Dialects rate low against high German

22nd October 1999 at 01:00

A REPORT-CARD has sparked off a massive debate in Germany on the status of regional accents and dialects after a teacher wrote that a nine-year-old had problems understanding lessons "because he speaks only Bavarian at home".

Politicians thundered on about "saving the Bavarian dialect" and organisations warned of discrimination "in favour of so-called standard German" until the school was forced to delete the offending statement from the report.

However, the incident has triggered arguments over how to tackle the academic problems of children who speak dialect without undermining regional variation.

Bavarian speakers drop their final n's which can affect pupils' understanding of noun cases in standard German.

In Switzerland, where dialects are even more pronounced, children are taught written high German almost as if it were a foreign language. However in Germany, the assumption is that "high German" should be acquired naturally without special teaching.

Although some special materials to teach dialect-speakers were developed in the 1970s teachers are not specifically trained to use them. They have fallen into disuse since the 1980s.

"Many teachers cannot recognise which errors in classwork are caused by dialect and which are true grammatical mistakes," says Ulrich Ammon, professor of linguistics at the University of Duisburg.

Many German dialects assign a different gender to the noun from standard German which a teacher would mark as a grammatical mistake. According to the Allensbach Institute for Demographic Trends, only one German in 10 speaks exclusively standard or "high German". One third of the population use a regional dialect in everyday speech. Small children may use it exclusively.

Prejudices against strong regional accents are breaking down, but Professor Ammon, who studied children aged nine and 10 in southern Germany, found that pupils who speak them make 10 to 30 per cent more spelling and grammar mistakes compared to those who speak high German. "Their marks are worse, their vocabulary poorer and fewer of them make it to (selective) grammar schools even with a similar IQ," he said.

He also noted that children who use dialect are often afraid of speaking out in class for fear of being made fun of. "This is a major setback because when grades are assigned for grammar school entry, the oral component and class participation is given heavy weighting."

Lower mobility in the former East may have contributed to greater homogeneity in the classroom. "The problem is when dialect speakers are a small minority," said Professor Ammon.

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