The narrative competence of pre-school children with a migrant background

Term Paper, 2017

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

00. Abstract

01. Introduction

02. Pre-school children and language
02.01. Language acquisition and bilingualism
02.02. Language and migration
02.03. Testing language skills
02.04. Narrations of pre-school children
02.04.01. Composition of the narrative competence
02.04.02. Sentence structure and connectivity
02.04.03. Reference
02.04.04. Temporal structure
02.04.05. Narrative structure
02.04.06. Orat and literate language skills
02.04.07. Pre-literate language skills and the role of the narration

03. Narrative competence of migrant pre-school children
03.01. Material and method
03.02. Narrations of migrant pre-school children
03.02.01. Sentence structure and connectivity
03.02.02. Reference
03.02.03. Temporal structure
03.02.04. Narrative structure

04. Conclusion

05. References

00. Abstract

The narrative competence of pre-school children marks the transition from orat to literate language productions so that they are an indicator for the pre-literate language skills which are indispensable for educational success in the Western-European countries. The study of Schwabl (2015) which is presented here investigates migrant children’s narrative competence to find out which language structures are the most problematic. The overarching questions of this paper are, what are the main linguistic problems of these bilingual and migrant pre-school children, which are the linguistic structures they lack regarding their pre-literate language skills and how can we develop methods to evaluate these specific skills to support their language progression. No age-based development can be noted due to the high individual linguistic variation between the bilingual children. However, the most meaningful results come from the analysis of the syntactic structures which offer the possibility to categorize the migrant children in to competence profiles.

Key Words:

narrative competence, bilingualism, pre-school children, migration

01. Introduction

Someone’s competence in a language determines how that person is seen by others and it is also important fort hat person’s educational success. This is even more important when we think of children who are learning a second language very early because of their family’s immigration into another country. They are supposed to learn the second language for their personal success in the educational system although their parents and other family members are not fluent in the new language. Studies showed that children who grow up bilingual in the second language’s country often do not have good grades at school what can not be put down to arguments like less intelligence, less motivation, a high distance between their first and second language or an insufficient input from their teachers (Brizić, 2009, p. 135; Brizić, 2006b, p. 342). Nevertheless, these children do not have a global language problem because they easily manage their everyday life in the second language. The reason for their educational problem is the non-availability of the literate register in the new language which is indispensable for someone’s educational success in Ausrtria for example (Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 69). Whilst monolingual german speaking children seem to have something called pre-literate knowledge or academic language skills - „protoliterates Wissen“ (Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 69) - before entering the school system, bilingual children seem to lack this knowledge, what makes it difficult for them to elaborate their language productions like the monolingual children (Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 69).

Although, we know that the problem is a lack of pre-literate language skills, it is difficult to directly examine the problematic language structures. The aim of this paper ist to emphasize the complex situation of pre-school children with a migrant background and it also shows the reasons for their little educational succes, which are located in their difficult language situation. The analyses of their narrations give an insight into their linguistic deficits which in turn indicates where it is necessary to support the children to improve their chance of succeeding in the educational system.

As it may have become clear, there are many subjects affecting the children’s linguistic situation and therefore they have their raison d’être in this paper. First, there will be a short overview about language acquisition and bilingualism, following a chapter about how language and migration influence each other. After that I will come to the methods which are used to test children’s language competence. Then, I will discuss the narrations of monolingual pre-school children to build up a basis for following comparisons to the migrant pre-school children. In detail, the chapter contains several sub-categories of the narrative competence of children. The main chapter about the migrant pre-school children comprises information about the underlying study of Schwabl (2015) and her results supplemented by results from similar studies. Finally, I conclude the narrative competence of the migrant pre-school children and give prospects about the methods to use when it comes to test the language skills of bilingual children.

02. Pre-school children and language

To give an overview about the most important linguistic aspects that affect the migrant pre-school children, this chapter contains summarized information about the main subjects. Language acquisition and bilingualism will be the first sub-title because it constitutes the linguistic basis of the children. Factors, that affect their language learning and linguistic competence due to their immigration will be discussed secondly and afterwards I will come to the question how to test and evaluate the language skills of these children. The last sub-title includes the narrative competence of monolingual children which consists of diverse sub-competences.

