Seven Hypotheses on Language Loss
By James Crawford

If not for its real-world consequences, the English-only movement would be an amusing spectacle, not unlike the cult surrounding UFOs. So many Anglo-Americans are obsessing about an alien threat to their language that one might think minority tongues were gaining in power and status at the expense of English. According to objective evidence, however, precisely the opposite is true. In the most extensive study of language choices ever conducted in this country, the demographer Calvin Veltman (1983) concluded that, without the replenishing effects of immigration, all languages other than English would gradually die out in this country – with the possible exception of Navajo. I regret to report that Veltman would probably drop the qualifier today, following two decades of rapid erosion for Navajo and other indigenous languages.

How do we know when a language is threatened? The most obvious sign is that the number of its speakers is shrinking, along with the community it defines. This pattern is quite evident among Native Americans, as well as among ‘old immigrant’ groups who speak European tongues other than Spanish. Here are some other symptoms:

  • • Rates of fluency in the native language increase with age, as younger community members prefer to speak another (usually the dominant societal) language.
    • Usage declines in domains where the native language was once secure – for example, in churches, schools, the cultural sphere, and most important, the home.
    • Growing numbers of parents fail to teach the native language to their children.

When I first started reporting on bilingual education in the mid-1980s, language loss was not perceived to be a problem among tribes such as the Navajo, Hualapai, Crow, and Tohono O’odham, which still have substantial populations of native speakers, at least among adults. But in recent years, educators have noticed a sharp decline in native-language skills among the children of these tribes. It seems that even when bilingual programs produce strong academic results, there is not much impact on the rate at which students lose the heritage language. Despite the end of punitive English-only policies in Indian schools and the advent of bilingual education, especially since the mid-1970s, the shift to English is accelerating in many Indian communities. Why is this happening now?

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