Language shift

Language shift

Language shift, sometimes referred to as language transfer or language replacement or assimilation, is the progressive process whereby a speech community of a language shifts to speaking another language. The rate of assimilation is the percentage of individuals with a given mother tongue who speak another language more often in the home. The data is used to measure the use of a given language in the lifetime of a person, or most often across generations within a linguistic community.

The process whereby a community of speakers of one language becomes bilingual in another language, and gradually shift allegiance to the second language is called assimilation. When a linguistic community ceases to use their original language, we speak of language death.



In Alsace, France, a longtime German-speaking region; German and Alsatian, the native Germanic dialect, all but disappeared as useful languages after a period of being banned subsequently to the Second World War, superseded by French. [Veltman & Denis (1989) "Le declin du dialecte alsacien".]


See History of the Irish language#Nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

North America

Calvin Veltman ("Language Shift in the United States," 1983) has written extensively on the language shift process of a dozen minority language groups in the United States. Based on a 1976 study prepared by the Bureau of the Census, data show that rates of language shift and assimilation have been rising for the past fifty years in the United States. Immigrants of Spanish mother tongue are switching to English within two generations, and in the absence of continuing immigration, the language would not survive more than two generations. Quebecois French, widely spoken by French-Canadian immigrants in New England in the early 20th century, has more or less disappeared from the U.S., replaced by English; a similar process has occurred in Louisiana, a former French colony. Data published in McKay and Wong's "New Immigrants in the United States" confirm this picture with data from the 1990 Census.

This process has also been observed in Canada outside of Quebec, where the rates of shift for French language minorities presage their disappearance. Meanwhile, in Quebec itself, the decline of French has been reversed, and given high rates of outmigration and substantial intermarriage with French Canadians, the English language is now faced with decline.


Before the 1930s, Italian was the only official language of Malta, even though it was only spoken by the upper classes, with Maltese being spoken by the lower class. However, English was then added to the mix, and was made a co-official language alongside Maltese, with Italian being dropped as official. The English language has since grown in the country, and now threatens the status of Maltese. Interestingly, the number of speakers of Italian there has increased from when the language was official. A trend among the younger generations is to mix English and Italian vocabulary patterns, in making new Maltese words. For example, the Maltese word for library was originally "bibljoteka", but this has since been displaced by "libreria", formed from the English "library", and an Italian pattern ending. In addition to mixing English with Italian, Maltenglish is an amalgam of English and Maltese that commonly occurs. This involves using English words in midset sentences of Maltese, or adding English vocabulary into Maltese. Trends show that English is not only becoming the language of choice for a larger and larger number of people, but is actually transforming the Maltese language itself.


In the Philippines, Spanish-speaking families have gradually switched over to English since the end of World War II until the former eventually ceased to be a practical everyday language in the country.

ocial consequences

Language shift can be detrimental to at least parts of the community associated with the language which is being lost. Sociolinguists such as Joshua Fishman, Lilly Wong Fillmore and Jon Reyhner report that language shift (when it involves loss of the first language) can lead to cultural disintegration and a variety of social problems including increased alcoholism, dysfunctional families and increased incidence of premature death.

For example, Ohiri-Aniche (1997) observes a tendency among many Nigerians to bring up their children as monolingual speakers of English and reports that this can lead to their children holding their heritage language in disdain and feeling ashamed of being associated with the language of their parents and grandparents. As a result of this some Nigerians are said to feel neither wholly European nor wholly Nigerian.


Joshua Fishman has proposed a method of reversing language shift which involves assessing the degree to which a particular language is disrupted in order to determine the most effective way of assisting and revitalising the language. (See also language revival).

ee also

* Second language
* Extinct language
* Endangered language
* Linguicide
* Language revival
* Germanic substrate hypothesis



*Ohiri-Aniche, C (1997) Nigerian languages die. Quarterly Review of Politics, Economics and Society 1(2), 73-9

External links

* [ Language Shift in Australia and Canada]
* [ SIL Bibliography: Language shift -]
* [ The Rate of Assimilation : Francophone Minorities: Assimilation and Community Vitality - Department of Canadian Heritage]

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