02.01. Language acquisition and bilingualism

For reasons of chronological order, it is useful to mention the two basic hypotheses of first language acquisition which are implied in the nature versus nurture debate. Linguistic researchers who follow the nature approach state that “all […] children come with a genetic program that predisposes them to acquire human languages” (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 325). Defender of the nurture approach say “that language development is the product of general learning mechanisms” (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 326). There is evidence for both sides, but it can basically be assumed that there must be “some sort of innate faculty” that makes children acquire languages, because of similarities in language acquisition found all over the world irrespective of the grammatical system or language (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 326).

At this point I will concentrate on the language development of monolingual children starting at the age of three because that is roughly the age when they have established the basic structures in their mother tongue (Myers-Scotton, 2006, pp. 326-327). At home together with their family members they are able to produce simple sentences containing the according grammatical structures which are relevant to express their most important intentions (Schwabl, 2015, p. 15). From now on, the children learn little by little more syntactic structures that go beyond the unit of a single sentence (Schwabl, 2015, p. 15). They detect differences in pragmatics and the stylistic level and they start to establish their pre-literate knowledge which will become more important in the course of this paper (Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 6). Even though their utterances seem to contain subordinations and more complex main clauses, these sentences prove to be complement clauses and clauses with a first or second person singular subject with which the children only aim for attention (Schwabl, 2015, p. 15). A correctly uttered subordinational clause can not be expected before the age of seven (Schwabl, 2015, p. 16). Children at the age of three are still very reliant on their interactional partner who often has to put questions to get further information (Schwabl, 2015, p. 15f) even though the children have already developed the main phonological and grammatical structures of their mother tongue (Gabel, 2012, p. 34; Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 6). The older they get, the more possibilities in interaction they establish: the pre-schoolers are able to talk adequately to unknown interlocutors, they can tell stories, they speak their point of view openly and furthermore the children start to consider information that their interlocutor already has or that he does not have (Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 6). Pre-school children have awareness of language registers which they test playfully (Schwabl, 2015, p. 17; Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 6) until starting school when they are forced to think about language on a meta level, they start elaborating their pre-literate knowedge and they learn to use the new medium of writing (Schwabl, 2015, pp. 17-18). Entering school, their pre-literate knowledge optimally reached a high level so that they can expand it to a conscious language use (Vollmann et al., 2011, pp. 6-7). Academic language skills or the literate register are a part of language which is more difficult to learn than other registers (Schwabl, 2015, p. 22) and therefore, even monolingually grown children must constantly work on their language skills – unconsciously and consciously – so that they have a good linguistic foundation with which they can succeed at school.

The children I will focus on are immigrants which means they moved to Austria at a very early age so that they acquired german very early, too, which makes them so called bilinguals. I want to emphasize that the term bilingualism is often „used as a cover term for multilingualism, too“ (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 2) which is also the way I will use that term in the following paper. A first distinction that I would like to make is the one between language learning and language acquisition, where I follow Myers-Scotton (2006, p. 42): “when speakers learn a second language later in life“ I refer to language learning and „when a child speaks a language as a first language in the home“ I will refer to language acquisition. Strictly speaking there are much more bilingual people in the world, than one might think because the broad definition of bilingualism is speaking more than one language which is the case for the majority of people in the world (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 3). Despite this fact, not many people call themselves bilingual since they think of more strict criteria they have to fulfill for being called bilingual, like having native-like language skills in more than one language. But what many people do not know, is that this definition “would rule out most bilingual speakers” (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 36). The truth is, that there is not one specific characteristic that makes someone bilingual. Bilingualism is a group phenomenon that arises where people who do not share a first language get in contact – because of close proximity or displacement (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 45) – which results in getting bilingual on someone’s part (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 6). Children seem to acquire a second language easier, which means with less effort, than adults do and their language competence - later in their lifes – is often higher (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 36). The reasons for the latter can be reduced to diverse factors even thoug this hypothesis does not hold for every adult but they will not be discussed here since this paper deals with the language skills of migrant children.

