L1, Standard German and local dialect: Language choice of immigrant children in the German-speaking part of Switzerland

Katharina Strassl

Karman Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Bern, Switzerland


In the German-speaking part of Switzerland immigrant children are faced with a special challenge in the course of the acquisition of German as a second language. In this region, a distinct dialect coexists with the standard variety. Knowledge of the standard variety is utterly needed for educational achievement, while the use and knowledge of the local dialect is important for social inclusion.

This situation can entail a number of difficulties for immigrant children: There are some structural differences between Standard German and the local dialect: apart from dissimilarities at the morphological and syntactic levels, there are major differences at the phonological levels (Rash 1998). Hence, on the one hand, knowledge of the dialect can be used for positive transfer, but on the other hand, the differences between the two varieties can also result in interferences. More importantly, however, the children have to position themselves in society and establish their own identity between different cultures and different languages, namely their L1, Standard German, and the local dialect. It is this aspect around which this presentation will evolve.

Immigrant children have to learn and speak the language of the surrounding community because linguistic knowledge is the key factor for social integration (Beisenherz 2006:40). As mentioned above, children in Switzerland should be able to cope with both varieties, Standard German and the local dialect.

The presentation will show how immigrant children make use of the different varieties and languages in their everyday life. Chesire declares “The way we use our language reveals our sense of 'who we are' – our personal and social identities.” (Chesire 2002:19).

The presentation is based on written and oral data that was collected in the ongoing project “German as a Second Language in a Dialect-Speaking Environment”, which is primarily concerned with the acquisition of German as a second language in Switzerland. Apart from an analysis of the data on a morphosyntactic level, data drawn from the project, particularly with regard to the coherence between language and identity and language and society, will be pointed out.

The examination of the language use of immigrant children provides an useful insight into how language competence and language use are integral aspects of society in terms of inclusion and exclusion.


Beisenherz, Gerhard (2006): Sprache und Integration. Zu Unterschieden der Sprachverwendung ausländischer Grundschulkinder in Familie und Gleichaltrigengruppe. In: Alt, Christian (ed.): Kinderleben – Integration durch Sprache. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 39-69.

Chesire, Jenny (2002): Who We Are and Where We're Going: Language and Identities in the New Europe. In: Gubbins, Paul & Holt, Mike (eds.): Beyond Boundaries. Language and Identity in Contemporary Europe. Clevedon et al.: Multilingual Matters, 19-34.

Rash, Felicity J. (1998): The German language in Switzerland: multilingualism, diglossia and variation. Bern: Lang.

Session: Paper session
Identity 3
Friday, April 4, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 12