Bilingualism and language maintenance then and now

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Nov 1 16:50:27 UTC 2004

I would respond to this by saying that we lack data on this.  I am not a
number cruncher by any means, but since we're talking about "rates" of
loss etc. I would think we would need some statistics. I only know that in
the groups I study, esp. South Asian immigrants to the US and elsewhere,
those born elsewhere certainly retain their languages, using them in many
ways, telephoning home, visiting home, etc., but their children tend to be
passive bilinguals at best. Some do have some active skills when they come
to our language classes, but most are content to become Americans and
function mainly in English. Attempts at active language maintenance are
usually amateurish and ill-advised; the groups I've tried to interest in
improving their programs usually spurn my advice, preferring to use
strategies that were useful in the homeland, but have little application
to the immigrant environment.

But I also know that my great-grandparents, immigrants from Germany,
continued to speak German until their death, and their children and
grandchildren (at least the oldest ones in the cohort, e.g. my own
mother) learned and used German because at least one great-grandparent
never learned English, since she arrived at age 39 in the US and lived in
a predominantly German neighborhood in St. Louis.  Language maintenance
efforts of German-Americans in the 19th century were well-organized, but
also ineffective, even before the effects of World War I closed them down.

So let's get some statistics if we can.

Hal Schiffman

On Mon, 1 Nov 2004, P. Kerim Friedman wrote:

> I too have come across papers claiming that language learning is
> happening no slower now than before. (And I also lack a good citation).
> But what I would personally be interested in knowing is if there is any
> evidence that increased mobility, communication, etc., all the things
> usually grouped together as "globalization", has slowed down language
> loss. It seems to me that an immigrant today is more likely to be in
> touch over the phone with family at home, to be able to watch TV
> programming and read internet material in their mother tongue, to be
> able to travel back and forth more frequently, etc. All of which would
> suggest that there are more forces preventing language loss.
> kerim
> On Nov 1, 2004, at 11:05 AM, Kevin Rocap wrote:
> > Dear Trond, Stan, et al,
> >
> > Actually, at least in the U.S., I believe that immigrants are learning
> > English as fast or faster now than in the past.  In fact, what is
> > potentially of greater concern is the rate of language loss (loss of
> > the non-English primary language) of many children and youth often
> > within just one generation (their parents are bilingual, but the
> > children are monolingual English speakers).
> >
> > James Crawford's policy pages have some of the latest Census data on
> > the numbers of homes where languages other than English are spoken.
> > About 76% of people who identify themselves as speaking languages
> > other than English also report that they speak English either well or
> > very well.  The remaining folks, about 10,000,000 in total report
> > speaking English not well or not at all.
> >
> > The issue is that we are also seeing new immigration all of the time
> > and I think it beomes easy to assume that having a persistent
> > population of limited English speaking members of our communities
> > implies that families aren't learning English when, in fact, it is
> > simply that more recent immigrants may be replacing those who have
> > learned or are learning English at a perfectly reasonable rate (and as
> > fast or faster than in the past).
> >
> > The linguistic demands have also changed over time, imho.  It was
> > possible for immigrants in the past to get by and succeed with
> > relatively easily acquired social language skills.  In general, it is
> > well understood that developing social language skills in English (as
> > L2) is far easier and takes much less time than developing academic,
> > technical or specialized language proficiencies in the language.
> > Arguably, linguistic demands to be successful in U.S. society have
> > increased and so one must develop more academic language
> > proficiencies, not merely social language proficiencies, to succeed,
> > than in the past.
> >
> > I do recall seeing statistics though that immigrants in the past
> > learned English no more quickly than immigrants today (would need to
> > track those down).  Just a few other thoughts on the matter.
> >
> > In Peace,
> > K.
> >
> > Trond Trosterud wrote:
> >
> >>
> >>
> >> 1.11.2004 kello 01:38, Stan-Sandy Anonby kirjoitti:
> >>
> >>> I'm wondering about your statement that immigrants in the past
> >>> shifted more quickly than immigrants today. I don't have any stats
> >>> about this, but would welcome any. I would've thought the opposite
> >>> would be true, that language shift progressed more slowly in the
> >>> past. I would've thought immigrants would've had fewer opportunities
> >>> to speak the dominant language, and languages like English weren't
> >>> as attractive then.
> >>
> >>
> >> My impression is from personal experience, seeing (well, hearing
> >> about) my grandparents' and grand-grandparents' sisters and brothers
> >> moving to USA, for never coming back, the only contact being the
> >> "America letters", that came from the ones that left, but not from
> >> their children. As a linguist I have read interviews with Turkish and
> >> Pakistan immigrants to Norway, who visit their homes, and keep long
> >> summer vacations there, not every summer, but perhaps every second
> >> and third summer. A similar difference can be seen in Finnish
> >> emigration across the Baltic Sea, to Sweden, in the 17th century (no
> >> holiday travels home :-) compared to the one in the 1960-ies and
> >> 1970-ies (regular trips). The combination of public holidays, cheap
> >> travel and now also satellite TV has made this possible.
> >> Unfortunately, I don't have statistics, but I am sure some
> >> sociologists and migration researchers do. I agree with you that lg
> >> shift has to do with whether there are opportunities to speak L2 (the
> >> dominant lg), but that opportunity was present in earlier centuries
> >> also (except where the immigrants constituted isolated communities
> >> (self-sustainable farms far away from others, as the 16th and 17th c.
> >> Finnish migration wave to Western Sweden / Eastern Norway, where the
> >> last Finnish speaker died as late as in 1980). In other emigrant
> >> waves I know of, e.g. the one to the US, most immigrants came to
> >> places where they were in interaction with other ethnic groups, and
> >> the motivation for learning the dominant L2 was as large as today.
> >>
> >> In the last sentence of your posting you have an important remark,
> >> "languages like English weren't as attractive then". If you imply
> >> that this should be a factor promoting faster lg shift today, I
> >> disagree. I think this recent status of English is irrelevant for
> >> bilingualism and language shift (except for the "broad" bilingualism,
> >> cf. below). When your grandparents arrived in the US, the global
> >> status of English was not as strong as today (with German dominating
> >> in European science, no wide-spread school-induced language
> >> knowledge, and not our 3-hours-a-day of English television. But
> >> language choice is dependent upon your local need. The language of
> >> the playground, the school, the workplace, these are the important
> >> factors, not global status.
> >>
> >>> Stan
> >>> (By the way, my grandparents were Norwegian)
> >>
> >>
> >> :-)
> >>
> >> Trond.
> >>
> >> p.s.
> >>
> >> To the other thread, on more or less real bilingualism, or
> >> MP-lingualism:
> >>
> >> I will hereby change my position somewhat: Yes, i admit that there is
> >> a way of establishing a "narrow" concept of bilingualism, in the
> >> following way: If you live, in addition to your L1-speaking
> >> community, in a community where you speak L2 and learn it well before
> >> the end of puberty, then you know the basic grammar in a way such
> >> that you are able to say that "this is how we (do not) say it". In
> >> this sense, I am a monolingual, in Norwegian  (and yes, I feel the
> >> difference, every day), and not a bilingual, whereas my children are
> >> bilingual. Then there is the broader, functional way of seeing it
> >> (you are bilingual in L1 and L2 if you may use L2), in which sense I
> >> am trilingual (in English at work and Finnish at home).
> >>
> >> General linguists will typically be interested in the narrow type (I
> >> am useless as an informant in languages other than Norwegian),
> >> whereas sociolinguists will be interested  (also) in the second type
> >> (for studies of lg maintenance, lg shift and lg death, for example,
> >> it will be of interest to know whether I am capable of bringing up my
> >> children in Finnish or not)
> >>
> >>
> >>
> >

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list