Bilingually grown children are sometimes told to be twice monolingual what is in the end an impossible ideal construction because bilingualism is a much more complex phenomenon (Schwabl, 2015, p. 19). Ther are some general distinctions talking about bilingualism: First of all, it is important at which time the child gets in contact with its second language. When the child acquires both languages nearly simultaneously it is called simultaneous bilingualism but this type of bilingualism is rare because most children start acquiring their second language successive. This means that they learn their first language like other monolinguals too and after a few years a second language comes into their lifes (Schwabl, 2015, p. 20). Secondly the age at the time of the second language acquisition plays another important role since there are hypotheses that constitute that up to a specific age or age period it is no longer possible to acquire a language near native like. Without getting too specific it can be noted that the earlier someone learns a second language the easier and the better he or she acquires that language (Schwabl, 2015, pp. 20-21). Another important term in second language acquisition is balanced bilingualism which implies someone speaking two languages with an equal competence at all levels, what is not meant to be possible (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 38). Good second language learner and speaker tend to be more proficient in some areas (phonology, morphology, syntax or vocabulary) of their second language than in others and therefore they do not have perfectly native-like language skills (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 39). There are many ways and categories that linguists have set up over the years to identify bilinguals like communicative competences, active or passive language competence, size of the lexicon, pronounciation skills, reading skills and many more, but in the end, they do not form a satisfactory solution because the language skills of a bilingual vary depending on the situation (Myers-Scotton, 2006, pp. 39-40). Since this paper deals with bilingual children, that got in contact with their second language only a few years ago, it is not necessary to classify them into bilinguals or not based on several language skills. Still, I want to bring up a broad but satisfactory definition of bilingualism: “Bilingualism is the ability to use two or more languages sufficiently to carry on a limited casual conversation” (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 44).

An important factor especially for the literate language skills is the competence in the first language. More precisely this means that language learner with a well elaborated first language are more likely to acquire a good language level in their second language too, whereas learner who do not have highly elaborated language skills in their first language have more problems to establish academic language skills in their second language (Schwabl, 2015, p. 21). Also “a fortification of the children’s linguistic self-confidence in the L2 and L1 and an intensive involvement of the parents and their languages in everyday school matters can be regarded as highly promising factors for successful L2 acquisition” (Brizić, 2006b, p. 358). As a result, the strong connection and interdependency between the first and second language has to be emphasized (Brizić, 2006a, p. 38). Bilingual children are faced with a lot of language input which they must acquire and categorise. This is challenging because they have to learn with whom they can speak which language or register and additionally they are forced to start learning to write in their second language (Schwabl, 2015, pp. 23-24). While monolingual children only have to improve their academic language skills and learn to write, the bilingual children are confronted with even more challenges concerning their language learning (Schwabl, 2015, p. 24).

In sum, the unequal bilingualism of the children is an aggravating circumstance that makes their second language acquisition even more complicated. More on the academic language skills follows in chapter 02.05.07.

02.02. Language and migration

Now I want to discuss the impact that migration has on language, its acquisition and therefore on the children that immigrate to Austria and grow up here learning German. At first glance migration seems to be a negligible factor for language investigation because the only problems it brings are a new language to learn and a new social environment. For some immigrants, this assumption may hold but for those who emigrate from Turkey for example it does not hold as this chapter will show (Vollmann et al., 2011, pp. 9-10).

