Migration and Language Policy

Note: Repost from the old blog.
In comments on the The Record of Communist Language Policy post, James Schipper notes astutely:

One very important aspect of language policy is migration. The more migration there is within a multilingual state, the more minority languages are threatened. If Russians are free to move move into Latvia, then the Latvian language will be in danger, even if Latvian remains an official language in Latvia.We are seeing this in Tibet too. The influx of Chinese in Tibet is the real danger to the Tibetan language. In the capital of Tibet, the Chinese are already the majority. The smaller a people is, the more they have to be able to control immigration if they want to survive as a nation.
Of course, by making its territory rigidly unilingual, the minority can create a linguistic barrier to immigration. If Latvian is the sole language of administration and instruction in Latvia, then Russians will think twice before settling there.
For minority languages there are two basic rules: concentrate yourself in one area and make that area as unilingual as possible. This is really only possible in a federal state in which the provincial borders match the linguistic borders as closely as possible.
In Switzerland, this territorial principle is strictly applied. No French in Zürich and no German in Genève. Of the 26 Swiss cantons, only 4 are not unilingual, but within those four there are internal linguistic borders. As usual the Swiss do it right. They are without doubt the only foreigners that deserve admiration.

It is sad but true that the only to really be sure of preserving your language is to have an independent state. This is one reason that I support many separatist movements – I assume that this may be necessary in order to preserve a minority tongue. James is correct, though.
Immigration into a region does indeed threaten a local tongue. This is a long-standing problem in the Basque Country of Spain. In Northern Italy, there are various Italian “dialects” spoken which are actually separate languages. They include Venetian, Emiliano-Romagnolo, Ligurian, Piedmontese and East Lombard and West Lombard .
These languages are part of a Romance branch called Gallo-Italic that is actually closer to Spanish and especially French than it is to Italian! Emiliano and Romagnolo may be separate languages and some of the Lombard lects are quite diverse.
The first four are in good shape despite having no status or rights at all granted by the Italian state, which has been on a mission since Mussolini to wipe out all of the Italian “dialects” are replace them with Standard Italian (which is actually based on the Tuscan dialect, selected in 1860 as the source of Standard Italian).
Truth is that this is unnecessary. Almost all non-elderly Italians speak Standard Italian well, and the vast majority of older folks do too. Visitors to other parts of Italy simply switch to Standard Italian when speaking to residents, and residents used Italian to speak to outsiders.
Anyway, while the first four are in good shape, East and West Lombard are not doing so well. The usual reason cited is a large number of immigrants to the region.
The Northern Italian languages are interesting in that they are spoken in economically vibrant regions – most minority tongues are spoken in the backwards, poorer and rural areas, and this backwardsness is part of what keeps them alive.
But it is the very vibrancy of the Northern Italian economy that threatens the local languages due to many immigrants, most of whom probably don’t want to learn the local language, and instead fall back on Standard Italian.
The Balearic Islands, where Catalan is spoken, and Corsica, where Corse is spoken, are also threatened by waves of immigrants and in particular vast numbers of tourists.
I didn’t know about the Swiss language policy that James describes, but I have always thought that the Swiss were some of the most admirable foreigners out there.

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2 thoughts on “Migration and Language Policy”

  1. Seems to me, there’s nothing at all wrong with just letting languages die. Culture is evolving so rapidly that no culture will be preserved for long, regardless of whether the language is preserved. Fifty years from now, ideas, values, the arts, technology, our lifestyles, will all be vastly different from the way they are now; many traditional ideas will be quite dead, and many new ideas not yet conceived will have achieved global spread. Vernacular will have evolved so much that the old and the young will barely understand each other, and the quantity of new culture will be so vast, there will be scarcely time for most people to devote to any interest in the past (especially if the new stuff is more vivid, more real, more unreal, more hi-res, more 3-d, etc., as it is likely to be). So why the urge to preserve linguistic continuity with the past? It’s almost Quixotic. I see no point in it.

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