When Second Language Competence is Not Enough: The Case of Minority Languages

This month we published Immersion Education by Pádraig Ó Duibhir, which examines the success of young immersion learners of Irish in becoming competent speakers of the minority language. In this post the author explains why further efforts need to be made to promote the wider use of Irish outside Irish-medium education.

We devote a great deal of time and effort in second language teaching to ensure that learners reach the highest level of competence possible in the second language. Sometimes, however, competence is not enough, as in the case of Irish, a minority language in contact with English – one of the world’s major languages.

I have spent most of my career either teaching or researching Irish-medium education. In general, students who graduate from Irish-medium schools have developed excellent oral communication skills in Irish despite some grammatical inaccuracies. One might expect these young adults to contribute to the wider use of Irish in society. Unfortunately, this is not always the case despite government policy in this area. While some do use more Irish than their counterparts who went to English-medium schools, the level of use is disappointing.

As a parent who raised three children, now in their late 20s, through the medium of Irish, I can attest to the lack of opportunities to use the language outside the home and school contexts. None of my adult children work in a job that brings them into contact with Irish and apart from their communication with me, they have very few opportunities to speak Irish. When the children were younger, they attended Irish-medium schools. When their friends from school visited our house, however, I was always struck by the fact that their conversation was in English. If I engaged them in conversation they would happily speak Irish to me but return to conversing in English once I had left. Speaking Irish to me appeared to be normal, perhaps because they saw me as an authority figure or knew that Irish was the language of our home. But speaking Irish among themselves outside of school was not normal.

So much of the Irish government’s efforts to promote the wider use of Irish are invested in the education system. We know from experience, however, that transferring minority language learning from school to society is extremely difficult. How then might we create safe spaces where it is normal to speak Irish? Could we build Irish-speaking networks around Irish-medium schools? What can we learn from other minority language contexts? The advent of pop-up Gaeltachtaí or Irish-speaking social events is a very positive development. How might we capitalise on and expand this concept where participants have a clear desire to speak Irish? In the absence of greater opportunities and a desire to speak Irish, competence alone is not enough.

For more information about this book please see our website

The Pleasure of Raising Multilingual Children

Last month we published Raising Multilingual Children by Julia Festman, Gregory J. Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele. In this post, Jean-Marc discusses his own experience of bringing up a multilingual daughter and explains what inspired him and his co-authors to write the book.  

Parents everywhere in the world want the best for their children. It means looking after their physical and psychological health as well as their education. I remember reading books with my wife when she was pregnant with Livia about the best ways to raise children. We felt a little overwhelmed by the amount of information and the occasionally contradictory suggestions on how to be good parents. We were also struck by the strong opinions people had about early multilingualism. Many expressed doubts about it being beneficial for the child “before a first language” settled in: wasn’t there a risk of the child ending up with a “muddled” linguistic system, unable to distinguish between the languages? Others wondered whether growing up with multiple languages might lead to an absence of clear linguistic and cultural roots for the child.

Having read my former PhD supervisor, Hugo Baetens Beardsmore’s (1982) book, Bilingualism: Basic Principles, my wife and I decided that the potential benefits of early multilingualism outweighed the potential drawbacks, and when Livia was born in London in 1996, my wife used Dutch with her, I used French, with English spoken all around us. She picked up Urdu from her Pakistani child-minder, who spoke English and Urdu with the English-speaking children. We were a bit concerned that the introduction of a fourth first language might be too much for Livia, but this fear turned out to be unfounded and her languages developed at a normal pace – though Urdu faded away after the age of two and a half when she moved to an English nursery school. From the moment she started speaking, she was perfectly capable of separating her languages, and switching from one to another effortlessly depending on the linguistic repertoire of her interlocutor. She still sounds like a native speaker in her three languages and consistently got some of the highest marks for English during her primary and secondary education. The brain of a baby is like a sponge: sufficient and regular linguistic input will allow it to absorb the languages in its environment. There is no danger of the brain ‘overheating’ because of exposure to too many languages.

