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How Can a Minority Language be Maintained in Mayority Communities

June 7, 2010

Just as human beings possess a great capacity to acquire language, they also have a capacity for losing it. Although some individuals have experienced language loss or attrition as a result of a head wound, stroke, or other source of brain damage, many more have lost language skills through lack of a linguistically appropriate social environment in which to use them. Instances include: a speaker of a language who lives in an environment in which another language is considered more socially useful; a speaker of a language who moves to a country where a different language is spoken and, as a result, gradually loses his or her first language; and a student who has learned a second language in school and loses it through lack of opportunity to practice the skills acquired. Language acquisition and maintenance depend on instructional factors, relating to the way in which the language is initially acquired; cultural factors, relating to the status and usefulness of the language in a particular society; and personality factors, relating to individual characteristics of the speaker. There are certain factors seem to retard wholesale language shift for minority language group, at least for a time. 1. Where language is considered an important symbol of minority group’s identity, for example the language is likely to be maintained longer. For instance, Polish people have regarded language as very important for preserving their identity in the many countries they have migrated to, and they have consequently maintained Polish for three to four generations. 2. If families from a minority group live near each other and see each other frequently, this also helps them maintain their language. For instance, Bataknese people who live in Jakarta or other big cities, belong to a common church, HKBP (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan), where Batak is used. 3. The degree and frequency of contact with the homeland may contribute to language maintenance for those who emigrate. The prospect of regular trips back home provides a similar motivation to maintain fluency for many groups. For example, a minority group like Javanese people, who live in the big city, Jakarta, tend to return home when holidays with their families so they can maintained their language. 4. Where the normal family organization for an ethnic group is the extended family with grandparents and unmarried relatives living in the same house as the nuclear family. There is a good reason to continue using the minority language at home. And marriage to a majority group member is the quickest way of ensuring shift to the majority group language for children. 5. Obviously a group who manage to ensure their language is used settings, for example their place of worship will increase the chances of language maintained. For instance, Bataknese people in Jakarta attend church services in Batak. 6. Institutional support generally makes the difference between success and failure in maintaining a minority group language. The minority group which can mobilize these institutions to support language maintenance has some chance of succeeding. When the government of a country is committed to maintaining or reviving a language, it is possible to legislate for its use in all these domains, as happened in Israel with Hebrew.

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