Some Languages Are Lost After Emigration While Others Are Maintained. Why?

by Jacomine · 18 comments

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.

Holland, Michigan

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?

Language shift

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.
Jacomine Nortier is associate professor in multilingualism and sociolinguistics at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She teaches at all university levels. According to European norms she is a monolingual, i.e., she grew up with Dutch as her only language, but like all Dutch children she learned English, German and French at school and she communicates in all three of them. As a university student she learned the Scandinavian languages Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, and later she learned Moroccan Arabic as well. Her PhD thesis (1989) was about code-switching between Dutch and Moroccan Arabic. More recent publications are about code-switching and increasingly about urban youth languages, multi-ethnolects and multilingual internet forums. Over the course of the next few months she will be writing columns for Multilingual Living about how academic knowledge helps us understand our daily multilingual lives.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe Perez July 20, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Thanks for the clear explanation of language shift. I am wondering what your opinion is of whether an international auxillary language could ever shift people to become bilingual, or if it’s not really feasible.


2 Jacomine July 21, 2011 at 4:49 am

Glad you liked the article! Do you mean a language like English or maybe Esperanto? I am not sure if I understand your question. There is always a strong tension between ‘status’ and ‘solidarity’. Some languages are used to express status, or prestige, and others for solidarity, informality. An auxiliary language could be prestigious (but doesn’t have to). In former, highly multilingual colonies, an international language like English (India) or Dutch (Indonesia) was very helpful, and used in formal contexts, but at the same time it is the language that the colonizers are associated with and it does not express any informality or coziness. That is one of the main reasons why Dutch was rejected as a national language in Indonesiam despite of allt he practical advantages it would have.


3 Olga July 21, 2011 at 4:17 am

Very interesting article. Living in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Republic, I always wondered why some peoples seem to keep their language, and others – not. I guess for Kazakhs language is not a core value, although there are a lot of talks about language being neglected, and the need for all people to speak it.


4 Amy July 21, 2011 at 11:21 am

Very interesting article. You would be interested in observing Quebec, Canada, and how it grapples with integration and assimilation of visible minority immigrants. Statistics Canada has demonstrated that immigrants fare worse in this province in terms of ability to find a job, even when we are looking at francophone immigrants. Sorry, a bit OT…

Back to your essay. Sometimes visible minorities hang onto their languages because of racial discrimination and ghetto settling patterns. And perhaps certain cultures lend themselves to assimilation more easily than others? Anyways, I always hate it when the Quebec media reports that the use of French in households is declining in immigrant-heavy areas such as Montreal. Why do they care about me speaking Cantonese to my kids if I am perfectly able to function in French (spoken & written) for all other purposes?


5 Jacomine September 2, 2011 at 1:37 am

I’m glad you liked it! Your comment shows how little governments or other people who are in charge, understand about why people use their home languages. What people do behind their front door is private!


6 Justine Ickes July 23, 2011 at 9:41 am

Very interesting article, Jacomine. I’ve been wondering for years why my Turkish husband doesn’t seem to have teaching our kids Turkish as a high priority. We live in a part of the U.S. where there are not a lot of speakers of Turkish and I myself am just learning. Although my husband says it’s important to him that our kids learn his first language, it reality, he rarely speaks Turkish to them. And yet he often says that he’s concerned that his kids don’t “know my culture”. So, perhaps speaking Turkish is not a core value of ethnicity for him? Which makes me wonder what those core values would be for Turks. Definitely something to discuss with him! Thanks for the idea.


7 Jacomine September 2, 2011 at 1:43 am

In European countries where there are a lot of guest workers and their descendants from Turkish origin, it strikes us how often the Turkish language is a core value of ethnicity. It is not a personal, individual thing but something that is part of- and developed witihin a community. the community that your husband is part of, may be different from other communities. Often, the need to ‘cherish’ core values increases when there is pressure or threat from outside. Your reaction also shows that observed and reported behavior can be different.


8 Tatiana Asakura September 7, 2011 at 9:45 am

In case of Turkish, the cost of anything- from bazaar to restaurant decreases to half if the client speaks the language)))

You are right, the “threat” from outside is really stimulating to cherishing core values and keeping the identity, i see it in our family.


9 HapaMama July 23, 2011 at 5:12 pm

Really interesting. I’ve wondered about this myself. I think part of it also has to do with social issues, such as how large the community of people around you speaking your native language, and how useful it’s perceived to be. As for why people lose their original language, it’s usually influenced by prejudice. Like Amy noted some immigrants may be feel it benefits them to “pass” as a native. For others, that’s not possible because of their racial differences. And still for others, they feel like they need to prove their allegiance to their new country, such as America (despite racial differences) by speaking only English.


10 Jacomine September 2, 2011 at 1:59 am

Interesting. Do you think race plays an important role? Actually I dare not touch upon that issue. I tried it a few times but colleagues warned me. Talking about race could be interpreted as racism. At least: so they say. I think it is a very important factor. What do you think?


11 J August 2, 2011 at 1:26 am

Interesting article. We are British (both with bilingual backgrounds), live in the Netherlands and use OPOL at home with our son. We both speak Dutch, though our Dutch isn’t native. We’re always astounded by how many Dutch people (even really multilingual ones) ask us why we bother speaking our native languages to our son, rather than speak Dutch to him.

