachigkeit (Project Space Multilingualism), where we aim to address different special needs of multilingual children and their families developing new ways and innovative methods to empower and recognize heritage language skills as an important issue. Our mission is to offer parents and families a direct support with educational issues and major school decisions – through multilingual counseling and support services. We attend to build a mobile, interactive, multilingual library for children and young people. We also want to create new spaces for heritage language teaching and enhance heritage languages ​​as an educational resource. And last but not least, we want to strengthen professionals and volunteers, migrant initiatives and associations in their work with multilingual children and families. To this end, we would like to organize different types of trainings and discussion panels for teachers, volunteers and all kind of practitioners. We’re starting with the project in spring 2023.

Creative workshops for children and youth via Multilingual Atelier Kilikan

  • Workshops and projects for children and young people with different language and cultural backgrounds, which enable them to get to know each other's cultures and traditions and promote the development of intercultural skills.

  • Courses, workshops, projects, and intercultural language laboratories for children and young people with the same language and cultural background that strengthen language skills in a specific family language and language transfer between German and the family language

  • Presentation of the projects within the framework of international and regional cultural festivals, in which the children and young people involved in the project actively participate (participation in socio-cultural life in the common living space)

  • Social internships and internships for pupils and students with a multilingual background, which promote professional and further education skills, as well as the relationship between school and extracurricular educational institutions

  • Projects in cooperation with migrant associations and intercultural initiatives that expand the exchange of children and young people and the view of multilingualism in the pan-European framework.

  • Trainings for volunteers and teachers on the topics of translanguaging, multilingual literacy, creative methods in language education.

  • Trainings for parents on how to support the bilingual language acquisition using some practical strategies and ideas developed and tested in our projects.

What is your role as chairwoman of the Commission for Family and Education in the Freiburg Migrants' Advisory Board?

Nikoleta Wittmer and I are part of Freiburg Migrants' Advisory Board. It is a political council that represents the interests of migrants in Freiburg. The council consults the administration of the city and is independent, not affiliated with any political party. Nikoleta and I have been on the council since 2020 for a 5-year position.

For IMIB we have many ideas and projects, but these can be difficult to realize without this additional political work. We need to do a lot of lobby work with politicians to push the work forward. What we see is that multilingualism is simply not a priority right now. So, we have to be creative and proactive in order to put the topic on the agenda. That is the reason why we decided to see if we could join the council – and we succeeded! These are good connections to bridge the official city administration and politics with all of the migrants and the organizations for heritage language education. We are trying to connect them.

So your advice to similar organizations to IMIB would be to take a multi-faceted approach to improving heritage language education?

Yes, we need to empower and support all kinds of schools. That is, we need to go top down, to try to get official regulation of HSU and get it into mainstream. But that is not enough. We also need to simultaneously work from the bottom up, at the community level. We can do so by connecting the different heritage language schools to see what they have, to get them visible and to get them to work together. We want to provide a platform for them to share resources and examples of good practices. We see the possibility to create something more interactive, modern, and innovative to support these programs.


A few quick links:

A recent interview with Dr. Hristozova by Das Deutsche Schulportal from August 10, 2022 (in German) about the integration of heritage language education into the German education system, in light of the wave of Ukrainian refugees. She argues that digital solutions being explored to educate Ukrainian students can also be implemented to help multilingual students who speak other languages.

An HLE Network interview with Markus Truniger, former Head of the Department for Intercultural Education at the Compulsory School Office of the Canton of Zurich and Sabrina Marruncheddu Krause at the Center IPE (International Projects in Education) at PHZH (Zurich University of Teacher Education)

An HLE Network interview with Julliane Rüdisser, heritage language teacher and researcher in Innsbruck, Austria


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