Review of Social Media and Minority Languages
This edited volume represents the work of 34 authors brought together through the Mercator Network, created in 1988 to support applied work focused on the condition and prospects of less commonly used minority languages in Europe. The chapters deal with Basque, Catalonian, Gaelic, Irish, Kashubian, Luxembourgish, Māori (New Zealand), and Welsh. The approach promoted by the Network calls for studies that are engaged, bridging, grounded, multidisciplinary, comparative, and networked.
The volume is organized as follows: “Preface”; “Introduction”; Part 1, “Theoretical Debates on Convergence and Minority Languages”; Part 2, “Web 2.0, Social Networking Sites and Minority Languages”; Part 3, “Media Convergence and Creative Industries”; and “Concluding Remarks.”
The Preface explains the book’s focus and organization, and briefly describes each chapter. The editors note that all the authors self-identify with the community they have researched and wish to contribute to their own and other minoritised languages’ retention and growth. An extensive endnote explains the establishment and mission of the Mercator Network.
“Introduction: Ethnic/Linguistic Minority Media – What their History Reveals, How Scholars have Studied them and What We might Ask Next” (Donald R. Browne and Enrique Uribe-Jongbloed) offers a history of Minority Language Media (MLM), an overview and major contributions of MLM scholarship since the 1980s, and the authors’ perspective on understudied areas in the field of MLM. They note that the ‘movement of convergence’ typical for the mainstream media beginning in the 1990s had little effect on the area of MLM. Then, examining key factors that have shaped the sector, they demonstrate the prevalence of grassroots movements over top-down support from national governments and mainstream media. And while MLM production in cooperation with mainstream media makes economic sense, there is always a concern about adhering to the goals of MLM programming measured against profitability driven by mainstream audiences. The authors suggest several understudied areas in need of attention, such as the place of dialects in MLM, collaboration with schools, and MLM’s role in the changing conceptions of a linguistic community. They call for more comparative cross-national research on MLM services and emphasize developing culturally sensitive research methods. Convergence of our internet-driven media culture brings about both opportunities and challenges for MLM intertwined with all other media sources. We have yet to fully understand “how minority languages – or languages in general for that matter – affect and are affected by the media through which they find expression” (26).
Chapter 1, “Minority Language Media Studies and Communication for Social Change: Dialogue between Europe and Latin America” (Enrique Uribe-Jongbloed) discusses the concepts of hybridization and convergence, or “appropriating different media to provide new avenues of participation which complement, rather than replace, the role of specific outlets” (35). The author suggests that research on MLM will benefit from a combination of concepts of MLM and Communication for Social Change (CfSC) in Latin America, the approach that embraces “simultaneously the idea of hybridity and convergence, in that it promotes participation and negotiation of cultural conceptualizations in the use of media” (37). He notes that research in MLM needs to attend to media in specific community contexts, and investigate the needs and desires of MLM audiences. Such research should yield a better understanding of contextualized best practices for each medium, which, in turn, should aid in the study of the elusive cause-effect relationship between media use and language maintenance (Cormack 2007 & this volume).
Chapter 2, “Towards Ethnolinguistic Identity Gratifications” (Lásló Vincze and Tom Moring), reports on a study using the framework of Social Identity Gratification Theory to investigate engagement of Finnish and Swedish native speakers (6% of the population) in Finland with MLM. Out of the variables studied, ethnolinguistic identity emerged as one important motivational factor in using particular media. Finnish speakers diverged very little from Finnish, while Swedish speakers displayed higher divergence from Swedish, suggesting that the minority media content did not meet the needs of the ML audience. Swedish appeared to have the strongest standing in newspapers. Among other variables, ‘local vitality’ appeared a strong predictor in the use of media only by Swedish speakers, indicating that the immediate sociolinguistic context is more influential in the minority audience’s relationship to the particular media types. Social Identity Gratification Theory is proposed as a useful framework for the study of bilingual media use by bilingual populations.
