Language Maintenance and Shift

A summary of Chapter Three,  “Introduction to Sociolinguistics” by Janet Holmes.

This chapter discusses the political and economic factors that influence Language choice. 

Language shift in different communities:

A- Migrant minorities:

Example 1 shows examples of language shift that are visible in migrant families. The example illustrates how a British Hindu woman living in Britain tended to use Gujerati at home and the workplace with her friends as their home language. However, when she was promoted, (which means moving to a higher level in which she has to use an H variety) she used English more often. Finally, when she moved to the Main Office, she used English all the time. This example shows the experience of a minority in a monolingual country, and how the predominant society’s language over time displaced the mother tongue of the minority. This shift was made by social factors, as the shift occurs from one language to another for communicative needs.

In English speaking countries like the U.K., the United States, or Australia, children are exposed to English in school, and over time they start to use English at home when they discuss school topics or friends-related issues. Gradually, English infiltrates the home through the Children who use English when they grow up and become engaged in jobs later on.

Immigrants who look and sound different use the language of the mainstream or the predominant society. They are under pressure, and therefore they shift to English.  Speaking good English is then regarded as a sign of successful assimilation. This leads to abandoning the minority language. Typically, migrants are monolingual in their mother tongue, their children are bilingual, and their grandchildren are monolingual in the language of the host country.

B- Non-migrant minorities:

In this situation, the shift is caused by political, economic, and social changes in a community. Example 2 shows how people of Oberwart, which was a part of Hungary before WW1, spoke Hungarian to each other and German to outsiders. When the war was over, the town became a part of Austria, and grew to be an industrial area. The use of German language increased to include domains of school, education, business, and official transactions. It also symbolized formality and social distance. On the other hand, Hungarian was the language of solidarity used for social and affective functions. It became old-fashioned and associated with peasants, while German was associated with economic and social progress. Later, young people used German with their friends, and even parents used German with their children. Hungarian was confined to prayer and church. The use of linguistic choices “patterns of language use” depends on the social networks that the speaker is involved in.  (Social interaction)    

C- Migrant Majorities:

Sometimes,  language shift reflects the influence of political and economic factors, such as the need to work. People may shift location and language for this reason. Many Scottish, Irish, and Welsh people moved to England and changed their language accordingly by shifting to English in order to get a job.  In this case, they need to shift to English to maintain their job success.

We also find the same result when a majority group moves to another place. For example,  countries that were active in colonialism like England, Spain, or France made their language dominant in the areas they have colonized such as India, South Africa, and Papua New Guinea. But this was also with the help of the multilingual nature of those areas.  Multilingualism was well established in those areas. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult for an alien language to eradicate (obliterate or delete) the indigenous (original) language. When multilingualism was not widespread, indigenous language became under threat, and the dominating language (the language of the colonizers) was described as the “Killer Language,” in which one group brings about political power and imposes its language along with its institutions (government, education, religious places, courts), the minority will find themselves under pressure to adopt the language of the dominant group. Example 3 shows how Maori people moved from monolingualism in Maori to bilingualism in both Maori and English, then to monolingualism again but in English. A survey made in 1998 indicated that less than 10% of Maori people can speak Maori fluently. The survey also indicated that there are very few domains where Maori is used.

Indigenous people in the U.S. and Australia have similarly lost their language, as their language was obliterated by the language of the colonizer (English). Indigenous people also decreased in number due to war and diseases.

Language Death and Language Loss

Language death differs from language shift. In language death, the language is not spoken by anyone at all. This is due to the fact that the speakers of this language disappeared due to continuous extermination or death by diseases. For example, Cornish disappeared completely from Cornwell by the 18th century due to the death of the last speaker of Cornish, Dolly Mousehole. On the other hand, a community, such as the Turkish community in England, may shift to English over a couple of generations. This involves the loss of the language. The Turkish Language, however, is not facing any threat because it is still being used in Turkey.

The process of language death comes about through a gradual loss of proficiency and competence by the speakers. Example 3 shows how a young speaker of Dyirbal (an Australian aboriginal language) has lost a great number of vocabulary of Dyirbal because she uses English most of the time. She even uses English words while she talks to her grandmother because she cannot remember the words in Dyirbal.  

The result of this situation:

–       The girl cannot use inflection and word order in the right way, because she puts the words together in the same way she does in English. The language in such a situation erodes over time.

–       With the spread of a majority group language (English, in this case) into more and more domains, the number of domains and contexts in which the original language is being used decreases until it becomes confined to very personal matters like dreaming or praying.

–         The stylistic range that people acquire when they use a language in a wider range of domains disappears.

–       There is a gradual simplification of grammatical constructions and sound rules.

–       Vocabulary becomes smaller.

In a wide community, a language may survive for ritual occasions, but speakers’ fluency will be confined to prayers. For instance, in Australia, Maori is used for ceremonial and religious speeches by the elders who still know how to perform the rituals.

Factors that lead to Language Shift

1-   Economic, social, and political factors:

A-  Importance of second language: The community believes in the importance of the second language due to economic or political reasons. For example, looking for a job forces the speaker to learn English in English-dominated countries. This causes bilingualism which is a precursor of language shift. Although this is not the case in Diglossic communities.

