Language maintenance and shift across generations in Inner Mongolia
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Language shift happens when a group of people stops using one language in favor of another, such that subsequent generations no longer acquire the original language. Research on the sociolinguistics of language shift has tended to focus on anguages in advanced states of endangerment, where most or all children in the community have already stopped acquiring the language. Less work has been done on the long-term processes that can turn a moderately threatened language into a critically endangered or moribund language. A better understanding of the long-term dynamics of language shift would improve not only our understanding of the current language endangerment crisis, but also our understanding of language ecology and language contact at earlier periods in human history. To this end, the present study takes Fishman's concept of language maintenance versus shift as different outcomes of intergenerational mother tongue transmission, and formalizes it for quantitative research. Mongolian in China can be considered a moderately-threatened language. Though it is the national language of Mongolia, more than half the world’s Mongolian speakers live in China, and most major dialect branches are spoken only in China. Within China, Mongolian speakers are a small minority even in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR), where they are most concentrated. Contact between Mongolian and Chinese speakers has gone on in southern Inner Mongolia since at least the 1700s, but during the 20th century it intensified and expanded to the rest of IMAR, especially after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Previous research has established that some portion of ethnic Mongol children in the IMAR are no longer acquiring Mongolian, while most adult speakers are bilingual with Chinese. Mongolian has overt prestige as a cultural symbol, but is seen as backward and less useful than Chinese. This thesis presents results from a field survey of over 600 ethnic Mongols born between 1920 and 2007 in the IMAR. It investigates two processes, the spread of Chinese among Mongolian speakers (i.e. the growth of bilingualism), and the maintenance versus loss of Mongolian among children in bilingual communities. It also demonstrates a new method for the quantitative study of language shift and intergenerational language transmission in language communities that are too large to be observable through ethnography alone. The unit of analysis is the intergenerational dyad rather than the individual speaker. Results are analyzed over time, based on speakers’ age, and across space, based on speakers’ location of residence and how urban that location was. The analysis shows that Chinese proficiency spread rapidly through the Mongolian-speaking population during the mid to late twentieth century, reaching a saturation point among Mongolian speakers born in the 1980s and later, nearly all of whom are proficient in Chinese. Surprisingly, given claims in previous literature, the loss of Mongolian has been much more gradual, and there is no identifiable “shifting generation” or “transitional generation” in this sample. Instead, the rate of shift among children raised by Mongolian-Chinese bilingual parents remains the same for all age cohorts born in the latter half of the twentieth century. Urban versus rural residence, however, plays an important role. The proportion of shifting individuals is much higher among children raised in large cities than among those raised in medium-size towns or rural areas, regardless of birth year. As China’s population becomes more urbanized, shift from Mongolian to Chinese may accelerate in the near future. Even if the rate of shift stays the same, a steady proportional decline in each generation will still have a cumulative effect, resulting in an exponential decline in the population of Mongolian speakers. This observation helps to explain how language shift can proceed in a gradual manner for many decades and even centuries, then (apparently suddenly) overtake the remaining speakers in a single generation.
- Linguistics