Chapter 3, “Minority Language Media, Convergence Culture and the Indices of Linguistic Vitality” (Elin Haf Gruffydd Jones), examines the viability of existing indices of linguistic vitality, focusing on how those relevant to MLM should be adapted “in the age of convergence culture” (61). Jones explains that MLM, in fact, play a much larger role in ML contexts than previously acknowledged, citing the Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale devised by Fishman (1991) as a framework attributing very little influence to media in language revitalization and maintenance. Jones emphasizes that the overwhelming presence of social media in day-to-day lives of community members as both consumers and creators of media content necessitates a different view, one which incorporates MLM as an important indicator of linguistic vitality. Jones argues for “a substantial overview of the present indices and concepts from which they were derived” if we aim higher than recording and documenting “the demise of linguistic diversity” (70-71).
Part 2 begins with “Investigating the Differential Use of Welsh in Young Speakers’ Social Networks: A Comparison of Communication in Face-to-Face Settings, in Electronic Texts and on Social Networking Sites” (Daniel Cunliffe, Delyth Morris and Cynog Prys), a study focused on language use by young Welsh speakers engaged with various modalities within their social networks online. It examines qualitative data collected from eight focus groups as part of a larger research project that surveyed 300 Welsh-medium secondary school students in southeast and northeast Wales. The authors suggest that both the home and community language play a role in the amount of Welsh used on social networking sites, consistent with previous research noting that “social networks tend to replicate real-world social networks rather than create new ones” (85). Facebook use in particular showed that first-language Welsh speakers would use Welsh in individual messaging but often switch to more inclusive English in status updates, most likely to include Facebook friends not knowing Welsh. It is suggested that especially Facebook, where Welsh language is present to a higher degree, “could play an important role in maintaining Welsh language” (85).
Melanie Wagner’s “Luxembourgish on Facebook: Language Ideologies and Writing Strategies” reports on another project involving Facebook, focused on the use of Luxembourgish, the national language in Luxemburg, alongside German and French, the two “administrative and legal languages” (88). Written Luxembourgish is of relatively recent origin and its teaching has been “unstructured and irregular” in schools; as a result, many speakers feel insecure about writing it. Its increased written use is attributed to “the development of the new media” (89), here evidenced by its use on Facebook. Discourse analysis of the posts suggests that users have positive attitudes toward the language and perceive it as part of their ethnolinguistic identity. Language ideologies are further detected through the discourse of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ apparent in various metalinguistic comments. Overall, Facebook is seen as a useful platform for talking about all things Luxembourgish in Luxembourgish.
Chapter 6, “Audience Design and Communication Accommodation Theory: Use of Twitter by Welsh-English Biliterates” (Ian Johnson), uses the frameworks of Bell’s Audience Design (1984, 1997) and Giles’ (e.g. 2009) communication accommodation theory to explain an analysis of 500 tweets collected from 25 Welsh-English biliterate users of Twitter. Results indicate the use of both languages; mixing is rare and appears to fulfill symbolic rather than informative functions. Bilingual users used more Welsh than English; however, consistent with the notions of convergence and divergence in accommodation theory, having a number of non-Welsh followers (the ‘eavesdropping’ audience) resulted in switching to English. Johnson’s research suggests a more pronounced difference between spoken and written uses of Welsh than shown in the 2001 census. The opportunities to read Welsh both offline and online seem insufficient and may be affecting the users’ overall literacy skills.
In Chapter 7, “Kashubian and Modern Media: The Influence of New Technologies on Endangered Languages,” Nicole Dołowy-Rybińska argues that apart from replicating offline social networks (cf. Chapter 1), the internet affords creating “a new type of ‘local communities’” (123) where a minority language is used as a preferred medium of communication or at least a symbol of ethnic belonging. She explains that the language of Kashubians in the region of Poland bordering Germany, already weak in the 1940s, declined even further as a result of repression in the communist years, when its use was banned in schools and all public life. Today a government-protected minority language, Kashubian has been reintroduced, albeit as a foreign language, to the schools in the region. Bringing it back to education required codification and standardization, resulting in a divide between the oldest and the younger generations, who do not understand each other. In fact, young speakers blend Kashubian and Polish and tend to write using Kashubian letters absent from Polish, thus creating new, distinctive identities in their online communication. For the young, the online space is naturally conducive to the use of ‘their’ Kashubian, providing adaptable, non-hierarchical, and scalable infrastructure with opportunities for “online activists to arise” (128).
