Imagine that you get off the plane, finally at your destination. The flight was long, especially since you were flying from the United States, but you made it. The only language you have ever spoken fluently in your life is English, simply because that is the language spoken by your family, your friends, and your co-workers. Most of your interactions with people have only been in English—well, except for those four years of taking French in high school and college. But French will be of no use now, as you are standing in the airport, trying to make sense of your surroundings, especially with your ears. All you hear, though, are conversations and loudspeaker announcements producing strings of words like 搭乗ゲート tōjō gēto, 手荷物受取所 tenimostu uketori-sho, and 私にあなたの搭乗券を提示してください watashi ni anata no tōjō-ken o teiji shie kudasai. This place will be your new home for the next several months—and while you are excited to be there, there is a part of you that longs to hear someone speak English the way you have always heard it in your hometown, in that accent that reminds you of everything familiar and safe. Oh boy, here we go, you think to yourself. All of those past few weeks taking a crash course in Japanese are actually going to be put to the test.
Imagine that you get off the bus, finally at your destination. The ride was long, mostly because of the many stops from where you started in Manila to your destination in La Union, but you made it. The only language you have ever spoken fluently in your life is wikang Tagalog, simply because that is the language spoken by your immediate family, your friends, and your co-workers. Even though much of your family is from Luzon, you never had to learn how to speak pagsasao nga Iloko, mainly because you grew up in Manila, and your everyday interactions with people were in Tagalog. But now you have arrived in La Union for a family gathering. You know that almost everyone there speaks Tagalog as a second language, but for that family gathering, it is Ilokano that is the default mode of communication. You can pick out strings of words and phrases—Nilutum daytoy? and Kunakno sumampet isu na and Mabalinnak nga tulungan?—some of them you remember, but most are brand-new. Paano ba kaya ito, you think to yourself. You have no choice but to speak to your family in Tagalog, and they reply in Tagalog, of course—but you cannot help but feel like an island in a sea of Ilokano words and jokes and stories and song.
Imagine that you get off the ship, finally at your destination. The voyage felt long because you had not yet gotten your sea legs. Where you grew up in the mountainous region of Kitti in Pohnpei, there was never any need to travel regularly on passenger ships, not like your other fellow Micronesians. Your friends finally convinced you to come along with them to their home island of Lekinioch in the Mortlock Islands. You are excited to see their coral atoll home, which is very different from your volcanic island home. The only language you have ever spoken fluently in your life is lokaiahn Pohnpei, simply because that is the language spoken by your family, your friends, and your co-workers. There are of course many people who speak kapsen Mwoshulók on the island of Pohnpei, but they lived mostly in another municipality. A few of your Mortlockese friends invited you to come along with them for a traditional feast on their island of Lekinioch. You speak Pohnpeian with them on the ship, because they are bilingual in Mortlockese and Pohnpeian. Now that you are on the dock, surrounded by Lekinioch people who are overjoyed to see their family and clansmen, all you hear are things like, Mwa meet mwa, ia usumw? and Waato mwo miin na pwe ipé aúfarei and Ia itan shienomw ie mwa?…eman re Fóónpei?, none of which registers in your ears (except, perhaps, the last word). Oh tier, dahme i pahn nda, you think to yourself. Your friends who were speaking fluent Pohnpeian with you just a few minutes ago seem to have transformed into different people. How strange it is to suddenly feel like the only Pohnpeian amidst these Mortlockese.
