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Language Maintenance and Shift among Speakers of Mixteco in Oregon

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In an effort to promote global unity and diversity, the general assembly of the United Nations declared February 21 “International Mother Language Day” on May 17, 2007 (UNESCO,, 2007). Despite this significant recognition, the alarming number of languages rapidly disappearing has sparked an enormous interest among international organizations, scholars, and educators to act urgently in promoting the preservation and revitalization of languages that are in the process of extinction. During the celebration of the International Mother Language Day, Koïchiro Matsuura, Director of UNESCO, expressed significant concern over maintaining languages that find themselves on the verge of extinction and those in the process of language loss. Mr. Koichiro stressed the reality that over the course of two generations 50% of 7,000 languages in the world eventually will disappear. The National Geographic Enduring Voices project (conducted in collaboration with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages) has estimated that every 14 days a language dies and that by the year 2100, more than half of 7,000 languages spoken on Earth may disappear.

Language and culture are intertwined, and play an essential role in the development of our human identity and sense of community. The most vulnerable populations to the threat of language loss are indigenous groups and immigrant groups.

The work on language maintenance and shift initiated by Joshua Fishman (1964, 1965, 1966) established a solid foundation for understanding the dynamics of language contact in the United States between English and other languages. His classic intergenerational model (Fishman 1964) proposing a specific pattern common to all immigrant groups and leading to language loss by the third generation has long served to better understand the shift in minority language groups. Other researchers (Grosjean 1982; Romaine 1995) have used and confirmed this model, particularly among European immigrant families. Grosjean (1982) found the same intergenerational pattern that shows this loss from first to third generation. Unless the first generation lives in isolated linguistic areas where contact with the host language is limited, they soon realize the need to utilize the host language for basic social and economic living demands. This motivation leads to bilingualism in the second generation (assuming the mother tongue is spoken in the home), and a third generation that will grow up monolingual in the dominant language. Though this model may be applicable to European migrants, with respect to other minority populations such as the Hispanic population in the United States, Bills (2000, 15) states, “…this is an oversimplified account of the actual state of affairs and in many respects underestimates the rapidity with which linguistic absorption into the dominant society is actually taking place.” This statement is easily extended to other indigenous languages and populations in the United States.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2010

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