Why on earth would we speak our obviously non-native Dutch to him, when he’s already learning native Dutch in the community, in addition to two other languages (one of which is native English) that he’s learning at home?

Sometimes people who are multilingual by circumstances can still have extremely monolingual attitudes.



12 Jacomine September 2, 2011 at 2:02 am

I think we agree! The atmosphere here in NL is getting quite xenophobic nowadays. I hear stories like yours from each and every non-native speaker in this country. Had a discussion with a student the other day: why is monolingualism the default situation? Why don’t we have a website called ‘Monolingual Living’??


13 Tatiana Asakura August 11, 2011 at 2:51 am

I read your article with a keen interest and will certainly follow up the links and your further articles. Theoretically you do not sound much of Dutch, sorry. Maybe, because you’ ve been into this subject for long and deep enough.
Practically i have not met such reasonable attitude to our multilingualism for all my 3 years in Holland .
Yes, we live in a rather specific location- closer to Gouda, in Zuidplas. Being heavily pressed by local rules, I could not place my kid in kindergarden on my conditions to let her acquire Dutch without affecting her Japanese and Russian. You know what reply I got having asked to place her with 3 year-old kids when she was already 4? “we do not have toys for this big kids!”, the language level did not matter)))
Neither can I place my 4 or 5-year old in school for full time without loosing the time for her native languages. Being obliged by law to keep her all day in Dutch scool means automatically loosing her practice , and no reason lets us 2 days off school to take her to Japanese group.
Too hard on foreigners, too hard. Even in Germany i had more options like bilingual kindergarden and later “leerplicht”.
I believe, till 7 years or so the basic skills of the language proficiency develop in kids , together with the physiology of the brain, and the heavy pressure of Dutch education law leaves no space for development of anything but Dutch language and gezelligheid((( sorry, but it is true.
So, my daughter is “vrijstelled”- officially left free from school till she is 7, but with it she lost the opprtunity to learn any sencible, at least communicative level of Dutch. She is smart, clearly interested- but given no chance by social system.
This is the way most Dutch think: Dutch first!
and then, going abroad, they transform into people of the world. Amazing, Not many can be that conforming by nature.


14 Jacomine September 2, 2011 at 2:05 am

See my comment above. Sometimes I feel ashamed to be Dutch. Whatever we try, people who are in charge don’t seem to be interested in our message. I think it has a lot to do with the political climate. They are afraid to lose voters, in favor of a certain other political party.


15 Tatiana Asakura September 7, 2011 at 9:38 am

Maybe, I have already seen that the legal acts issued by previous Prime minister do not work any more in practice. There is a very intence pressure on foreighners to stop using their native languages.
even those who plan no long term stay heve to conform to the law.
Incidentally the leerplichtambtenaar (the official in charge of enforcing school attendance) told us that any parent attempting to homeschool school-age children would be pursued in court. An extremely uncivilized way of dealing with children and their parents.
Perhaps, it protects the kids from radical muslim communities, but it also affects the usual bi-and trilinguals.


16 Maggie November 21, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I’m a bit late in the game, but I found this article really interesting. I was wondering if in your research you came across any cultures where they tended to lose their language in certain regions, but to keep it in others. It could make a difference whether the group was visibly different from the majority cultural (e.g., racial as HapaMama touched on above, but also possibly stylistic, reflective of a variance in social mores) or where the value system is very different from that of the majority culture.

To present an example, a Greek-Canadian friend of mine once commented that Greeks in Montreal tend to speak Greek at home, whereas in his experience, the Greeks in Toronto do not speak Greek at home. I have no idea whether this is actually true, but it struck me as interesting. Perhaps the size of the community and/or general acceptance of it by the mainstream culture has an impact. If the community is large, they may be better equipped to offer minority-language education and prepare festivals, etc., to celebrate the culture; on the other hand, if the community is strong, they may have more a sense of belonging to one another (as opposed to belonging to the majority culture) which would cause members to hang on to the language and culture more strongly. I’m only speculating, of course, but I was wondering if you had seen anything on this topic.


17 Jacomine November 22, 2011 at 6:40 am

Thank you for your reaction. I have no immediate answer but I’ll keep my eyes/ears open and I will discuss it with colleagues. Your argumentation seems reasonable and plausible.


18 Kristina May 15, 2013 at 8:24 pm

One more aspect to what happens when people migrate to another country. It depends how much exposure to their native language they get. Is it only that one person with his own language, or is there more people around him that can talk that language, or maybe a big community with a lot of resources, Saturday schools, events and festivals, ethnic food restaurants and so forth. I personally moved to USA from a small European country which only has about 3 mln residents plus maybe another million emigrants. No other people from my country live in the area (there are communities in bigger cities, but i am far from them), also being a small country, resources (all kinds of media resources.. toys.. etc) are very limited . i keep trying to use my native language with my son, but English just overwhelmed me. We can’t go visit my country often, either, obviously.. its a long and expensive trip with a minimum of 2 transfers. i feel like i am losing my language and i am devastated.


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