These three vignettes are based on real-world experiences in which someone who has primarily spoken just one language in his or her life—a language spoken by essentially everyone this person has ever known—suddenly feels the shock of being in a place where no one is speaking that language. I am sure that the reader can come up with many other combinations and contexts. It is more than just a thought exercise, however; it is a tool that I have used in some of the linguistics classes I have taught during units about the intersecting topics of language shift, loss, endangerment, maintenance, and reclamation. How can anyone imagine what it would be like to be one of the very last speakers of one’s family/ancestral/heritage language? How can a monolingual speaker of a major world language—English, Japanese, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, and so forth—imagine waking up with the realization that there is no one else to speak to fluently in that language? How can such a person relate to the everyday struggles of speakers of minority and/or endangered languages such as Māori (Aotearoa/New Zealand), Amami (Japan), Miqie (China), Temacine Tamazight (Algeria), Cucupá (Mexico), or hundreds of other languages? One way is to imagine a scenario in which you are the only one who speaks your language amidst other people speaking a totally different language. For some people, such a scenario happens every so often during travel; for other people, that scenario happens every single day when going to school or into town. But regardless of whatever language you speak—and however “safe” or “endangered” it may be in the eyes of linguists—we might all agree on this: it is frightening to imagine a context in which the language you consider your mother tongue is not spoken by others around you. You realize that language is an important component of your identity, and you long to be surrounded by others who speak like you.
In this article, I summarize some of the conversations that have been going on for several decades now in linguistics regarding language shift. My main goal, however, is directed at the reader: in order to understand why language shift happens and how to address it—that is, how to fix the “problem” of language shift if communities indeed consider it to be a problem—we need to directly engage with youth. We need to ask why some young people choose to not learn their ancestral/heritage languages, why others choose to fight for bilingualism (i.e., learning the majority language and keeping the minority language), and why the ancestral/heritage language may or may not be a relevant way to express identity in this globalizing world. More importantly, we need to ask such questions without judgment. If there are readers who are experiencing language shift in their lives, I encourage them to share their stories with others; if there are readers who feel that they have never experienced language shift, I encourage them to listen carefully to the stories of their friends and classmates and peers who have experienced such shift. These global and local narratives of language loss and gain are all around us, and we need to unravel them by engaging in active dialogue with one another, within and across generations.
Language shift and its causes
Languages are naturally transmitted from the parental generation to the child generation in the domain of the home. When those children grow up and become parents, they pass on the language to the next generation, and so forth. This process is often called the “intergenerational transmission” of language. “Intergenerational language shift” is a process in which Language X as spoken by the parental generation is not acquired by the child generation. Instead, they acquire Language Y. In many cases, Language X is a minority language and Language Y is a majority one. For example, immigrant communities that form diasporas in new places often raise children who become fluent in the majority language of the new home rather than in the minority language as is spoken by the adults of the immigrant generation; here, the terms “minority” and “majority” are used in the sense of population (i.e., absolute number of speakers of the language in an area), not necessarily with any sociocultural connotations of “status.”
Nevertheless, these terms are relative: consider an example in which language X is, say, Tagalog, but in the context of the US, where language Y is English. Tagalog is by no means a minority language in the Philippines or even in the world, with at least 24 million global speakers for whom it is a first, second, and even third language. In the context of the US, however, Tagalog is very much a minority language in contrast with all the other languages spoken in that country. Children who are born in the US to Filipino immigrants are most likely going to be raised with a passive understanding of Tagalog and any other Filipino language that they may have been exposed to as children. This scenario is known as “passive” or “receptive bilingualism” (e.g., the ability to fluently understand the language, but without the ability to fluently speak it). Those children can and do speak English fluently. When those children become parents and marry other English-speaking people—be it other Filipinos in their generational cohort who only speak English fluently, or other non-Filipinos—then most likely they will raise their children speaking English. Another 20 to 30 years down the road, and that generation, too, grows up, gets married, has children, and probably raises them speaking English, and so forth. One can imagine the result: the ancestral/heritage language as spoken by the initial immigrant generation is no longer spoken by their descendants in their new home. One aspect of this scenario that must be considered is the fact that the language is still spoken elsewhere, most especially in the original homeland. Perhaps two or three generations down the road, in most diasporic Filipino communities in the US, Tagalog may not be spoken fluently anymore, but in the Philippines, it most certainly will continue to be spoken. Such is the effect of language shift.