Chapter 8 presents “The Welsh Language on YouTube: Initial Observations” (Daniel Cunliffe and Rhodri ap Dyfrig). Having considered the difficulties in sampling YouTube, the authors settle on 878 non-duplicate key-word search results (i.e. any Welsh variant of the term “the Welsh language”), grouping these videos based on how they signal content delivered in Welsh. Then, having acknowledged the inevitable sampling bias, they subject 553 videos whose content targeted Welsh speakers to qualitative and quantitative analyses. Even though related videos are nothing like networked individuals (cf. Cheng et al. 2008), any linguistic metadata in “tags, titles and descriptions” (139) can define networks connected through a common language. The social network analysis of five randomly selected accounts shows that the sampled social networks are bilingual in both content and audience. Still, the audiovisual content on YouTube deemphasizes language use, and even where Welsh language videos can be identified, their viewership at present does not compare to the large audiences generated by Welsh-language channels like S4C. The authors conclude that YouTube can become an online space for promoting Welsh; however, “without further input from broadcasters and coordinated efforts to promote videos” (143), this potential remains uncertain.
In “Learning Communities Mediated through Technology: Pedagogic Opportunities for Minority Languages,” Niall Mac Uidhilin explores language learning online. He draws in particular on Vygotskyan sociocultural theory with its ZPD and emphasis on collaborative learning, furthered in the framework of Communities of Practice (Lave and Wenger 1991); and explains how the field of New Literacy Studies viewing literacy as a situated social practice and Gee’s (2008) Discourses, likened to Fishman’s (2001) language functions, relate to the development of critical literacy skills in ML communities. Having touched on literacy practices in blogs, social networking sites and Wikis, the author argues that social media can help once again connect school language efforts with Fishman’s (2001) home-family-community functions, using as an example his own use of Web 2.0 technologies “to create a learning space that connects learners’ primary Discourse at home with their secondary Discourses at school and with the wider community” (155). The importance of authenticity in such efforts is emphasized: the learners must feel engaged as owners and authors of content prepared for real-life audiences.
In chapter 10, “Enhancing Linguistic Diversity through Collaborative Translation: TraduXio, an Open Source Platform for Multilingual Workflow Management in Media”, Philippe Lacour, Any Freitas, Aurélien Bénel, Franck Eyraud and Diana Zambon discuss the growth of information and communication technologies in the past 20 years, particularly in relation to how we think of and execute effective language translation. They focus on TraduXio, one such innovative tool for collaborative multilingual translation through the web, and demonstrate how it empowers users, helping them “share, collaborate, and circulate different forms of cultural expressions” (171).
In “Experiences of Audience Interaction by BBC Network Radio Producers: Implications for Endangered Language Media,” Philippa Law utilizes her own experience as a network radio producer to explain the perspective of producers -- their common concerns, expectations, and motivations -- as they prepare participatory media content on a daily basis. She offers several case studies illustrating benefits and challenges of incorporating audience participation; offers a summary list of the producers’ motivations and concerns; and explains what these mean for endangered language media. She recommends that communities carefully select partnering broadcasters, because “not all radio producers are alike in their approach to interactivity” (182); articulate all their linguistic needs; and consider the media outlet’s policy on correctness, fluency of speech on air, and the use of dialects/mixed languages.