One of the reasons for the great impact of migration on language abilities is the fact that the national language situations vary from country to country. In Germany and Austria, the linguistic set-up can be considered as exceptional case because in other countries of the world it is not common that all language registers are available in all varieties (Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 77). That is the case, because the languages that were once spoken by the society have been raised and thus became the written language which meant higher accessability to the written register for the whole language society (Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 77). The linguistic repertoire of Austrian speakers comprises a continuum of varieties of Austrian-German which makes it easy for them to learn other language registers because of the close proximity (Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 9). Children who grow up in thd Western Europe countries are confronted with literacy everywhere and it is normal for them (Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 9). The written culture became – and it still is – present in everyday life which therefore must be regarded as an exception if we compare it to the language situations in other countries (Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 77). National multilingualism is the exact opposite that can be found in the rest of the world and it means that families use a different register or even language – an intimate and informal one – at home than in public situations, where a formal and written register is necessary. The latter one is often only available for a small amount of people (Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 77; Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 9). This means that literacy is not normal for children from oral language communites which can be reflected in their language attitude: written language is something for the educated elite (Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 9). Of course, the monolingual vision of the Western European countries is portratyed idealized but still the better accessability of the written register for everyone is given (Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 77). All in all, there is linguistic variability in every national state, but in Western European countries there are many varieties that have representations for all registers and in other countries there are many different languages that do not all have representations for every register. So, immigrants should acquire a standard variety of the country and then develop the necessary registers for educational success (Schwabl et al., 2011, pp. 77-78). Since the oral structures preceed the written language skills they must be lerant beforehand (Schwabl et al. 2011: 78) because oral competences in the first language do not automatically lead to the development of literate language skills in someone’s first or second language (Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 10). If someone has elaborated a literate register in his first language the learner can transfer this knowledge to the second language and it is easier to develop academic language skills in the second language, too (Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 10). On the contrary, if a child has not developed written language skills in its first language, there is no basis to transfer knowledge (Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 10).

Migration leads to language contact and in the course of language contact there are linguistic phenomena that arise. It can lead to special forms in the second language that finally coexist with other varieties of the language – so called ethonlects emerge (Schwabl, 2015, p. 31). These ethonlects differentiate phonetically and lexically in a special way from the standard variety and they form a sort of transition to the standard language (Schwabl, 2015, p. 31). Language contact also implies an encounter of languages with different socio-linguistic states and different cultural functions (Schwabl, 2015, p. 31).

Families that experience a language shift often stick to speaking their first language at home although studies found out that most parents use the new language for communication with their children or they make use of code switching strategies that include the new language (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 101). The first language of the family, in case it is a minority language in the country they immigrated to, can hardly withstand a language shift to the major language, although coexistence is possible if each language “has its own domains” (Myers-Scotton, 2006, p. 103). But in general, the more prestigious language will rather survive (Myers-Scotton, 2006, pp. 103-104).

Turkish children often have more problems at school when it comes to writing and using literate language (Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 69) but children with other migrant backgrounds like children from Asia do not have these problems. Why is this? Brizić followed this question and investigated the language and migrational background of turkish, among other mother tongues, children and their parents. At first, the factor motivation was evaluated and the results show that even though the children do not speak the second language very well they are highly motivated and so are their parents who wish for their children to have educational success (Brizić, 2006a, p. 35). Children with a migrant background who already gave up the language of their home country and adapted to the language of the country they live in show better language skills in the second language than those who did not change their mainly used language (Brizić, 2006a, p. 33). During many personal interviews Brizić discovered even more interesting information in the language biographies of the less succesfull language learners. Most of the parents did not want to reveal their real language background because they have already been a language minority in their home country which caused social problems in their country of origin (Brizić, 2006a, pp. 36-37; Brizić, 2009, p. 137). So, the problem is that the families define themselves officially as Turkish or Kurdish because that is the language they had to speak in public even though the language they spoke at home was fundamentally different. Due to very fast implemented language reforms in their country and the poor possibilities to learn the newly needed language (Turkish) they were not able to learn that language adequately. Only people of the higher social classes had the opportunity to learn the new standard variety (Brizić, 2006a, p. 36). Since the government prohibits the minority dialects and languages the families had to speak a different language in public than at home which results in poor language skills concerning the public language. Because of the higher prestige of the standard variety and the parent’s wish to enable the own children to speak the standard variety the parents communicate in that language with their children even though their language profiency is not very high (Brizić, 2006a, p. 38; Brizić, 2009, pp. 136-137). Thus, these parents passed through a language change and then emigrate from their country. Their children learn from their parents a language that even the adults can not speak perfectly and so do their children who are now confronted with a new language change in the country they immigrated to (Brizić, 2009, pp. 135-136). Particulary bad are the results of the immigrants from Morocco, Turkey and Bangladesh (Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 10). All in all, these children who have poor educational success in Austria passed through several language changes that resulted in poor language skills in their first language which is a bad basis for the learning of another second language. It is not the case that children from Turkey in general fail at school but children with strongly stigmatized experiences concerning their language use (Brizić, 2009, p. 140).

