Factors in Language Maintenance

Handouts for LING 540
Language Policy
H. Schiffman, Instructor


`In America, the immigrant wants to preserve, as far as possible his heritage from the old country. These are represented pre-eminently by his language and his religion. At the same time, he wants to participate in the common life and find a place in the American community.' (Glazer 1960:358-68)

The major intellectual problem with which we are faced is perfectly clear: how to explain why (in the country most open to immigration) (and most undisturbed when it came to the maintenance of immigrant cultures) there was the most rapid flight from and abandonment of most key aspects of immigrant cultures by the children/grandchildren of immigrants, as well as immigrants themselves?

Immigrants were allowed great freedom (culturally). No established religion, rarely any restrain on private schooling, usually no control of publications, and freedom of cultural and social organization. Sometimes even public institutions (public schools) used for language maintenance.

Character of American culture: conformity? Without formal legal requirements habits of dress, language, accent are abandoned. How could America produce without laws that which other countries (e.g. Czarist Russia) were not able to produce with laws is not an easy question. (Perhaps the very fact of being an immigrant country has this effect--other countries have long stable subcultures?)

Fishman suggests the enormous assimilative power of American civilization. Assimilation was not to another folk/ethnic group, but to an abstract concept of `freedom for all and loyalty to democratic ideals.' Americans assimilate to an ideology, not a people. American ideologies held in common: refusal to accept typical European nationalism, which typically enthroned special virtues to the ethnically based nation, with a `natural' language. Americanism, which did not require this, was easy to accept.

However: the diversity of foreign groups, and the circumstances they encountered, were so greatly different, it is hard to see common factors affecting them all.

Major types of diversity:

  1. Time of arrival:

    • early: 1st 1/2 of 19th C., Federal government weak;
    • late(r): 2nd half of 19th C. American institutions stronger, assimilating power greater.
    • latest: 1930's on: immigrants better educated, but American cultural institutions immensely stronger.

      Thus 1930's immigrants were abler to build institutions of their own than earlier immigrants, but what they had to compete with was too strong.

    Kloss and the concept of `Erst-Siedler' (pioneers): they had `official' status, social status. The colonial languages: French, German, Spanish, have survived because of this.

  2. Area and pattern of settlement. Sprachinsel (language island) languages maintained longer.

  3. Geographic contiguity: French and Spanish reinforced by contact with neighboring French Canada and Spanish speaking Mexico, PR, S America, Cuba.

  4. Social and cultural factors of equal significance. Some groups isolated themselves effectively (Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn, Germans in Dakotas) but they had different social structures.

  5. Significance of an intellectual/professional class? Strengthened the institutions? Ukrainians flourished culturally in U.S. where they had never had the chance to in Russia. Now only this, but the relationship of this class to the peasantry/artisans. When the upper class migrants followed the lower class migrants, they felt superior to them and looked down on them and did not help to strengthened their institutions. But when the whole strata of society was united in a national movement of some sort, there was help from the middle-class elements in language maintenance (e.g. Polish experience with language maintenance under colonial rule) . 19th century Germans and 20th century Jews helped their groups with this.

    What about the Spanish speakers of Southwest without a professional intellectual middle class? High culture (`Big tradition) vs. little tradition. Only the little tradition existed in the SW, yet it survived. Were the high culture, big tradition present `in absentia' in Mexico (or was it the contiguity?)? Oral tradition--note that the entertainment tradition among SW Spanish speakers is pre- and postliterate: fiestas, market life, family life and television, radio.

    Link with Mexico breaking down as Spanish speakers become more urban. Folk use of language is a product of social isolation. (Urban/rural? Sprachinsel?)

  6. It seems that elements of social structure have ambiguous effects (Kloss' ambivalent factors) on language maintenance. We need to analyze complex interrelationships of time, place and social structure for each group.

  7. Religion. Catholic church indifferent, or hostile: Irish hierarchy vs. French, Polish, German, Italian, etc. Conversely, Lutherans helped maintain German, Scandinavian by the national church. In SW, Catholic church more supportive of rights of Spanish speakers. Spanish is accommodated (priests may get some training in Mexico, etc.). The nationally- oriented church vs. tolerant/indifferent church.

    Religion thus helped play a role in language maintenance when it was a national religion. But eventually the national religion became Americanized, or super- ethnicized (German, Scandinavian (no longer any Swedish or Norwegian Lutheran, only Lutheran).

    When people emigrate because the home country denies religious/language freedom, they may cling more tenaciously to language /religion. If they emigrate only for economic reasons they may give up more easily, unless they are not well educated etc. They may have a harder time learning English, give up more slowly.

  8. American civilization: basic counter-maintenance factors:
    • mass, free education. English is stylish, modern, progressive

    • mass culture appeals to diverse backgrounds, not purely Anglo culture.

    • openness of American politics: leaders become Americanized, join the Rep/Demo parties, then exhort their constituents to Americanize. Thus the cultural content of the given group is reduced to nothing. Blandness.
    • Economy undercuts immigrant languages--people wanting to move out of the coal mines or garment industries or off the farms must know English to survive. Upward mobility via English.

    • Natural supports are cut off for the immigrant. Non-E language becomes a baby language (`home-school bilingualism). As soon as child goes to school, English predominates; the media are all in English (television) etc. Child puts away the baby language. Even so, no direct hostility to language use and language maintenance in the home and non-competitive forms and places.

      When however natural supports remain strong (e.g. of Spanish in SW), then American institutions accommodate themselves to this situation. People are too mobile geographically and socially. Because of mobility, natural processes of language transmissions are not enough, there must be formal support.

      Primary kind of formal support: Schools. Secondarily: public funds (NDEA) etc. Groups which want to maintain languages must mobilize and figure out how to get the schools and public funds to maintain them. (E.g. gypsies in Tacoma, Basques in Nevada, French in Louisiana, Maine, etc.).

This handout based on an article by N. Glazer in Fishman (ed.), Language Loyalty in the United States `The process and problems of language-maintenance: an integrative review' (p.358-68).

Harold Schiffman
Last modified 5/19/00