language shift

Don Osborn dzo at
Mon Aug 13 04:39:47 UTC 2007

I had a student in a language and development communication class who asked
why not teach everyone to speak English. It was the kind of rhetorical
question that is great for discussion and one that I wish people in
international development would ask - not because I think it is appropriate
in a context of practice, but because their assumptions often seem to be
implicitly along these lines and such an explicit question would hopefully
engender some thought and discussion.

Language shift may tend to go in the direction of majority tongues (though I
have a question on that, below), but if one went with the flow or even, per
the student's suggestion, tried to plan for a faster flow, there would be:

1) A lot of knowledge and culture lost with the languages thus lost and
2) A lot of people who are left on the sidelines of information and

THis is of course not new, but I find the go with the flow suggestion (even
if not seriously proposed) to be a bit dangerous in reinforcing a tendency
to discount the languages (and hence knowledge, culture, and participation)
of the less powerful/well-off.

My perspective is based mainly on study of and experience in West Africa,
but a colleague just shared some comments about a program for "information
literacy" in Afghanistan that is apparently focused on English, without
attention to first languages. I have yet to read the project report, but his
comment was that many such programs seem to have thie "English-centric"
approach. My guess is that this is a function of the origin of the funding
and the project designers (in core-Anglophone countries), the unfamiliarity
of the experts with language issues (a disciplinary divide), and an
assumption that English as the emerging global language is the only one that
matters anyway.

In the latter case, going with the perceived flow assures the minimization
of the minority lnguages (or even the majority languages in the locality). 

THis is particularly sad in the case of technology-related projects since in
several ways information technology offers the possibility to overcome some
of the "language barriers" and biases that disfavor the minority languages.

It is also entirely unecessary in the sense that one need not discount use
of local languages in information literacy in order to enhance use of
international English. Indeed it is argued that L1 use of IT facilitates L2

The question I have re the flow of language shift is whether there is a
point where the shift reverses. Examples like Welsh and Catalan come to
mind. An analogy might be the cycles of demographic shift or environmental
use in Western development transition. Is there a point (related to
education and income??) where a language community can reverse the shift to
the extent of maintaining a dynamic bilingualism? 

Don Osborn

> -----Original Message-----
> From: owner-lgpolicy-list at [mailto:owner-lgpolicy-
> list at] On Behalf Of Stan and Sandy Anonby
> Sent: Sunday, August 12, 2007 4:52 PM
> To: lgpolicy-list at
> Subject: Re: language shift
> Hi there Christina!
> Thanks for the interesting perspectives. I guess it would be less
> tiring if
> we just went with the flow...
> Stan
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Christina Paulston" <paulston+ at>
> To: <lgpolicy-list at>
> Sent: Thursday, August 02, 2007 8:33 AM
> Subject: Re: language shift
> > Stab,
> > as usual you ask difficult questions!  But I think you probably come
> up
> > with the best answer yourself.  Think of Britain.  Since the invasion
> of
> > the Germanic hordes (I am thinking of the Angles and the Saxon), part
> of -
> > and that is an important proviso- the population has been steadily
> > involved in some kind of shift, from the Gaelic lges of Wales,
> Scotland,
> > Ireland, Manx and Cornwall to English, some of the upper classes to
> French
> > (1066 and all that; the statutes of Kilkenny arounf mid 13oo's among
> other
> > things exhorting the Irish to speak English was written in French)
> from
> > dialects to standard English, today from immigrant languages to
> English,
> > and in revitalization of back to lges shifted from like Welsh, etc.
> It is
> > a steady  process of shift of various combinations of the population.
> Plus
> > all the EFL populations around the world. Etc.  You can look at
> Sweden
> > which most people think of as a homogenous population with the Saami
> > shifting since the Middle Ages and still shifting; plus all the
> immigrants
> > as well as the Finns  (in Sweden) shifting in spite of heroic efforts
> at
> > mother-tongue maintenance, as well as the upper classes being
> virtually
> > bilingual (tricky concept that) in English through educational
> efforts.
> > Etc.  Take Alsace etc.  I get tired just thinking of all that
> shifting,
> > Christina
> > On Aug 1, 2007, at 3:48 PM, Stan-sandy Anonby wrote:
> >
> >> Hi All,
> >>
> >> I just thought of something, and wonder if anyone has any comments:
> >>
> >> I'm with Christina Bratt-Paulston that societal bilingulism is
> unusual,
> >> and that the tendency is to shift to monolingualism in the dominant
> >> language.
> >>
> >> I'm also with Joshua Fishman, who says the bulk of humanity has
> always
> >> been bilingual.
> >>
> >> So, how do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements?
> >>
> >> Maybe it is the norm for human societies to be in language shift.
> >>
> >> Stan Anonby
> >>
> >

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list