A Life in Languages – Vienna’s Many Voices

From Czech to Turkish, a Babel of languages is heard alongside German on Vienna’s streets. With 42% having roots abroad and English in all schools, multilingualism is (again) the norm.

It’s a sunny morning at the Naschmarkt. Delivery couriers, pushing fruit and vegetable carts, shout Vorsicht! (Watch out!), dodging eager shoppers. They unload in front of the Obsteck (fruit corner), where the Chechen owner converses with his employees in Russian. The saleswoman, Anja, a longtime Viennese resident originally from Poland, serves her customers in German. She calls Ali, her Bosnian co-worker, who is busy assisting another customer. Pointing to the herbs in the corner, he mouths the name cilantro” in English.

Such a scene isn’t uncommon in Vienna. Home to individuals from 181 nations, the city is the Tower of Babel of the German-speaking world. It’s not as if this were news; Habsburg Vienna drew migrants from across the Empire, leading to some 11 official languages in the Austro-Hungarian Parliament. Today it is only more so, as foreign language expert Thomas Fritz recorded in his 2001 almanac 280 Languages for Vienna, documenting the many tongues heard on the city’s streets.

This statistic should come as no surprise. Over 40% of Vienna’s inhabitants have a migrant background, and according to Vienna’s Integration & Diversity Monitor, 86% of them use at least two languages in their everyday lives, and so-called “migrant languages” like Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Romanian, and Turkish dominate local discourse.

International Vienna takes pride in its linguistic diversity. And so does its leadership. “Multilingualism is an enrichment and an opportunity, if you take advantage of it,”
Deputy Mayor Christoph Wiederkehr, who has a French mother and Hungarian-born father, told Metropole. “But only if you make use of it.”

The Viennese school system is dedicated to facilitating multilingualism. According to schule-mehrsprachig.at, the majority of schools offer so-called muttersprachlicher Unterricht (mother tongue instruction), where children and young adults can take extracurricular lessons in their first language, regardless of citizenship. Depending on demand, the Bildungsdirektion Wien offers between 20 and 25 languages per academic year, including Albanian, Arabic, Chechen, Igbo, Somali, in addition to the Central European ones. Statistics show that nearly 65% of the nationwide non-German mother tongue class hours are taught in Vienna, with Turkish the most popular.

The Lycée Français de Vienne was founded in 1946. It was thus one of the first bilingual schools in postwar Austria. Today, more than 2,000 pupils study at the Lycée./(C) Wikimedia Commons

The capital also encourages bilingual education in a number of languages. According to the City of Vienna, around 20 institutions have introduced Vienna Bilingual Schooling (VBS), schools in which students from primary through secondary school are taught individual subjects in both English and German by native speakers. An equivalent program is offered in French, the so-called Français intégré à l’école primaire (FIP), which consists of five hours of bilingual English-French instruction per week. Alternatively, those with prior knowledge can join the Section bilingue, lessons taught in French, in lower secondary schools. A similar primary school initiative also exists in Italian.

The Komenský School offers bilingual teaching in Czech or Slovak and German, all the way from kindergarten to high school. In recent years, many Viennese schools have also started bilingual tracks./(C) Komensky Schule Wien

For a complete experience, students can also enroll in a bilingual school. One is the Komenský School, a private Czech/Slovak and German school in the 3rd district, educating children from ages 2 to 18. The Vienna Elementary School follows a similar model in English. A recent addition is the Bunte Schule in the 18th district, the city’s first accredited Hungarian-German elementary school.

Additionally, local communities offer supplementary language programs to keep their native tongues alive. For example, the Jan III Sobieski Polish School in Vienna, funded by the Polish Ministry of Education, offers bilingual children a chance to expand their language skills and cultural knowledge. Students of all ages participate in language, geography, history lessons and more in Polish alongside regular Austrian school.

