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Language shift refers to the process whereby a speech community switches to another language. When a linguistic community ceases to use its original language, language death is said to occur. Language maintenance refers to the protection and promotion of the native language of a speech community, particularly among linguistic minorities. It is perfectly possible for minority groups to be bilingual, that is, they can learn the societal language while maintaining their mother tongues. In such cases, the two languages will be in a diglossic relationship—the societal language is used for formal purposes in the larger society while the native language is used for social interaction in the home and the co-ethnic community. But what happens more frequently is that minority populations are either linguistically assimilated into mainstream society by force, or voluntarily give up their languages.

Forced cultural assimilation of indigenous populations has been a common practice in many parts of the world. Cummins (1996) notes that prior to the 1970s, it was extremely common for teachers to reprimand language minority students for speaking their home language in the school. In the U.S., Native American children have been taken from their families, sent to boarding schools in faraway places and punished when caught speaking their native languages. In Swedish state schools in the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, Finnish and Sami, the minority and indigenous languages, were forbidden not only during classroom instruction but also during the breaks (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000). All too often, the message communicated to students is that they must no longer identify with their native language and culture, which are deemed objectionable in the school and society.

As perhaps the single most powerful socializing institution in children’s lives, the school passes on cultural knowledge and practices to its students and assimilates linguistic minority populations into mainstream society. Language socialization at school takes place openly, as teachers instruct students on what to say and how to say things, as well as subtly in teachers’ interaction with students (Heath, 1983). Once language minority children enter school, they quickly realize that the language they speak with their family members has no appreciable value in school and that they need to learn the school language to be accepted by their teachers and peers (Wong Fillmore, 1991).

The school endorses mainstream, middle-class values, and children who do not come to school with the kind of linguistic and cultural background supported in the schools are likely to experience conflict (Romaine, 1995: 242). Children are, therefore, motivated to learn the language of school, while, at the same time, discontinue using their mother tongues. This motivation is often the initial driving force in language shift in the family, as children start speaking the majority language to their parents and siblings at home. As the children learn and use the majority language at home, the parents also switch over to it at least in speaking with the children.

But parents may also consciously decide not to teach their native languages to their children. The belief that the majority language is more prestigious and socially beneficial than the minority language is a powerful deterrent to home language maintenance. No parent who has been denied opportunities due to her cultural background wants her children to suffer the same fate. In a study of Xhosa-speaking families in South Africa, De Klerk (2000) showed that a significant factor in the Xhosa community’s shift to English was the parents’ enrollment of their children in English-medium schools. Most of the children in these English-medium schools are whites who speak English as their native language. While part of the Xhosa-speaking parents’ reason for choosing

English schools was a dissatisfaction with poor conditions in the Xhosa- medium schools, the more important reason was the parents’ belief that English will prepare their children for better jobs.

A large body of research has shown that pressures for language shift are significant in many language minority families and communities. Observations of different communities that come into contact with a majority language have shown that there is almost always a complete shift in language use within three generations (Fishman, 1991). Among immigrants in the U.S., the typical pattern has been that the first generation learns some English while remaining strongest in the native tongue; the second generation usually becomes bilingual with more developed literacy skills in English; and the third generation is English-dominant with little or no capability in the language of the grandparents. However, recently, more and more language minority families and communities are undergoing a complete shift in language within two generations with no intervening bilingual generation (Wiley, 2001). This obviously creates major problems as parents and children living in the same household cannot communicate with each other.

The U.S. has often been described as a “language graveyard” because of its history of receiving millions of immigrants and extinguishing their mother tongues within a few generations (Portes & Rumbaut, 2006). Based on the findings from Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study, a survey that followed 5,000 1.5- and second-generation youth who arrived in the U.S. prior to adolescence, as well as U.S.-born children of immigrants, Rumbaut (2009) concludes that even Spanish (the language spoken by the biggest linguistic minority group in the U.S.) does not challenge this unsavory reputation. Even though Spanish speakers in the U.S. tend to retain their mother tongue better than do other immigrant groups—due in part to their large numbers and geographic concentration in certain areas—their language preference shifts to English over time, usually by the third generation.

Thus the overall picture for minority languages is quite bleak, with language shift as the norm and maintenance as the exception (Dorian, 2006). But minority languages can be maintained if certain conditions are present. Summing up the research on language maintenance strategies, Crystal (2000) shows that a minority language will progress if its speakers:

  • 1. increase their prestige within the dominant community;
  • 2. increase their wealth relative to the dominant community;
  • 3. increase their legitimate power in the eyes of the dominant community;
  • 4. have a strong presence in the educational system;
  • 5. can write their language down;
  • 6. can make use of electronic technology.

While doing the above does not automatically guarantee the survival of small languages, Crystal argues that the primary goal of linguists (and language educators) should be to help minority language speakers increase their relative standing in society. He likens linguists’ efforts to preserve languages to medical doctors preserving the physical health of patients:

in exactly the same way as doctors only intervene with the primary aim of preserving the physiological health of patients, so linguists should only intervene with the primary aim of preserving the linguistic health of those who speak endangered languages. The concept of linguists working on such languages with no interest in the people who speak them—other than to see them as a source of data for a thesis or publication—is, or should be, as unacceptable a notion as it would be if doctors collected medical data without caring what happened subsequently to the patients.

(2000: 145)

Language preservation is really about caring for the overall well-being of speakers of those languages.

Let us now look at some of the multilingual countries of the world.

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