Literacy between Languages and Cultures:
Resource and Obstacle to Integration

The interdisciplinary research project utilizes disciplinary expertise in linguistics and organisational psychology to investigate the effects of specific types of (subtractive) multilingualism and identity construction on the attainment of literacy in German as a second language. Our focus is on the exemplary case of dealings with administrative public agencies, highlighting intergenerational changes in literal competencies needed for successful communication processes with these agencies. 

A fundamental hypothesis of the study is that migration and multilingualism are not the primary reasons for immigrants’ lack of participation in society. Affiliation with certain milieus, resulting in insufficient educational prerequisites which in turn result in limited competencies in written language promote the self-perception of being at the fringe of society. These are expected to be crucial factors, which can be observed in the case of monolingual German speakers as well.

A starting point is the expectation that insufficient skills in written language present a substantial barrier for participation in German society.  This holds in particular for the inability to produce formal texts in German and to meet administrative requirements by completing the forms requested by  public agencies. The ability to produce different types of texts is a key qualification for access to and participation in the educational and institutional resources of society.

However, on the one hand, these abilities are sometimes regarded by immigrants as a defining characteristic of the "other" – highly literate – host society with the consequence that achieving this kind of literacy in German receives an identity-threatening character. On the other hand, even if attempted, acquiring sufficient proficiency may cause specific difficulties due to the often low level of proficiency in oral competence and language awareness in German or in highly formal variants of Turkish. The upshot is that these opposing processes produce the same effect; they exclude immigrants and disadvantaged monolinguals from full participation in the society they live in.

Consequently, the central objective of the study is to provide well-founded assessments and practicable recommendations to minimize the factors that marginalize these groups in order to effectively promote  integration and participation in society.

Methodical procedure

To pursue this objective, the study will collect data of different types from two groups, immigrants from Turkey and their families and from a control group of socially disadvantaged Germans. The data contain language biographies and attitudes, subjectively perceived situations and cultural affiliations, aspirations and life plans insofar as these relate to literacy in the first and second languages. The project pursues a three-generation approach, thus enabling the reconstruction of long term processes of integration vs. "social heritage".

Methodologically, the project will integrate both qualitative and quantitative approaches from linguistic research on narration and literacy and from motivational and volitional theories in psychology. The latter are important in order to discern parameters that must be considered in order to ensure that proposals for improved literacy will not be perceived by immigrants as externally imposed.




1. Preliminary data collection

Identification of difficulties in the respective cohorts of immigrants with quantitative methods

selection of prototypical forms and topics for written letters with the help of experts

questionnaire survey with small random sample / Interviews with experts

2. Narrative interviews and assessment of level of institutional literacy

conception, execution and transcription of narrative interviews

narrative interviews with the different cohorts

3. Appraisal of reconstructive and quantitative data

Comparison of the interview results with those of quantitative methods

Questionnaire survey with an enlarged random sample and modified questionnaire

4. Analysis

Identification of important motivators for immigrants, identification of necessary changes for the agencies concerned

Analysis of the data, interpretation/evaluation of the interviews

5. Transfer

Publication of the results for the professional and general public, endeavour to obtain follow-up projects to implement the results of the study in institutional practice


Turkish-speaking immigrants and their families form the primary focus of the study and will be contrasted with a sample control group of German individuals of comparable, disadvantaged milieus. Data will be collected from three groups (ages 20, 40 and 60, +/- 3 years) representing three generations. For the qualitative part of the study, we will select subjects belonging to families with members in each of the three generational groups.

The qualitative data will be obtained in narrative interviews and in the context of everyday communicative practices within the families with a focus on dealings with the state employment agency and social services. In addition to the autobiographical narrations, the subjects will be asked to deal with two different types of texts:

  1. a letter to the state employment agency or the social services bureau on a standardized topic
  2. the completion of an experimentally manipulated prototypical administrative form.

These tasks will also be presented to Turkish immigrants, a group with an immigration background of several generations, and to a control group of socially disadvantaged Germans, who have comparable experience of social marginalization. The comparison between these two groups will allow the investigation to isolate specific problems as well as opportunities for integration and identity formation connected to the skills and the knowledge necessary for multi-literate competence in written German.

This design allows us to determine to what extent (1) distinct processes of identity formation and integration in each generation as well as (2) different degrees of oral communicative competence in formal language registers affect the acquisition of literacy-related competences in German. The findings of the qualitative studies will help to clarify the individuals’ personal emotional perspectives on  these processes, which are decisive for change in individuals as well as in organisations

Planned transfer of results

With respect to practical results, the study will provide a foundation for developing recommendations for culturally successful integration practices in the area of administrative services.

By combining quantitative and qualitative methods in a micro-structural perspective, the project can provide insight into latent mechanisms that influence and shape socio-political problems concerning migration and immigration (immigration tests, refusal to integrate, "parallel societies"). These findings of the qualitative and quantitative investigations will form the basis for recommendations in two separate areas:

1.     How should proposals and incentives be organized in order to positively influence (potential) clients' desire to develop and sustain the motivation to acquire an adequate mastery of the German (written) language?

2.     Which requirements of the administrative authorities concerning linguistic and expressive abilities are too demanding for clients of the type studied here and should thus be altered or limited from the perspectives of client orientation and system compatibility?

The results of the research will thus serve as the basis for initiating constructive changes in the administrative sector of society, which contributes to the integration of immigrants into society. The innovative combination of disciplinary expertise in linguistics and in organisational psychology in the research design not only allows for an in-depth assessment of the factors in L2 literacy of a significant segment of immigrant population, but will also enable the application of the research results to existing social and institutional structures, providing a platform for their implementation.

Future projects and applications of research

The project offers manifold possibilities for follow-up projects and practical applications. Grant applications will be made for follow-up projects:

  1. to accompany the modification of proposals and offerings addressed to immigrants and to evaluate the success of these in practice.
  2. to assist in implementing the recommendations in the practices of administrative and social agencies and to promote a reconciliation of interests between the requirements of the agencies and the abilities of their clients.
  3. to extend the results obtained to other groups of immigrants and immigrants, e.g. Russian speaking individuals, who have moved to Germany more recently. This group has significantly different motives and objectives for migration; thus, a study of this group could yield different results.

Contact details

Prof. Dr. Ludger Hoffmann (linguistics) ludger.hoffmann@uni-dortmund.de

Prof. Dr. Dr. Michael Kastner (psychology) kastner@orgapsy.uni-dortmund.de

Prof. Dr. Uta Quasthoff (linguistics, speaker) uta.quasthoff@uni-dortmund.de

> Home