B-   Unimportance of ethnic language: the speakers believe that there is no reason to maintain the ethnic language and that it does not offer any advantages for their children. In this case, shift is inevitable. 

C-   The speed of shift is governed by the social and the economic goals of the individuals in a community. When the dominant language is a prerequisite for success, the people are anxious to emerge successfully in the community. Newly arrived immigrant women to New Zealand tend to have less education than their husbands because they tend to stay at home and do not seek job opportunities, maintaining their minority language. 

2-   Demographic Factors:

A-  Rural VS Urban areas: in rural areas, people use their ethnic language as it fulfills all their needs. They are also isolated from the center of political power.  In urban areas, they tend to use the predominant language. For example, in New Zealand, Maori survives in inaccessible rural areas and used by Maori people. In Canada, Ukrainians who live in rural areas and on farms maintained their ethnic language better than Ukrainians in towns.

B-   The size of a group is a critical factor.  Language shift occurs at one group faster than another. For example, the Spanish community has a huge presence in the U.S., and this is why the Spanish language survived in the U.S.. Example 5 shows how it is important to have several people to use the ethnic language to protect it from dying. A Spanish-speaking girl finds herself weird among other students in school. This is why she shifts to English. She even refused to use Spanish at home, while her parents spoke Spanish to each other. The parents in this case are isolated. Maintaining language under such conditions is nearly impossible.

C-  Intermarriage accelerates language shift. In this case, one language tends to predominate in home. For example, a German man in Australia marries an English-speaking Australian woman, the language used in home will be English. It will also be the main language used with children.  In other cases, when a mother’s English is not strong and wants to pass her ethnic language to the children, she would slow down the process of language shift by using the ethnic language with her children. Italian and Greek fathers in Australia believe that it is important for the children to acquire their ethnic language. Also, Maori fathers pass Maori to their children in order to be used in ceremonies like marriage or any other official occasion. When children of mixed marriages start school, a parent must exert so much effort to keep the ethnic language used in home.

D-  Attitudinal factors: Language shift is slower when the ethnic language is valued by a community. Example 6 shows how a Samoan family is proud of its ethnic Samoan language, and how it keeps using it every now and then in different occasion. The children are also happy because their parents taught them Samoan.

Also, if a language enjoys a high-level status on an international level, it will be maintained. French is maintained in USA and Canada because it is a language of an international status.  The Greek people are proud of their contribution to the western philosophy and culture. They view their language as important, and that is why they resist attempts of language shift to English.  However, there must be a community to support these positive attitudes, otherwise the language, even if it enjoys an international status, would die. (In example 5, the Spanish language was obliterated because there was no support to use it in the community of the speaker, even in home.).

How can a minority language be maintained?

·      Regarding the ethnic language as important: if the ethnic language is regarded as an important symbol of identity, it is likely to be maintained longer. For example, Polish people believed that their language is important wherever they immigrated to preserve their identity. Therefore, the Polish language was maintained for three or four generations. The case is similar with Greek migrants to Australia, USA, and New Zealand. 

·      Frequency of contact: if families from a minority group live near each other, their ethnic language is likely to be more preserved. For example, members of the Greek community in New Zealand belong to a common church where they use Greek and have also established shops where they sell Greek food. In the marketplace, they also used Greek with each other. The same goes with Indian and Pakistani communities in U.K. and USA, where Chinese people who live in Chinatown preserved their Chinese language.

·      Degree of frequency of contact with homeland: migrants to another country or visitors need to keep their ethnic language alive. New Zealand Polynesian visitors arriving in New Zealand are being welcomed by the Polynesian New Zealands. The visitors provide a new linguistic input to the New Zealand community. Also, organizing trips back home is also a good opportunity to maintain fluency. Greek New Zealanders regard a trip to Greece as essential, which forces them to maintain proficiency in Greek.

·      Social factors may also help in resisting language shift resulting from economic pressures: Using the language in home and banning intermarriages help in maintaining the language.  Associating the use of language with a particular setting like the school or the place of worship also helps in maintaining the ethnic language.

·      Institutional Support: governmental offices, media, press, education, law, or religion are the domains of the predominant language. If an ethnic language is tied to such domains, it will be maintained.

Language Revival 

Sometimes a community becomes aware of the fact that its language is being threatened or endangered by disappearance. Therefore, attempts were made to revive these communities’ languages. For example:

a-    Hebrew: Hebrew was dead for nearly 1,700 years. Its use was confined to religious sermons or prayers. However, the strong feelings of nationalism helped in promoting and reviving the Hebrew language 

b-   Welsh: when English industrialists invaded Wales (in-migration), the Welsh language was under a process of erosion. The miners and the workers began to use English as it became the predominant language used excessively by the English people. The situation became worse when many Welsh workers left the place (out-migration). The two thirds of population started to speak English. Welsh people then worked on slowing down the language loss by obtaining a Welsh-language TV channel, as well as establishing bilingual educational programs. (Bilingual education)