Now consider a scenario in which the minority language is only spoken in a certain geographical region, and language shift occurs. The same scenario can—and does—happen: two or three generations later, in those communities where the ancestral/heritage language used to thrive, no one will learn the language as a first language, and the prospects of it being learned as a second or third language are relatively slim. The urgency of the situation, then, is on a much different scale. The language is on a path to endangerment, and then possible “dormancy.” I prefer to use “dormancy” here to parallel the discourses of “sleeping languages” as opposed to “extinction,” since ongoing efforts to revive “dead” or “extinct” languages have indeed created new generations of first-language speakers—infants who are learning the ancestral/heritage language in the home, for the first time in many generations. Examples include the well-known revitalization (or “reawakening”) of Hebrew as a language spoken in the home and in other domains; other examples that are not-as-well-known but significant nevertheless include Myaamia (Miami), a Native American language spoken in the US. As many in the language revitalization literature argue, “extinction” connotes permanence, but “sleeping” connotes hope.
The reasons for language shift are complex and rely on many sociocultural factors, such as parents choosing to speak to their children only in the majority language so as to give their children the best opportunities for the future. Other more drastic causes include human action that forces people to stop speaking their ancestral/heritage language: genocide, slavery, overt linguistic racism realized as legislation banning non-majority languages, the majority groups taking away resources and domains that would have created natural contexts for the ancestral/heritage language to be used, and so forth. Natural disasters can also have an effect, such as typhoons/hurricanes/cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes, disease, and famine. These disasters not only drastically reduce the total populations of the speakers of the language—especially if the language is only spoken in a restricted geographic region—but also force communities to move to other places, thus creating another “majority vs. minority” language context that can possibly lead to language shift.
In most cases, though, language shift is a subtle phenomenon that stretches across generations and individual lives, rather than a direct effect of a singular event. Consider a young child who was raised speaking both the ancestral/heritage language at home and the majority language in school. When that child becomes a teenager, he or she is faced with all sorts of questions about identity (i.e., being “cool” or fitting in). Imagine that teenager realizing that it is “not cool” to speak the minority language at school because none of his or her friends speak it, or because he or she experiences bullying as a result of it. That teenager might get annoyed with his or her parents, and whenever the adults address the teenager in the family language, the teenager always replies in the majority language. When that teenager eventually becomes a young adult, he or she might start a career. Most jobs would require that young adult to be fluent in the majority language, as well as fluent in another major world language—there is no context for the ancestral/heritage language to be used in the workplace. Perhaps the young adult meets someone and falls in love, and both of them speak the majority language. They fall in love in the language, writing love letters and poetry and daily texts—all of those modes of communication are in the majority language. Maybe one day they get married and eventually have children, who then grow up and go to school… It’s not difficult to imagine this cycle of language shift happening over and over again. And perhaps for many readers, there is no need to imagine the scenarios, because they are already experiencing such scenarios in real life.
Effects of language shift
In the context of language shift happening in an in situ community—a scenario in which the language is spoken nowhere else in the world, either historically or in any other contemporary context (e.g., taught in academic settings)—the repercussions of language shift and the decreasing numbers of infant first-language-learners are resounding. From the linguistic perspective, such scenarios have negative effects on global linguistic diversity. Some researchers focus on the humanistic aspects of this “loss”: each language is a unique window to a particular way of looking at the world, and with the loss of any given language, it is a loss of such a window—a loss of generations of accumulated human experience and knowledge codified through language, over hundreds or even thousands of years. In this perspective, it has become important to get a handle on just how many endangered and threatened languages there are out there in a world of over 7,000 languages. The reader might be interested in checking out resources like the Endangered Languages project [http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/] and the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger [http://www.unesco.org/culture/languages-atlas/].
Other researchers take a human rights perspective, evoking measures such as the 1996 Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights (also known as the “Barcelona Declaration”), which in turn is grounded in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human rights: a political framework for linguistic diversity is based upon “respect,” “harmonious coexistence,” and “mutual benefit.” Losing languages due to shift—or rather, due to the non-linguistic circumstances that cause shift, such as linguistic prejudice or socio-economic marginalization of minority language groups—is a phenomenon that flies in the face of overt calls for linguistic and cultural pluralism on the planet. Yet another perspective is a practical one: languages are the very thing that linguists study, and so such scientists should be invested when the thing they study is disappearing before their eyes.