The ethnic groups of Austria-Hungary in 1910 according to distribution of ethnicities in the empire./(C) Wikimedia Commons

Long History of Multilingualism

Cultural and linguistic diversity is part of the history of Central Europe and, in particular, the multiethnic Habsburg Empire. German speakers and Magyars accounted for the largest shares of the population, closely followed by Czechs, Poles, Ruthenians (Ukrainians), Romanians, Croats, Serbs, Slovaks and Slovenes. And although German and Latin were recognized as the monarchy’s official languages, together, they made up less than 50% of the spoken tongue.

The Habsburgs understood the value of languages. The right to one’s mother tongue, today considered a universal human right, was even enshrined in the 1867 constitution, which read, “All the state’s ethnic groups (Volksstämme) are equal, and each has an inviolable right to preserve and cultivate its nationality and language.”

Empress Maria Theresia was herself a polyglot. Conversant in German, Italian and Latin, she preferred to speak French with her children. She reinforced the importance of languages through her rule, initiating mother tongue instruction in schools and requiring schoolteachers to be bilingual. In 1754, the Empress founded the Academy for Oriental Languages, today Vienna’s renowned Diplomatic Academy, where students learned Arabic, Persian, and Turkish in preparation for the diplomatic services.

The right to the native tongue was similarly preserved within the army. While commands were given in German, and the Dienstsprache (service language) of army institutions was also German, there were 11 so-called regimental languages. “The aim of this was to give the soldiers the opportunity to express themselves in their native language and not be forced into any other,” military historian Tamara Scheer told the German scientific history magazine Damals.

Local Vernacular

But perhaps the most remarkable product of multilingualism in the Empire is Wienerisch, the Viennese dialect, where all the languages spoken on the ground shaped the local vernacular.

“What people believe to be typical Viennese terms often come from Czech or Italian,” sociolinguist Manfred Glauninger, a researcher at the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage and professor at the University of Vienna, told Metropole. Others from French, Hungarian or Yiddish. For example, the phrase auf Lepschi gehen (to go out or have fun) was derived from the Czech word lepši (better), Plafond (decorated ceiling) is French, patscher (to be clumsy) comes from Hungarian, Gspusi (an affair) is Italian, and Hawara (friend) is Yiddish.

A classic irony: Shaped by migrant languages, Wienerisch has become an identity marker for the Viennese, closely associated with Wiener Schmäh, the dark humor of the Wienerlied, and championed by Mundl, the main character in the Austrian television series Ein echter Wiener geht nicht unter (Nothing can get to the true Viennese) – all of which has been lovingly documented by Austrian journalist Robert Sedlaczek in his Dictionary of Viennese.

But since the 1970s, its dominance has been waning, which Glauninger attributes to the stigma that can come with it, as Wienerisch was frequently spoken by the laborers and, thus, associated with the lower classes. “German-speaking parents in Vienna no longer want their children to learn the ‘working-class’ language,” the linguist says. Instead, they prefer to educate their kids in Hochdeutsch (standard German)hoping that they climb up the social ladder and acquire respectable jobs, where good rhetoric matters.

An additional factor is the increasing influence of German media and the internet. Nowadays, young people prefer Tschüss to Servas or PfiatiJunge for Bub, Erkältung rather than Verkühlung, or Tomate instead of Paradeiser. In an interview with the Austrian newspaper Wiener Zeitung, German language expert Rudolf Muhr claimed that the so-called “German” German was imported with the introduction of cable TV in 1984 and satellite TV in 1991. Ever since, the language has become standardized, with individual Viennese expressions like Oida (dude) and bist deppat? (Are you stupid?) occasionally popping up here and there.

Recent waves of migration have also fueled a departure from the dialect. When the Gastarbeiter (guest workers) from former Yugoslavia and Turkey arrived in the 1970s, they did not learn Wienerisch. “Dialects tend to be seen as a barrier in language-learning,” says Glauninger. The same applies to the refugees who arrived in 2015.

The Perks of Migration

Today, we see a similar pattern: Migrants are again changing the way we speak. When teenage boys – Austrians and migrants – play soccer in the Käfig, they call it “Schieß Ball” (pass ball), dropping the article. Glauninger ascribes this to the grammatical rules of the migrant languages. Most Slavic tongues, except for Bulgarian and Macedonian, do not use definite and indefinite articles. Thus, migrants are simplifying the grammar, and Austrians are catching on.