Chapter 12 (Part 3), “Towards a Template for a Linguistic Policy for Minority Language Broadcasters” (Eithne O’Connell), argues that Irish broadcasters would greatly benefit from having “guidelines relating to all aspects of minority language use/output in their workplace, rather than just thinking of programme content” (190). O’Connell identifies and discusses several areas tied to this overall linguistic practice in the workplace: corporate mission, in-house and external communication, broadcasting language, translation, and commercial dealings. The changing landscape of Irish broadcasting is used to show what is and what could be done under each of these areas. The author concludes that ML maintenance would benefit from reflecting on realities in ML broadcasting and designing a comprehensive language policy.
In Chapter 13, “Legislating the Language of Cinema: Developments in Catalonia,” J˙lia Cordonet and David Forniès focus on legal proposals regarding Catalan (today used by more than 7.7 million speakers) in the cinema industry, the problem being that “[f]ilms in Catalan cinemas are almost exclusively exhibited in Spanish” (202). Discussing the state and implications of Catalan cinema legislation, the authors review current norms and regulations for the use of Catalan in cinemas in Catalonia and in other Catalan-speaking territories inside and outside Spain. Having outlined the main articles in the new law pertaining to the cinema industry, they argue that there exists a legal basis to act on what the reality suggests about supply and demand in order to “substantially increase the screenings in Catalan” (210).
Chapter 14, “The Contribution of BBC ALBA to Gaelic: A Social and Economic Review” (Douglas Chalmers, Mike Danson, Alison Lang and Lindsay Milligan), tackles the question of whether media can “foster the acquisition and usage of minoritised language” (213). The case in question is the BBC ALBA, the first “dedicated Gaelic-medium television channel in history” (212), which is well poised to attract more viewers who speak or understand Gaelic in Scotland. The authors discuss the channel’s policy framework, economic impact, and social contributions: appealing to the audience’s cultural identity and affirming the continued relevance and presence of Gaelic in today’s Scotland; and promoting the study and use of the language. They note that while beneficial overall, the channel cannot help increase the use of Gaelic without translating this purpose into certain types of programming (e.g., “modeling the behaviour of using Gaelic in widening domains”; 220). They conclude that this nonetheless strong medium with a high-quality product is an important source of employment of young Gaelic-speaking professionals (the “Gaelic Creative Class”; 216), and that it can aid in reversing language shift especially if the new interactive options afforded by Web 2.0 are explored.
Chapter 15, “Multilingual Practice of the EITB Group and its TV Provision for Teenagers” (Amaia Pavón and Aitor Zubergoitia), offers a portrait of the Basque public broadcasting group EITB. Focusing on its “Basque language provision for teenagers” (224), the authors consider methodology for studying teenage users’ habits on the net as they explore how many Basque media outlets are used and why. To test their methodology’s validity, they conducted a pilot study using interviews with directors of programming at ETB, 207 secondary student surveys, and data from a focus group of ten students following up on questionnaire responses to further examine what appeals to them and why: Would the experts’ and student consumers’ perceptions match? The conclusions support Cormack’s view expressed in the volume’s closing chapter: “we should not be investigating the audiovisual content on the internet as an isolated phenomenon” (235) -- we are dealing with users of multimedia platforms. Further research is needed to give a more accurate picture of the young users’ media consumption patterns in the Basque Country.
Chapter 16, “Tell a Song/Waiata Mai/Abair Amhrán: Singing Out” (Ruth Lysaght), compares two television programs produced in Māori (by Māori Television Service, New Zealand) and in Irish (by Teilifís na Gaeilge, Irish language television, Ireland). Both are poetry and traditional song performances, offering “a way of passing on the craft and the words to the next generation” (244). The programs are not moderated, which allows viewers to create their own interpretations of presented art forms. In the Māori program, language use is facilitated by showing the song lyrics on the screen. In the Irish program, “the air of the songs and the constantly moving visuals breathe life into what for some might otherwise be an inaccessible cultural artefact” (244); the literal meaning of the words would give only a partial story, as the oral tradition requires the audience’s creative participation and interpretation. In lieu of formal learning, both programs are “taking on the role of seanachaí (storyteller) or tohunga (expert)” (245).
