Endangered language maintenance and social networks

Julia Margaret Sallabank

Endangered Languages Academic Programme, School of Oriental and African Studies, London (from Oct 2007), United Kingdom


The connection between macro social pressures and micro linguistic practice is at its most acute in the area of language shift.

Intergenerational transmission is seen by sociolinguists such as Fishman (1991) and Romaine (2002) as key to maintaining endangered languages, but relatively few studies investigate the processes of how it ceases (exceptions include Lyon, 1991; Bankston and Henry, 1998; Ferrer, 2004). Yet why some people maintain their ancestral language and transmit it to their children, while others abandon it, is a major issue in language planning. In this paper I examine individuals’ responses to societal pressures to shift to the dominant language and obstacles to intergenerational transmission, both ideological and physical (e.g. evacuation of children), as well as factors which might support language maintenance. Most native speakers, and many non-natives and non-speakers, express strong affective attachment to the indigenous language, but few have passed it to their children.

The study focuses on Guernesiais, the endangered indigenous language of Guernsey, Channel Islands. Baseline data were collected using a questionnaire and semi-structured interviews; ethnographic methods then shed light on ideologies, attitudes, and the processes of language shift.

The maintenance of social networks (Milroy, 1987) emerges as a major factor in language maintenance. Availability of interlocutors correlates strongly with fluency, for both native speakers and learners, but is not always under their control. Parents found themselves under strong pressure to abandon the indigenous language. The increasing age and linguistic isolation of many native speakers contributes to both individual and societal language loss. A number of former locations for speaking and hearing Guernesiais are disappearing due to redevelopment and lifestyle changes. To date language planning in Guernsey has not fully succeeded in replacing traditional networks with measures designed to provide opportunities to speak. Options for supporting language maintenance are examined.


Bankston, Carl L. III, and Henry, Jacques. 1998. The silence of the gators: Cajun ethnicity and intergenerational transmission of Louisiana French. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 19:1-23.

Ferrer, Rachel Casesnoves. 2004. Transmission, education and integration in projections of language shift in Valencia. Language Policy 3:107-31.

Fishman, Joshua A. ed. 1991. Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Lyon, J. 1991. Patterns of parental language use in Wales. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 12:165-81.

Milroy, Lesley. 1987. Language and Social Networks. Oxford: Blackwell.

Romaine, Suzanne. 2002. Can stable diglossia help to preserve endangered languages? International Journal of the Sociology of Language 157.

Session: Paper session
Shift 2 (Maintenance)
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 05