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What Is a Language Shift?

By Emily Daw
Updated May 23, 2024
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A language shift occurs when the people in a particular culture or sub-culture change the primary language that they use for communication. This can happen in two primary ways: by indigenous languages been replaced with regional or global languages or by the language of immigrant populations being replaced with the dominant language of the host country. When there are no more native speakers of a language, it is considered dead or extinct. As of 2011, linguists estimate that at least half of the world's 5,000 languages are considered endangered as a result of globalization.

The most common way for a language shift to happen is through formal education in a more dominant language. For example, as indigenous peoples in Central America have increasing access to education, they are more likely to become fluent in Spanish. The first language might continue to be used at home for a period of time, but gradually Spanish may replace the indigenous language for education and business. Over a few generations, the first language may fall out of use even in private settings, resulting in a language shift.

A number of factors can combine to make a language shift more or less likely. In general, the fewer people who speak a language, the greater the chances that its speakers will find it necessary to learn regional or global languages in order to get by in an interconnected society. On the other hand, if a people group is especially isolated, such as on a small cluster of islands or deep in the rainforest, they may have a better chance of maintaining their language since they have less interaction with others.

Stronger cultural ties between speakers of a language also lessen the likelihood that a complete shift will occur. Tamil speakers in Malaysia, for instance, have largely retained their own language as a result of cultural and religious differences with their Malay-speaking neighbors. Native Tamil speakers may learn either Malay or English in schools, but generally are unlikely to intermarry or culturally assimilate with the larger Malay cultural group.

There have been efforts in many areas to revive endangered languages after a shift or to prevent shifts all together. Gaelic was re-instituted in Irish schools, bringing about a small revival of the language in the middle and late 20th century. In other areas, primary education may take place in a local or indigenous language, to encourage speakers to solidify their knowledge of their mother tongue before learning the dominant language of the area.

Language shifts may also occur among immigrant populations in much the same way that they do in indigenous populations. Children of immigrants are educated in a second language, and the first language may gradually fall out of favor as immigrants become more adapted to the surrounding culture. The more immigrants there are from a particular area, however, the less likely this is to happen. In the United States, for instance, many successive generations may continue speaking Spanish since the presence of a large Spanish-speaking community makes language maintenance easier.

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Discussion Comments
By Animandel — On Mar 06, 2014

The world is constantly changing. Everything changes. Why should languages be any different? The world isn't going to cease to exist because one language is replaced by another, or because the number of dead languages continues to climb.

By Drentel — On Mar 05, 2014

I think the United States is a good example of how the use of a particular language can change in a relatively short period of time. Even though U.S.A. is a country of immigrants, English has remained the primary and highly dominate language. However, over the last couple decades this has changed to the point that it is feasible that the country will one day, in the not so distant future, have two national languages.

Then one day, as more Spanish speaking people move into the country, Spanish could supplant English as the national language of the U.S. I'm not saying English will cease to exist, but this shows how languages expand in some cases and decline in other cases.

By Sporkasia — On Mar 04, 2014

Five thousand languages in the world; I would have guessed there were fewer than that, many fewer. While it is sad to see languages fade away, there is a reason this happens. The usefulness of the languages has ceased to exist. Can we be expected to preserve every language ever spoken for the sake of holding onto history?

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