These three perspectives can strike some as self-serving and elitist. Not everyone has the luxury of pondering such matters of diversity or typology or human rights, not when food must be put on the table and children must be cared for. Indeed, in the eyes of the people who are experiencing language shift first-hand—not sitting around talking about language shift as an academic topic—their concerns are grounded in matters of family, ancestry, land, inheritance, spirit, identity, and love. For many people, language always has been and continues to be a direct link to the past and to the future. Language grounds them in who they are now. The ability to express emotions, ideas, dreams, fears, prayers, crushes, jokes, and so forth in the language that one knows best is something that perhaps monolingual speakers might take for granted, but bi/multilingual speakers who speak a minority language can understand well. For me, for example, there is nothing in English that comes anywhere near the use of the respect marker po in Tagalog; words like sir and ma’am simply will not do. My ability to outwardly show respect to my elders through honorific particles in my heritage language is something I hope I never take for granted. Imagine, then, the scenario in which someone who has treasured a language since his or her childhood can no longer use that language to express respect simply because there is no one else with whom he or she can use the language. That person may be surrounded by majority language speakers at school or work, or that person may have children who do not know how to speak the language, or that person may no longer have any living relatives who used to speak the language. For many people around the world for whom language shift is personal, this is a matter of the heart, not of the mind. And for readers who may fall into the “monolingual speaker” category, recall the three vignettes I presented earlier in this article. Better yet, such readers might want to talk with others around them who have experienced language shift on a personal level.
There is a very important point I wish to underscore here: these emotional and personal effects of language shift are real, regardless of where it happens, for what reasons, or what combinations of “Language X/Language Y” may be involved. By “real,” I mean that the experiences of someone who is a heritage speaker of, say, Tagalog, and who only speaks English fluently, and the experiences of someone who is a heritage speaker of, say, Breton, and who only speaks French fluently share the common ground of humanity. It does not matter that Tagalog is a non-endangered language that is indigenous to the Philippines whereas Breton is arguably an endangered language that is indigenous to France. If a young adult experiences feeling of regret that he or she cannot speak the heritage language, or a grandparent is saddened by the realization that the ancestral language is not being learned by the newest grandchildren, then those are real feelings experienced by real people. In no way should we treat the emotions of the speakers of the endangered languages like Breton as “more legitimate” than those of the speakers of the non-endangered languages like Tagalog.
In the language endangerment literature, one often encounters this sentiment: the language shift that happens in diasporic immigrant communities is in some way “more tolerable” than the language shift that happens in in situ minority/indigenous communities, because the language of the former group is still spoken by many more people elsewhere in the world, most especially in the original homeland. If someone has “lost” the ancestral/heritage language of the diaspora, he or she can return to the homeland to reclaim it. For someone who speaks a geographically-restricted language for which intergenerational language shift is ongoing, there is nowhere else to go to potentially reclaim that language. But consider what such a perspective could imply: “It’s OK to see a crying teenager go through an identity crisis, if that teenager is an immigrant child who wishes that he or she knew more about his or her ancestry through language. That language is still ‘safe’. But if we were to come across a crying teenager who is going through an identity crisis, and that teenager comes from a minority group whose language is clearly endangered, then by all means, let’s care more about that teenager.” I doubt anyone would say something like that outright, but those are sentiments one can glean from the ongoing discourses about language endangerment.
