[lg policy] Book Review; Minority Language Media: Concepts, Critiques and Case Studies

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 4 15:56:28 UTC 2010

Book Review; Minority Language Media: Concepts, Critiques and Case Studies
Jaffer Sheyholislami, Carleton University, Dec 2009

Minority languages have been oppressed, denied, and neglected for a
long time, and their decline is accelerating. Whereas estimates show
that half of the world’s languages disappeared from 1450 to 1950, half
of the remaining 6000 to 7000 languages could disappear in this
century alone. Some observers include globalization and new media
technologies among the factors contributing to this extinction. Some
others, however, see new media, such as satellite television and the
Internet, as the salvation of minority languages.

This book is a solid and major contribution to our understanding of
the complex relationship between media, language maintenance, and
language development. Although the book mainly focuses on Western
Europe, its eclectic range of topics could resonate with minority
language situations around the world. The book serves the editors’
ambitious project: to establish minority language media as a discrete
field of study connected to, but independent of, media studies, and
applied linguistics or sociolinguistics.

Initially developed out of the First Mercator International Symposium
on Minority Languages and Research, a 2003 symposium sponsored by the
European Commission, the book consists of fourteen chapters. In
addition to the excellent introductory and concluding chapters by
editors Mike Cormack and Niamh Hourigan, there are twelve chapters
organized into two sections. The first section sets the context,
describing key terms (e.g., minority language), presenting a rich
literature review of the field, and mapping the theoretical and
methodological issues. This section also furnishes an insightful
analysis of networks of campaigns for minority television, the
“knowledge economy” of digital media and its implications for minority
language media, and recording the history of minority language
broadcasting. The second section contains incisive case studies
featuring more specific issues: the empowering affordances of the
Internet for minority cultures, the crucial role of local television
in the Basque Country and Catalonia in language normalization (“the
recovery of public use of [the minority] language in all fields”) (p.
171), the representational affordances of local television in Wales,
emphasizing the linguistic aspects of minority media production (e.g.
translation, dubbing and subtitling), and finally, the struggle for
putting sign language on British television.

A common thread that connects these chapters is the belief that it is
important to maintain and develop minority languages and the stance
that the media have a crucial role to play in maintaining and
developing minority languages. Minority language media are deemed
important for: a) their symbolic role in acknowledging that minority
cultures can deal with the contemporary world; b) their ability to
legitimate the existence of the language that they use; c) their
potential to provide an “economic boost” for those who are interested
in working in the minority language; d) their instrumentality in
engendering a public sphere within a language community; e) their
resourcefulness in enabling minorities to represent their community,
not only within itself but also to outsiders instead of being
re-presented by “others”; f) their capability to be conveyers of
cultures and producers of cultural products; and g) their capability
to magnify discursive practices of identity construction.

The book also reveals an array of challenges faced by minority
language media and their advocates. For example, Daniel Cunliffe
notes, not all minorities have access to or are able to own and use
new media, and if they do, the increase in minority language media is
outpaced by an even faster increase of media in the dominant language,
as suggested by Cormack. Cormack also reminds us that the media,
because of their need to attract advertising revenue, often favour
large audiences and thus the majority language markets. It is also
problematic, according to him, if minority media are not able to
attract audiences and make connections with the speakers of the

Another strength of the book is its ability to strike a balance
between the position that perceives digital media as instruments of
English hegemony, and the position that sees new media as the saviours
of minority languages. For example, whereas Daniel Cunliffe in his
chapter “Minority Languages and the Internet: New Threats, New
Opportunities,” looks at the affordances of the Internet and how some
online tools can enable minority language speakers to change their
role from consumers of majority media to producers of minority media
content, in her chapter, “Media Policy and Language Policy in
Catalonia,” Maria Corominas Piulats raises the concern with respect to
Catalonians’ frequent use of online content in English instead of
their first language. As another example, Cunliffe, on the one hand,
expresses optimism that “a real opportunity exists for those languages
that have the resources and the determination to make the transition
to the Internet” (p. 147); on the other, he suggests that although
Internet research can be very challenging, much more research is
needed to identify actual utilization of online resources that could
best serve minorities.

One of the limits, but not necessarily a weakness, of this book is its
narrow focus on “indigenous” minority languages in Western Europe, a
focus that excludes “immigrant languages” not to mention minority
languages around the world (for an insightful discussion that
addresses some aspects of this research gap see pp. 249-253). Donald
Browne’s contribution “Speaking Up: A Brief History of Minority
Languages and the Electronic Media Worldwide” stands out in that it
widens the scope and provides “the first history of minority language
broadcasting, drawing on a wide range of examples from around the
world” (p. 13). This, however, has not been accomplished without
difficulty. For example, regarding the Kurdish language, the author
writes, “Iraq’s national radio service initiated Kurdish language
programming in 1939. In the ensuing years, other states with Kurdish
minorities— Iran, Turkey and Syria—followed suit, but such services
often were discontinued and recommenced” (p. 109, emphasis added). It
is difficult to reconcile the emphasized portion of this assertion
when we know that until 1991 Turkey imposed a strict ban on Kurdish.

What might also be seen as a shortcoming is the virtual absence of
audience research. Little is revealed as to how, when, to what extent,
in what circumstances, and with what sorts of impact speakers of
minority languages use their media. Having said that, it should also
be clear that the editor, Mike Cormack, does acknowledge the
importance of this, since, as part of his ecological research
approach, he suggests several relevant questions that researchers
should seek answers to through observing actual media use by audiences
and interviewing them.

Notwithstanding these minor shortcomings and a few typos (e.g., pp.
62, 63, 69), this book is a major contribution to the study of
minority language media. Cormack’s contributions “Introduction:
Studying Minority Language Media” and “The Media and Language
Maintenance,” as well as Hourigan’s “Minority Language Media Studies:
Key Themes for Future Scholarship” serve as solid and exceptional
starting points for anyone interested in investigating minority
language media. Cormack’s introduction is devoted to a concise survey
of previous studies of minority language media. His chapter builds on
Einar Haugen’s work to develop an “ecological approach” to
investigating this question: “In what ways can different media
interact with other aspects of languages use to contribute, directly
or indirectly, to language maintenance in specific communities” (p.
62)? Hourigan expands this question by indentifying more areas for
future scholarship in connection to minority language media. They
further illustrate that “minority language media studies can now be
seen as an established field of study, one with its own research
agenda, and one that is energized by the awareness of the fragility of
the situations of many minority languages” (p. 15). Many of those
fragile languages belong to the 50% of languages in the world today
that will likely die by the end of this century.

Minority Language Media: Concepts, Critiques and Case Studies.
Edited by Mike Cormack and Niamh Hourigan. Clevedon:
Multilingual Matters LTD. 2007. 274 pp. ISBN: 9781853599637.

Book Review; Minority Language Media: Concepts, Critiques and Case Studies.
Jaffer Sheyholislami, Carleton University, Dec 2009
Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 34 (2009) 757-767


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