Livia’s case is the first story in the book Raising Multilingual Children that has just come out. It includes Livia’s own view on her multilingualism at the age of ten and sixteen. My co-authors Greg Poarch and Julia Festman tell the story of their trilingual children. Greg’s son, Loïc, speaks two minority languages (English and Dutch) at home and uses German outside of his home. Julia’s daughter and son, Aya and Noam, grew up as trilinguals from birth, with two minority languages (English and Hebrew) at home and German outside. The situation changed when Julia’s husband passed away and the input in Hebrew dried up. Now German is the majority language spoken inside and outside of their home and English is the language used at school. Greg, Julia and I decided to pool our family experiences with three languages to produce a book for the general public informed by the academic research. We adopted an issue-related approach and agreed that we would present tips based on examples from our daily lives to highlight things that worked, and strategies that backfired with our children. The book contains concrete and practical ideas to implement multilingualism in the household.

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker, Language Strategies for Trilingual Families by Andreas Braun and Tony Cline, and Xiao-lei Wang’s books, Growing up with Three Languages and Maintaining Three Languages.


Social Media and Minority Languages

Elin Haf Gruffydd Jones, co-editor with Enrique Uribe-Jongbloed of Social Media and Minority Languages, the first collection of academic essays on this topic tells us a little about how the book came about…

Social Media and Minority Languages

This collection of essays brings together writings by over thirty scholars working in the field of minority language media studies. Some are well established researchers having contributed to the development of this specific area of study over several decades, while others are new entrants, either as newcomers to academia itself or as researchers who are now embracing social media as an integral part of their work in other disciplines. Minority Language Media Studies is itself an interdisciplinary meeting place – as the many conferences and seminars held over the years have shown – drawing on the discourses of sociolinguistics and media studies. Yet, new approaches to linguistic diversity, the pervasiveness of social media, as well as the impact of convergence in the creative industries require a rethinking of research questions, methodologies and theoretical frameworks as we aim to enhance our knowledge and understanding of these phenomena.

Most of the contributors to this book met up at the Mercator Network conference on Linguistic Diversity and Media Convergence held at Aberystwyth University in Wales with the support of the European Commission. Since 1988, with the support of the European Union, the Mercator Network has brought together academic researchers, practitioners, activists and policy makers in the fields of education, legislation and media in the context of minority languages communities. The Mercator Network is currently working on a three year programme of expert workshops and conferences (LEARNMe), funded by the European Union and Mercator’s host institutions: the Fryske Akademy (NL), Aberystwyth University (Wales), CIEMEN-Barcelona, the University of Stockholm and the Research Institute for Linguistics at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

The book was developed within the framework of Mercator European Network of Language Diversity Centres funded by the European Union through the Lifelong Learning Programme of the European Commission in 2008-2011.
The book was developed within the framework of Mercator European Network of Language Diversity Centres funded by the European Union through the Lifelong Learning Programme of the European Commission in 2008-2011.

Working in an international context is an indispensable part of minority language studies: the condition of being a minority – or minoritised – language community, can mean that the very issues that are significant to the community are often marginalised from and peripheral to the mainstream public discourses within the state. This also includes academic discourses and collaborative work with colleagues in different countries is necessary, in order to create innovative research frameworks and rigorously debate findings in comparative contexts.

Since its creation in 1988, the Mercator Network’s philosophy has been based on the following principles:

  • an engagé approach: aiming to improve the conditions of minority languages through research based on critical distance and rejecting attempts at a false neutrality of observationalism;
  • a bridging approach: create a dialogue between the scholarly study of minority languages and practitioners, professionals, policy makers, advocates and activists;
  • a grounded approach: located in the geo-political areas where minority languages are a lived experience and to use the languages as widely as possible;
  • a multi-disciplinary approach: recognising a wide base of knowledge and varied methodologies;
  • a comparative approach; to produce research paradigms that can usefully link theory and practice across a range of different social realities;
  • a networked approach: to create and develop sustainable networks of organizations and institutions active in this field and to enhance contact between people by hosting and supporting events and fora that facilitate discussion and the exchange of knowledge and ideas in order to create new discourses that engage with minority languages beyond the confines of state borders.

We hope that this book will contribute to dialogue in this field and we would like to thank all involved in its publication.