Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The New Speaker Phenomenon

Colin H. Williams

Today many European minority language communities are undergoing profound changes, in part as a result of globalisation, increased mobility and accelerating socio-economic fragmentation within heartland areas. Whereas in the past the family and community network ensured inter-generational language transmission, now it is mainly the statutory education system which provides the skills necessary to communicate effectively in languages such as Basque, Catalan, Irish and Welsh.

While the majority of so-called native speakers advance well within the minority language education system, a significant proportion of those who receive some or all of their education within a minority language tend not to use their language fully in adulthood, thus reducing the vitality of their host communities further. This inevitably calls into question the long-term future of such languages faced as they are with the increased pressure exerted by major languages such as English, Spanish and French. One germ of hope is the new speaker phenomenon, defined as those who have learned a language that is not the language of their home or community.  But how are such new speakers treated? How does an international migrant to Barcelona or Bilbao become an accepted member of the host society and to what extent do official language polices facilitate this process of social integration?

For those who are determined to progress to become new speakers of a language there are often social and socio-psychological barriers to their full integration into the host society. This is particularly the case for latecomers, migrants and refugees. I determined to examine such barriers and to ask why some become fully functional members of their respective social networks. In looking across Europe are there good practices that could be adopted within official educational and language policies?

Thus the focus of my enquiry was to ask how different jurisdictions in Europe interpret the role and potential contribution of new speakers to the vitality of the target language population (s)? A related question was how decision makers, senior civil servants and politicians interpret the contribution of new speakers to their policy portfolios?  The field work results suggest a patchwork of responses and attitudes with the most active steps being taken within the Basque Autonomous Community and Catalonia, where the integration of adult new speakers, many of them migrants from North Africa and Asia are encouraged to become better integrated through programmes such as the Voluntariat per la llengua (VxL) which promotes social cohesion as well as language proficiency. In turn such newcomers can also reconfigure the ‘native culture’ to some extent if they introduce new practices from different religions, food ways, elements of music and theatre etc, thereby adding to the diversity and dynamism of minority language and culture change.

The other aim of my enquires was to ask how can the new speaker concept inform language policy scholarship and multilingualism? The emphasis on speakers rather than on language allows one to discuss how individuals manage to learn both a hegemonic and a minority simultaneously, how they navigate new ‘breathing’ or ‘safe ‘spaces, within which the target language is both nurtured and normalised and how the dynamic changes within increasingly multilingual and multicultural societies impact on social relations and official policy. The fascinating question is to what extent the emergence of the new speaker phenomenon will impact  future generations of minority language vitality and reproduction. The volume investigates several of these key influences in terms of the role of AI and IT in shaping communication patterns, the degree to which alternative social networks can compensate for the atrophying of territorial heartlands and provides a number of policy recommendations at European, national and local levels.

Language Policy and the New Speaker Challenge by Colin H. Williams

About The Author

Colin H. Williams

Colin H. Williams is Senior Research Associate at the Von Hügel Institute, University of Cambridge, and Honorary Professor at Cardiff University. He has been a policy adviser to g...

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