Due to her findings, Brizić generated the linguistic capital model which shall be briefly presented here. The model “compromises elements from sociology, sociolinguistics and pedagogy as well as from psycholinguistics and research on language shift and language death” (Brizić, 2006b, p. 345). Three levels – macro, meso and micro level – include all relevant factors that have an impact on the children’s ability to develop a high proficiency in their second language. The basis of the model is the macro level which implies the “macro-conditions for language acquisition in the country of origin” (Brizić, 2006b, p. 346). At the meso level the language capital of the parents is incorporated which includes the acquired language in the country of origin and the language they learn or learned during migration and also the process of transferring language to their children (Brizić, 2006b, p. 346). The “children’s linguistic starting point in the country of immigration” (Brizić, 2006b, p. 346) becomes relevant at the micro level and it includes their parents’ languages and their own identity concerning languages (Brizić, 2006b, p. 346). There are circumstances that have positive effects on the children’s linguistic possibilities and there are conditions that impede the children’s developemt of academic language skills. Based on this model, Brizić generated hypotheses about the expected language success of children depending on their origin and the involved languages. Positive factors are (politically) powerful language communities, high social prestige of the language community or a high educational level of the language community (macro level) (Brizić, 2006b, p. 349). On the meso level the conditions that faciliate the development of academic language skills are a high linguistic capital of the parents, abandoning the first language in favor of the second language and abandon the own first language and transmit the new main language to the children (Brizić, 2006b, pp. 350-351). Some promoting factors on the micro level are the following: “children whose linguistic starting point in the country of immigration is characterised by their parents’ high linguistic capital” (Brizić, 2006b, p. 353) and a positive attitude towards the languages they speak or learn (Brizić, 2006b, p. 353). The respective opposite of the positive factors can be seen as a negative impact on the children’s chances to elaborate academic language skills in the language of the country of immigration. Thus, the model shows that it is not “parental ‘failure’” (Brizić, 2006b, p. 353) or the origin that creates the problematic linguistic situations of the children but a problem of “social […] or […] language-political inequality” (Brizić, 2006b, p. 353) that results in a weak linguistic capital on the part of the young language learners (Brizić, 2006b, p. 353). Of course, the model creates extensive generalizations about language communities that may not hold for every immigrating family but the decisive point is what conclusions we can draw from the model:

“It differentiates between language-political circumstances (on the macro-level), ways of acquiring and transmitting language(s) that are characteristic of a group or a family (on the meso-level), and children’s individual language proficiency (on the micro-level) – thus taking into account the fact that not only macro-factors but also individual decisions play their part in language acquisition and transmission.” (Brizić, 2006b, p. 353)

As we can see, the factor of migration is an aspect in language learning that can not be denied or underestimated. The importance and relevance of Brizić’s pioneer work becomes apparent as many authors refer to her study (Schwabl, 2015, p. 25; Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 80; Vollmann et al., 2011, p. 10) investigating the language problems of migrant children. A large distance between languages and cultures is not the primary reason for failure at school, but the weak linguistic resources of children who enter school (Schwabl et al., 2011, p. 80).


Excerpt out of 23 pages


The narrative competence of pre-school children with a migrant background
University of Graz  (Sprachwissenschaft)
Sprache und Gesellschaft
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Narrations, Migration, Narrative Competence, Pre-school children
Quote paper
Melanie Jankrift (Author), 2017, The narrative competence of pre-school children with a migrant background, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The narrative competence of pre-school children with a migrant background

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free