I have come across different young people who have very different perspectives on this matter. I have met Chamorro youth who do not see the ability to speak Chamorro as a directly relevant component in their identity, regardless of the fact that Chamorro is considered endangered in terms of absolute numbers of global speakers (~95,000 speakers worldwide). On the other hand, I have met Latino/Latina youth who are dedicated to maintaining the use of Spanish within their families, even though language shift is happening in their local communities—and regardless of the fact that Spanish is by no means endangered worldwide. I have met Hawaiian youth who acknowledge that part of their motivation for learning the Hawaiian language is because of the endangered status of the language (~2,000 fluent speakers worldwide, and several thousand more learners) and their responsibility to their community-at-large. I have also met Filipino/Filipina youth who do not see the Tagalog language as a relevant component of linguistic identity while living in the US, and so make no attempt to (re-)learn it.
The point, then, is this: no assumptions should ever be made about the effects of language shift on a person. The “status of endangerment” of that person’s ancestral/heritage language should not affect the amount of compassion, empathy, and respect we bring to the table when we listen to that person’s stories. We should not assume that the Indigenous person “cares more” about language loss than the immigrant/diasporic person. We should not assume that elders “care more” about the effects of language loss on the family than the youth. We should not assume that all people who experience language loss even see it as “loss.” Indeed, the loss of the ability to speak a language may have been the consequence of the gain of other skills, abilities, and bodies of knowledge (including other languages) that have contributed to a better way of life—whereby “better” is defined by members of the community or the family themselves. And especially from the sociolinguistic and/or linguistic anthropological perspective, language loss may have resulted in linguistic gain in the form of new speech practices, particularly in the youth generation. The development of innovative vocabulary, mixing of words and phrases between minority and majority languages, or a new style of slang may be disregarded (or rather misunderstood) by the older generations who wish to hold on to ideologies of “language purity.” But as we all know, each generation of speakers of a language is constantly engaged in negotiations of authenticity and legitimacy: what may not be accepted now may be the norm three generations from now. No assumptions should ever be made about how any one person experiences language shift in his or her life, regardless of “how endangered” or “how safe” the language might be in the eyes of linguists.
At this point, the reader might wonder, “So what do we do now?” How can someone make a positive contribution to the matter of language shift—if language shift if is indeed perceived to be a “problem” in the community? After all, language shift, loss, endangerment, reclamation, and maintenance are matters that affect hundreds upon hundreds of languages on a daily basis. This is not counting the shift that happens for diasporic languages that are considered “safe” in the homeland. The causes and effects of language shift are wide-reaching phenomena that have been occurring throughout human history. But especially now, in the context of language endangerment, language shift is a topic that has been at the forefront of various conversations—from the government podium to the dinner table—in recent decades. What indeed can one person do?
My contribution to the “answer” involves listening: by carefully and respectfully listening to the stories of people who experience language shift on a personal level—or even eliciting such stories from them by asking directed questions—we can gain a better understanding of why language shift is happening. In order to solve the “problem,” we need nuanced understandings of what the “problem” even is in the first place. I place particular emphasis on the youth. Many approaches to the language shift problem involve generational needs: elders are recruited as teachers in formal education settings, infants are chosen by their parents to be raised in immersion schools, college-age students choose to enroll in master-apprentice programs, and so forth. My focus would be on the youth, especially adolescents in middle school and high school, young adults entering college and higher education, and new parents. Consider again the scenario in which a young child who used to be fluently bilingual later made a choice to only speak the majority language as a teenager. I would want to ask those youth why they made that choice. I would want to know what possible scenarios could have positively reinforced bilingualism for them as teenagers. If bullying in particular played a role, we might ask how language-based bullying should be addressed in current anti-bullying campaigns.
Consider again the scenario in which a college-aged student moves further away from the ancestral/heritage language because of academic and professional interests. Now consider the scenario in which that student—because of certain classes he or she takes in college, or because of hanging out with a much more diverse peer group, or because he or she was inspired by that one professor—suddenly longs to reclaim his or her family language because of a self-realization that being different is “cool.” That student also realizes that maintaining the ancestral/heritage language can actually be an advantage in a competitive academic or work environment. I would want to ask what renewed value that person sees in the language, and how he or she plans to engage in the journey of reclamation.
