In countries of significant migration, like Australia, newly arrived settlers from non-English speaking countries need to become bilingual, adding to fluency in their own language at least some fluency in English. With the passage of time, perhaps generations, families may find that their ethnic language becomes lost to them. Many consider that this loss is not only a loss for families and individuals, but that it is also a loss for the community at large. For the purposes of this essay, the term “language maintenance” is used to refer to the ability of ethnic communities, families and individuals to maintain their own language while adapting to the language of their new country. This essay will consider the factors which appear to influence the maintenance of a language, focusing on some of the more powerful social and psychological forces which propel individuals towards the continued learning and maintenance of a minority language. There seems to be little doubt among the researchers that attitudes influence language maintenance. In fact, attitudes towards the minority language and culture appear to underlie the other relevant factors, which include sense of ethnic identity, motivation and family support. These factors will be dealt with in turn in this essay.
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There is a considerable body of evidence that attitudes to the ethnic language and culture influence language maintenance. In order to consider attitudes towards a language, one needs to consider what makes a language valuable. According to Edwards (1985), greater possibilities of employment and acceptance by the community that speaks the language are some valuable qualities. Factors that devalue a language would include the embarrassment some children feel about parents’ use of the minority language in public when the children want to conform. Gardner (1985) has produced and reviewed studies attempting to establish a relationship between attitudes towards a language and culture and motivation to practise the language and participate in that culture. He concludes on the basis of the research that attitudes are fairly consistently related to achievement in a language. Political issues obviously affect attitudes and Romaine (1989, p. 42), in dealing with the effect of ties with the homeland on language maintenance, wrote that “refugees often reject the language of the oppressive regime and try to assimilate to the new culture as quickly as possible”.
An individual’s and community’s sense of ethnic identity appears to have a profound influence on language maintenance. Issues of identity are extremely personal and often emotional, interwoven as they are with personality. One expects the extent to which a person identifies with his/her ethnic background to influence the motivation behind maintenance of the ethnic language. Some studies (e.g. Bentahila and Davies, 1992) have disputed this expectation. It appears that it is possible for a speech community to value its ethnic background and language highly though not passing it on to their children, possibly for utilitarian reasons. Or language may not be considered a core value of ethnic identity, as with the Dutch community in Australia, which tends not to maintain the Dutch language over generations (Clyne, 1982). The Dutch community in Australia, according to Smolicz and Secombe (1979), is a group that does not consider it very important to retain its own culture as distinct to that of the dominant majority. Poles and Greeks, however, are language-centred cultures, in which language is considered an important and defining aspect of group membership. These communities, according to Clyne (1979), do maintain their languages well. It thus appears that a strong sense of ethnic identity is an important factor contributing to language maintenance as long as language is considered an important part of that identity.
Research indicates that motivation is also strongly related to the successful learning and maintenance of a language. A great deal of work has centred around the distinction between integral and instrumental motivation. Integrative motivation (for example interest in and liking of the language and those who speak it) derives from positive attitudes towards the target language group and the desire and potential for integrating with that group. Instrumental motivation involves utilitarian feelings like knowing that the language may improve one’s opportunities for employment. Most researchers suggest that integrative motivation is a more powerful factor in promoting language maintenance, but Clyne (1979) points out that acceptance of a language as an examination and/or school subject is a major factor in German and Dutch language maintenance, and one can assume that this has been an important factor in maintenance of the key languages indicated by the National Language Policy of 1987 for teaching in the Department of Education. It seems clear that motivation of both types play a role in language maintenance.
Perhaps the most fundamental issue to be taken into account when considering language maintenance is family support for the continued use of the ethnic language. Dennison (1977 in Edwards 1985) noted that the most direct cause of language loss is lack of transmission to children. According to Fantini (1985, p. 197),
Language is the child’s passport for entry into a social group, or a cultural community. Two languages permit the child to enter into and acquire the world views of two communities…….For these views to exist in harmony rather than in conflict, favourable attitudes on the part of those who surround the child are essential to permit him to grow up a well-adjusted individual, comfortable in either community.
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Gardner (1985) distinguished between the active and passive role played by parents. The active role includes parental encouragement to succeed, monitoring of performance and reinforcement of success (negative active roles would include agreement that a language is a waste of time or an intrusion on more important subject areas). The passive role involves parental attitudes toward the second language community, reinforcing or weakening the integrative motive. Gardner concludes that passive supports, these parental attitudinal reactions to the language community, are what are remembered most when children reflect on parental encouragement to maintain and learn a language. The support of parents should definitely be taken into account when considering language maintenance, since the fundamental cause of language loss or attrition is failure to pass it on to the next generation.
In summary, it appears that the underlying factor determining language maintenance is attitude towards the language and ethnic community. These attitudes appear to be closely related to sense of ethnic identity, motivation and, in particular, parental support. There is considerable evidence and weight of opinion that they are all important factors which could determine whether or not individuals or groups are likely to keep a minority language alive in themselves and/or in the community.
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