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Language processing in speakers who acquire a second language under submersion conditions: Novel perspectives for psycholinguistic research on language processing

Dilthey Fellowship, Volkswagen Foundation (2007-2013; EUR 400.000,-)

  • PI: Eva Belke
  • PhD students: Hendrike Frieg, Johanna Kauffeldt
  • RAs: Sina Berger, Simon Blome, Sandra Bongards, Sarah Ebert, Jessica Ernst, Martin Kitzinger, Anna Stielow, Wiebke Ziegler

Most of the psycholinguistic theories of bilingual language processing are based on data from speakers who have acquired a second language late in life. In most cases, they have acquired their second language through dedicated foreign language learning programmes in their home country. Typically, such schooling programmes feature immersion conditions, that is, language teaching that adapts to the learners' needs. Critically, research in bilingual language processing largely overlooks the sizable proportion of the population in Europe and elsewhere in the world, who acquires a second language earlier in life and who does so under submersion conditions. Such conditions typically apply to children who must unavoidably attend school in the majority language, which differs from their families' language. In Germany, approximately 25% of the children acquire German as a second language under such conditions. They typically have more intensive contact with the German language for the first time when they join Kindergarten. Starting primary school, their German proficiency is often less advanced than that of their monolingual peers. Nevertheless, German is the teaching language at school, if only for pragmatic reasons - the children with German as a second language often have diverse family languages, establishing up to ten or more different family languages in a single classroom alone.

Even though many schools invest considerable effort in promoting the German proficiency of children with German as a second language these efforts are typically restricted to tutorial programmes offered in addition to regular classroom teaching. To date, these programmes have failed to counteract the tendency that children from families with German as a second language often fare worse in international schooling assessments, such as PISA, than their monolingual peers. One possible reason for this is that existing classroom concepts for teaching German at primary schools often do not take into account the multilingual reality present in the classrooms. Instead, all children are typically taught with materials developed for German children, which poses particular linguistic challenges to multilingual children, often appropriately referred to as "sink-or-swim" situations.

Until now, experimental psycholinguistic research has neglected these children and their language biographies. In addition, there is little contribution of experimental psycholinguistics to date to the development and evaluation of programmes for teaching in a second language in submersion contexts.

The first objective of this research project is to establish the group of speakers, who have acquired a second language under submersion conditions, as a relevant speaker group to psycholinguists investigating bilingual language processing. To this end, we have consulted existing theories of bilingual language processing in speakers of a foreign language, acquired late in life, and derived hypotheses about what the implications of these models are for speakers of a second language acquired earlier in life and under submersion conditions. We focus on lexical processing, which is the research area in psycholinguistic research on bilingualism that has been investigated most intensively. Our aim is to establish in what way the processing strategies the children we test in our experiments differ from those employed by foreign language learners.

The second objective is to evaluate didactic concepts used for teaching German in mixed-language and mixed-proficiency classrooms. In this line of research, we have collected a large longitudinal corpus of written texts from children taught with different didactic approaches, comparing, across the board, their linguistic development over time (from part 2 of grade 2 to the end of grade 4). The data are currently being analysed.

A third objective of the project is to use experimental psycholinguistic methods to establish the efficiency of teaching methods for learners of German as a second language. To this end, we focus in particular on the acquisition of gender-like grammatical subclasses. German is a gender-marking language, and its nouns are notorious for providing very little semantic or phonological cues as to the gender class they belong to. They appear to be largely arbitrarily assigned to gender subclasses. In this section of the research project, we examine what mechanisms help support the acquisition of gender-like subclasses in an artificial language learning paradigm. We are particularly interested in finding out how the exposure to linguistic input can be optimized in such a way that the assignment of nouns that are phonologically unmarked for gender can be acquired more easily.


Bebout, J. & Belke, E. (in press) Language play facilitates language learning: Optimizing the input for rapid gender-like category induction. Cognitive research: Principles and Implications.

Frieg, H. & Bebout, J. (in press). Strukturierte Sprachvermittlung mit der Generativen Textproduktion. Praxis Fördern.


Kauffeldt, L., Kirschke, C., Bebout, J., Frieg, H., Belke, E., Hoffmann, R. & Belke, G. (2014). Dschungeltanz und Monsterboogie: Singen und Spielen mit Sprache [Dschungeltanz and Monsterboogie: Singing and Playing with Language]. Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Hohengehren.

(Songbook, EUR 16,00)

Frieg, H., Belke, E., Belke, G., Hoffmann, R. Bebout, J., Kauffeldt & L., Kirschke, C. (2014). Dschungeltanz und Monsterboogie: Lieder zur systematischen Sprachvermittlung im Vor- und Grundschulalter [Dschungeltanz and Monsterboogie: Songs for the language teaching in pre- and primary school]. Baltmannsweiler: Schneider Hohengehren. (commentary and materials to songbook, for preschool and primary school teachers, EUR 29,80; songbook plus commentary and materials, EUR 39,80)

Frieg, H., Hilbert, C., & Belke, E. (2013). Sprachförderung bei einem Jungen mit Deutsch als Zweitsprache: Wie erfolgreich sind implizite Verfahren? [Language training in German as a second language: How effective are implicit methods?]. Praxis Sprache, 1, 7-17.

von Lehmden, F., Kauffeldt, J., Belke, E., & Rohlfing, K. (2013). Das Vorlesen von Kinderbüchern als implizites Mittel zur Sprachförderung im Bereich Grammatik [Reading to children promotes implicit grammar acquisition]. Praxis Sprache, 1, 18-27.

Frieg, H., Hilbert, C., Belke, E., & Belke, G. (2012). Die generative Textproduktion [Generative text production]. Sprachheilarbeit, 57, 155-161.

Frieg, H., Stielow, A., Kitzinger, M., & Belke, E. (2012). AltübAsD: Ein Verfahren zur altersübergreifenden Analyse schriftsprachlicher Daten in der Grundschule [AltübAsD: Assessment of written text production in primary school children of all grades]. DaZ, 4/2012, 9-24.