Consider the scenario of a young couple that just recently married and is planning to have a baby. I would want to ask what they feel about their “linguistic/ethnic/cultural responsibility” to both their elders and to their future children. Do they feel “the weight of the world” on their shoulders in terms of passing on the family language? Do they feel that it is fair that such a burden/responsibility is given to them? Would they want to pass on that burden/responsibility to their future children? There is no right or wrong answer for any of these questions. It is especially important to ask these questions from the perspective of the ethnographer: regardless of what we feel the person we are interviewing “should do” with the ancestral/heritage language, we should take an objective and respectful approach to asking such questions.
The youth have much to say about so many different matters related to language. And when we realize that the youth are at a crucial junction in the intergenerational transmission of language—teenagers who are becoming adults, who are becoming parents—it is imperative that we understand what they are going through, in their eyes, in their words. For some people—most especially language activists—there might be an advocacy component to such inquiry: talking with the youth is a way to convince them to hold on to their ancestral/heritage languages, to not give up on bi/multilingualism, and to choose to raise their future children as bi/multilinguals. Other people may not be comfortable with taking such stance of advocacy: “Who am I to say what a young person chooses to do with his or her linguistic heritage? I may be that youth’s parent or elder or classmate or best friend or professor or even a complete stranger, but regardless of my personal connection to that youth, I am in no position to force—or coerce—or otherwise attempt to persuade that youth to speak the language if he or she does not want to, for reasons that are perfectly legitimate.” Indeed, in spite of all of the vigorous advocacy about “saving” the world’s languages from language shift, we sometimes forget that language shift happens at the hands of people—people who have the autonomy to do what they want with their languages. Who are we to say otherwise?
To that end, I reiterate my charge for the reader: listen carefully to what young people around you are saying about language shift. Listen to language shift experiences of the youth who are indigenous to a place and have nowhere else to go to reclaim the language if it is lost; listen, too, to the language shift experiences of the immigrant and/or diasporic youth, regardless if they were moved by “choice” (e.g., their parents’ decisions) or by circumstances beyond their control (e.g., climate change, civil war, etc.). We may indeed gain new insights when we compare and contrast these types of in situ and ex situ language shift scenarios. And if you yourself have experienced language shift in your own life, consider sharing your stories with others around you. There are many who want to listen. Use various kinds of media to share your experiences; express yourself through visual art, dance, poetry, and music. For readers who may choose a path in linguistics, you might be interested in looking into fields of (applied) sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, whereby ethnography or discourse analysis provides the crucial tools for getting at the “insider’s” point of view. Just a brief look at the literature shows that there are scholars who write about youth perspectives surrounding the topic of language shift. These scholars include not only academics who may be considered to be “outsiders” to the communities they study, but also native-speaker-researchers who are “insiders” to the communities.
To the readers of Unravel especially—a publication that is interested in encouraging younger scholars to include linguistics in their big multidisciplinary ideas—I encourage you all to use this magazine and other media as sounding boards to share your stories with each other. In this way, we can collaboratively engage in the process of “unraveling” all of the discourses about language shift—so as to find answers to questions about why shift happens and what to do about it. The most important request I can make, however, is this: for all instances of the phrase “language shift” in this article, add to it “language reclamation.” In my experience, in having just a few conversations with people from my own generational cohort from different linguistic backgrounds, it becomes very clear that for any given story about “loss,” there is another story about “reclamation” or “gain” or “maintenance.” There are stories about hope. Those are the very stories that need to be part of our network of discourse. Sharing such stories from the youth who are doing what they can to hold on to something so important to them is one way we can support each other in this never-ending journey of finding out who we are in relation to the languages we speak—who we are in relation to each other.
‘One who does not know how to look back at where one came from,
will not be able to reach the destination.’
– Philippine national proverb
 I have chosen to leave the Japanese, Ilokano, Tagalog, Mortlockese, and Pohnpeian examples untranslated, so as to give the reader the impetus to find out the meanings on his or her own. It also somewhat replicates the feeling one gets when listening to a foreign language that one does not understand.