By Jacomine Nortier
Photo credit: Andrew Shansby
In my last article, which was on borrowing and loan words, I ended with the observation that some linguistic communities are more keen than others to keep loanwords at a distance. Is it true or just a wrong impression that some linguistic communities are more caring about their language(s) than others? I was going to discuss that in my next article, and here it is.
People who migrate to another country sooner or later shift to the new dominant language. This is a gradual process, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it follows certain patterns. The fact that the original language will become weaker over time (and perhaps even lost), is not caused by low proficiency of its speakers, but by the fact that there is an increased use of the new language.
In the course of time, the new language will be used in more and more domains at the cost of the original language. Language skills in the first language will be affected due to a decrease in its use. If you don’t practice, you lose your skills!
The domain in which the original language can be maintained longest is usually the domain of home and family. Once the new language enters the home, there is not a very good chance for survival of the original language.
Why do people let his happen? Is it a good thing that people shift to the new, dominant language or should it be avoided? And is it possible that a community can remain bilingual ‘eternally’? I will address these issues below.
Why is there a difference between groups?
It is a well-known fact that Dutch immigrants in countries such as Australia, New-Zealand, Canada or the US rapidly shift to English, often sooner than within the average of two-three generations. Other groups, like for example the Greeks in Australia, maintain their language for a much longer period of time.
The late Australian linguist Michael Clyne was one of the first to observe and describe this phenomenon. He ascribed the difference between groups to what is called different core values of ethnicity. What does this mean? Each ethnic group shares a set of values that mark their membership of that specific group. As long as people adhere to these values, they are considered members of the group. But when they abandon those values, they have no reason for themselves and for others to call themselves members of that specific ethnic group anymore.
For some groups, language is the most important ethnic core value. Once Australian Greeks have ceased to speak Greek, they hardly consider themselves Greeks anymore. For others, such as Moroccans in the Netherlands, it is religion, or certain social behaviors that mark them as members of their ethnic group. For a majority of the Chinese communities outside China, certain cultural traditions are core values of their Chinese ethnicity.
Madeleine Hulsen in her PhD study asked Dutch immigrants in New Zealand to rank nine values that were associated with Dutch ethnicity. Among them were the celebration of St Nicholas (‘pakjesavond’) on December 5th, eating raw herring or licorice, cleaning up the doorstep on Saturdays, respecting and practicing Dutch ‘gezelligheid’ (something like coziness) and using the Dutch language. And guess what: ‘gezelligheid’ was considered the number one marker of Dutchness; more important than the Dutch language (which took the fourth position). The people who know the town of Holland in Michigan will agree with this finding: in this town Dutch traditions are shown, or imitated: there are orange tulips in spring, exhibitions of Dutch painters, Dutch windmills, wooden shoes etc. (watch the video here) but not a single word of Dutch, neither spoken nor written!
Is it possible for communities to remain bilingual?
On the level of society there are several types of multilingualism. Indigenous multilingualism exists in places where traditionally more than one language is spoken, like in Spain, for example (Basque, Catalan among others, beside Castilian Spanish). Other types of multilingualism are the consequence of migration: imported multilingualism. This is the case in immigration countries like Australia, but also in places where post-colonial or labor migration took place. Sometimes a bi- or multilingual situation disappears, sometimes it is maintained.
In the case of indigenous multilingualism, each language may have its own specific functions. For example, in Morocco people are well aware of the appropriateness of the use of formal Standard Arabic, as opposed to colloquial Moroccan Arabic or Berber. The domains in which each language is used are strictly recognized. When they master Standard Arabic, Moroccans won’t use Berber or Moroccan Arabic in a discussion about religion or during an oral university exam. At the same time, they will not tell jokes in Standard Arabic.
This situation, in which the languages serve specific functions, or rather, where people know what language should be used in what specific situation, is called diglossia. Characteristic of a diglossic situation is that one language or variety has a high status, the other one(s) is (are) low. The high variety is learned in school through formal instruction, and the lower variety is a native language, used in informal situations. The functions of the languages or varieties are clear to the users and we could call this situation rather stable. Are you familiar with a situation like this?
There are also situations in which the boundaries between the languages are very thin and moving. This is often the case in immigrant communities. The functions of the original language are slowly taken over by the new language.
In the beginning, the original language is the main vehicle for communication. In later generations the situation is reversed. This process, called language shift, is influenced by factors such as education, urbanization, and intermarriage. When language is a core value of ethnicity, language shift will take a long time. Maybe you can add more factors that influence the speed of language shift!
With respect to language maintenance, people seem to have different sets of norms. When new immigrants enter our communities, they are expected to learn the language as soon as possible, which I think is reasonable. But at the same time, in many countries, they are also expected to stop speaking their original language at home, which is less self-evident to me.
The magic word ‘Integration’ and giving up your original language seem to be closely connected. On the other hand, we are sorry when former fellow country men and women who have moved to another country shift to the new language and forget the language they spoke before they immigrated.
But imagine: what would you do when you were to move to, say, Thailand with your family? You would probably do your best to learn Thai, you would take courses in Thai, you would practice a lot, and show that you were really making something out of it. But does that imply that you will talk Thai with your children at home? Will you stop singing the old lullabies that you learned from your parents and grandparents? Perhaps Thai will enter your home and when you are skilled enough, it will co-exist with your original language, but Thai will not replace it.
In my next article I will discuss the importance of maintaining the home language and why there is no harm in using a home language that is different from what the outside world is speaking.
- Jerzy Smolicz wrote an article called ‘Core values and cultural identity’. It was published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, 4 (1981), page 75-90.
- Madeleine Hulsen reports on her study among Dutch immigrants in New Zealand in an unpublished PhD thesis: M. Hulsen, (2000.) Language loss and language processing, three generations of Dutch migrants in New Zealand. University of Nijmegen.
- A classical article on diglossia is written by Charles Ferguson: ‘Diglossia’, inWord 15, page 325–340.