Towards an interactional model for language maintenance in immigrant contexts

Joseph Gafaranga

The University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom


Language shift has often been said to take place ‘out of sight and out of mind’. On the other hand, language shift is talked into being, i.e. takes place through actual language choices that community members make in everyday interaction. That is to say, members of a community faced with language shift may be aware of the general sociolinguistic situation in their community, but they are often unaware of the actual processes through which on-going language shift is taking place. This situation raises the issue of how communities faced with the threat of language shift can be helped to resist it. In this context, current theoretical models for resisting language shift such Fishman’s (1991, 2001) Reversing Language Shift might not be particularly useful as they do not address the details of actual interaction. In this paper, an alternative approach to the issue is proposed. This is the Applied Linguistics perspective of Description-Informed Action (Richards, 2005). This perspective is usually recommended in order to assist professionals who have to deal with communication problems in work places. In this paper, I will argue that the same perspective can be adopted in order to assist communities which are faced with the problem of language shift. Thus a three-step methodology is proposed: (1) identify and describe in detail language choice patterns observable in the community, (2) examine those patterns in order to separate those which mediate language shift and those which enhance language maintenance, and (3) sensitise community members to their language choice patterns and their consequences for language maintenance/shift. The data for this paper comes from a recent ESRC-funded project on language shift and maintenance in the Rwandan community in Belgium (RES-000-22-1165).

Fishman, J. (1991) Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations for Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Fishman, J (2001) Can Threatened languages Be Saved? Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Maatters.

Richards, K. (2005) Introduction in K. Richards and P. Seedhouse (eds.) Applying Conversation Analysis. New York: Palgrave, 1-15.

Session: Paper session
Shift 3
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 07