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The status of languages in a situation of contact

Distinctive food, dress, song, etc. are often accepted and allowed to be part of the mainstream, but language seldom is. (Romaine 2004:397)

Less than 4 % of the languages currently in existence (about 5,000-6,000 languages) have an official status (Romaine 2004: 388; Baker 2001: 49 mentions a percentage of 1.5), which hints at the unequal status of languages in a situation of contact. It is interesting to note that an imbalance in the status attributed to the languages is commonly reflected in the linguistic profiles of individuals in a given social space. Where two languages are not at parity it is usually the members of the linguistic minority group who are bilingual (in the minority and the majority language) whilst the members of the majority group are commonly monolingual. This is the case in Canada, for example (cf. Ann 2001; Grosjean 1982: 16), where English and French are official languages. According to Grosjean (1982: 16) only 8 % of the English-speaking population uses both languages on a regular basis, compared to 33 % of the French-speaking population. The maintenance of bilingualism in linguistic minorities relates to different factors such as the number of speakers of the minority language, the renewal of the linguistic minority via immigration, the social and educational background of the members of the minority group as well as their spatial distribution (cf. Baker 2001; Grosjean 1982; Romaine 1996).

It is important to note in this context that the notions of minority language communities or linguistic minorities are commonly used to refer to non-elite or subordinated groups (Romaine 2004: 389). As pointed out by Romaine (ibid.) the notion of “minority” is ambiguous in that it has both numerical and social/ political dimensions, the point of reference being often an administrative unit (the nation-state, for example). Regional languages (as, for example, Catalan in Spain) may be spoken by a minority within the nation-state, but by a majority in the region. Another striking example is provided in Garda et al. (2006: 14) who describe the situation of the Zulu in South Africa. The group of over 10 million Zulu speakers regard their language as a minority language, that is, a language that cannot to be used for advanced formal functions. The attitudes toward the language clearly contrast with the circumstance that it could easily be ranked among the 100 largest languages worldwide.

Thus, rather than by the size of group, a language is the majority or dominant language if it is the language of “the group that holds the political, cultural, and economic power in the country”, whereas the notion of minority language is used to refer to the language of the social group that has less power and prestige (Grosjean 1982: 120-1). We can see that the symbolic value of a language as well as the power of its speakers plays an important part regarding the status the language is assigned at the institutional level. As language policies might differ depending on the language they target, it is not uncommon to find different coexisting types of multilingualism within a given nation-state. Usually, a distinction is made between national vs. minority and indigenous vs. non-indigenous languages (Romaine 2004: 391). The politically promoted maintenance of minority languages, including the recognition of the language rights of their users, commonly rests on territorial criteria (identification of geographical boundaries and historical existence of the language within a defined territory), leaving non-indigenous languages with “almost no status” at all (Baker 2001: 47-48). Language politics in the European Union, for example, are almost exclusively oriented towards national, that is, territorial languages (Romaine 2004: 391). Notice, though, the intricacy of defining what is or what is not a territorial language if we consider demographic developments and the alleged immigrant groups that have been living in a country for various generations. Baker’s (2001: 48) reflection hints at the contentious status of the territorial criterion when he asks: “Do languages belong to regions and territories and not to the speakers of those languages, or to groups of speakers of those languages wherever they may be found?” Notice, additionally, that Baker’s question addresses two dimensions that have turned out to be crucial in the struggle for political recognition by non-indigenous language minorities, namely, that the speakers of a language form a group and that the language they use is a marker of their identity. These observations lead us to the notion of a community, explained in the next section.

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