But one of the most remarkable developments of migration is how it has diversified the city. The growing number of internationals who have settled here in recent years has made Vienna more multilingual than ever. In the Habsburg era, multilingualism was largely regionalized, but today, “everything comes together in one spot,” says Glauninger.

This is most visible within Viennese schools, where a full 53% of students have a first language other than German.

Initiatives such as Schule mehrsprachig, set up by Austria’s Ministry of Education, aim to make schooling in multiple languages easier by providing material, coaching and a platform to exchange best practices./(C) Komensky Schule Wien

Some, particularly in the government, frame this as a disadvantage. “Multilingual people are perceived in terms of their German deficit, meaning their lack of language skills,” says Eva Vetter, professor at the Center for Research into Language Teaching and Learning and vice head of the Center for Teacher Education at the University of Vienna. Last year’s integration report revealed that two-thirds of migrant children fail to reach the expected reading level. Among 13- and 14-year-olds, one-third only partially fulfill the national German requirement, and another third don’t do so at all.

But speaking a different language at home does not necessarily prevent a child from learning German, says linguist Rudolf de Cillia. Instead, language deficits in migrant students are primarily related to their socio-economic background – the parents’ education level, the circumstances under which they grew up, their study methods, and their access to a computer and the internet.

From Zero to Hero

With the right support, however, being multilingual can be an advantage. For one thing, it can enhance language-learning overall. “Studies show that it is beneficial to know Turkish for learning French because Turkish draws a very strong inspiration from the French language,” Vetter told Metropole. For another, each language gives a child another way to formulate ideas, another way to see the world.

However, literacy matters. Students must acquire a certain level in their mother tongue to learn another language properly. “Language acquisition is an indivisible mechanism,” de Cillia says. “If the first language is not well developed, then that, in turn, affects the acquisition of the second language and so on.” Native language instruction in Viennese schools is therefore beneficial and necessary. So ideally, schools must find a balance between consolidating the German language and promoting multilingualism. Here, the key is “maintaining an appreciative and open approach,” says Vetter. “Don’t reduce the children to a single language.”

The educator discourages teachers from imposing “language bans,” or forbidding students to speak their native language, as education expert and journalist Melisa Erkurt observed in Brennpunktschulen (schools in socially deprived areas) and cited in her book Generation Haram. “Forcing a child into a language where it may not yet feel confident causes them emotional stress,” says Vetter, “and may even lead to them losing their mother tongue.”

But this seems to be rare in the capital. Viennese schools tend to be more liberal than those in other parts of the country, de Cillia told Metropole. More recently, they have supported migrant children with special summer intensive programs in German, while also allowing students to chat in Bosnian or Turkish during breaks.

Today, from civil servants to workers in the medical field, many city employees speak several languages. “There’s a demand for multilingual people, individuals who know German, but who can, for example, also speak Turkish, Serbian, Croatian and so on,” de Cillia says.

An international city like this one thrives on of its multiculturalism, in business, in science, in the arts. So as many are discovering, the city needs people well-versed in a multitude of languages, who are at home in the Tower of Babel that is Vienna in the 21st century.

Back at the Naschmarkt, two visitors are standing just outside the Obsteck, gazing into a vitrine filled with baklavas and other honey-glazed sweets. Pointing at the sticky pastries, the shop owner describes each one in perfect German, except for their names, that flow off his tongue in the melodies of Turkish.

While they are making up their minds, a Hungarian tour group pauses behind them, and he waves to his assistant, who slips into the Uralic cadences of Magyar to assist the shoppers.

Business as usual in the Austrian capital.

Amina Frassl
Amina is Metropole's former online content manager. She is a contributing writer, focusing on current news and politics. She recently received her Bachelors' degree in journalism and politics from New York University and is currently pursuing her Masters' in international affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS.

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