Why do new speakers matter?

by Merryn Davies-Deacon

When a language is threatened, various factors often result in parents not passing it on to their children: it may be spoken by only small portions of the community, and lack resources such as written materials and media provision, making it easier to bring up a child speaking the societally dominant language. Moreover, the apparent economic and social benefits of speaking a more common language tend to be more widely recognised than the advantages of bilingualism—an attitude that the MEITS project as a whole is hoping to change.

However, a generation or two down the line, members of the same community may feel a new desire to acquire the language, despite their parents not having spoken it to them: perhaps through a sense of affinity with their territory, where the place names may derive from the language in question, or motivated by memories of grandparents who spoke the language. As the goals of language revitalisation entail the reversal of any decline in speaker numbers, minority languages have often been dependent on this new generation of speakers, who must consciously choose to acquire the language in adulthood. They may do this through formal education—e.g. evening classes or intensive summer courses—or through self-directed study, often relying on a very small body of resources. In the case of revived languages, such as Cornish, nearly every speaker alive today has had to follow this type of trajectory, as the chain of transmission from one generation to the next was broken long ago. People who acquire languages in this way have been called ‘new speakers’.

The ‘new speaker’ label can be used as a way of moving away from discourse about a person’s ‘first language’, ‘second language’, and so on. The notion of a person having a single ‘first language’ can be problematic, particularly when multiple languages are spoken in the home or community. The term ‘second language’ is usually used in a chronological sense relating to the order of language acquisition, but also tends to imply that this language is used less often or with a lower level of competence. For new speakers who use their ‘second language’ in their professional lives, such as adults who learn Welsh and then go on to teach in Welsh-medium schools, this label therefore seems inappropriate. To use a ‘second language’ more than a ‘first language’ seems illogical, but many new speakers are in this position.

The move from ‘first language’/‘second language’ terminology towards ‘new speaker’ terminology is recent, and research into the new speaker as a theoretical concept is only newly established, much of it having been carried out as part of the New Speakers Network ([url=][/url]), whose work has examined the motivations of new speakers for learning and using their languages. Older academic work, in contrast, has tended to criticise new speakers and especially the language varieties they use, which may be considered ‘artificial’ due to having been acquired from books and formal education. Such work ascribes greater value to the ‘authentic’ forms of language passed on through intergenerational transmission. However, with new speakers themselves starting families and in many cases passing the language on anew to their own children, this view is increasingly problematic. As well as examining the motivations that drive new speakers to learn and use these languages despite a frequent lack of resources or societal acceptance, research into new speakers and their language would benefit from a closer look at what that language actually is, and to what extent it fits with the way it is stereotypically viewed: as an inorganic, homogeneous variety, artificially purged of similarities with the dominant language of the area. My work as part of Strand 3 of the MEITS project, looks at Breton from this perspective, seeking to determine whether a ‘new speaker variety’ can be defined, and if so, whether it befits the claims made about it in previous research.

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