Chapter 17, “Languages: Obstacles and Brand Values in the Age of Media Convergence” (Bea Narbaiza, Josu Amezaga, Edorta Arana and Patxi Azpillaga), characterizes the age of media convergence by “the multiplication and transnationalization of the provision of media content; … decrease in the presence of minority languages in the media in quantitative terms” (246); and the overall participatory nature blurring the roles of producers, distributors, and receivers. The current state of these media is discussed using data from interviews with representatives of management in eight European media companies, and types of “television in minority languages in Europe” (251) are categorized based on the communities’ access to broadcasts in their own language or to such television via satellite. The interviews yielded more similarities than differences among the companies involved. For example, the dilemma of drawing wide audiences vs. using the minority language appears to be solved by specialization of content (e.g. children’s programming). Importantly, the authors observe a shift from revitalizing and preserving the language to the production of high-quality audiovisual content with a broad appeal, where language is more of “a descriptor … an exclusive adjective” (253), branding each media company as a content provider in the community’s language.
In “Concluding Remarks: Towards an Understanding of Media Impact on Minority Language Use,” Mike Cormack observes that the existing MLM research, including his own, has yet to address “how development and use of the media by minority language communities actually helps language maintenance” (256). He presents the major challenges of “new media” and language planning. Sketching a framework for future research in the desired direction, he asks what research “for the digital future” (261) is needed and what kind of understanding of minority languages in media it should yield. The emerging framework considers as variables: (1) “varieties of language effect” (e.g. changes in language use and/or attitudes toward the language as a result of media use); (2) “types of media use” (from simply reading to full participation); (3) “the context of media consumption” (from solitary to fully participatory); and (4) measuring interaction of linguistic identity with “the media text” to understand “its role in media-language interaction” (262-263). The relevance of sociolinguistics to MLM studies is highlighted, and Cormack brings in relevant papers from the volume as examples of steps in the right direction. There is a need for more ethnographic research on language use vis-à-vis the use of media in specific sociolinguistic contexts. Lastly, clarity about how media assist in community language maintenance will continue to directly impact public funding vital to MLM.
This informative volume constitutes an important contribution to the fast-evolving field of MLM Studies. It continues the discussion of the role that social media can play in maintaining and promoting endangered minority languages (cf. Riggins 1992, Cormack 2007). Several contributions emphasize that media influence can no longer be seen as inconsequential; rather, as an integral part of home, school, and community life, this influence must be factored into language maintenance and reversing language shift.
While the languages discussed are largely confined to Europe (with the exception of Māori and a theoretical discussion of frameworks involving Latin America), the thematic scope is quite broad, from theoretical debates on the subject (Part 1), through individual case studies (Part 2), to language policy issues (Part 3). The partition of the volume provides for sufficient coherence; the relationship among contributions is enhanced by frequent cross-referencing. All papers seem to reflect quite well the “engagé approach” (xi) explained as one of the principle approaches of the Mercator Network to this type of applied research.
The book will be very useful to applied linguists and sociolinguists, students and scholars alike, interested in the role of today’s multilingual, multi-platform media in minority and Indigenous language communities; to media specialists in academia and in the media industry; and to anyone interested in examining the role of digital age media in maintaining language diversity.
Cormack’s concluding chapter emphasizes that researchers in this field must be aware of developments in sociolinguistics. This thread, addressed to various degrees, is certainly present in this volume. For example, it will be fascinating to see how the conceptions of speech/linguistic community as a “networked community” will continue to evolve; how social networks theory will be expanded, or what new realities will be reflected in the future indices of linguistic vitality. As a complementary field, current research in political science (e.g. Saunders 2011) can further inform discussions about minority nationalism and the role of the internet in the production of national/linguistic/ethnolinguistic identities. Similarly, MLM studies can benefit from engaged conversations with applied linguists (and vice versa), particularly those invested in language documentation, maintenance, and revitalization (e.g. Penfield and Tucker 2012). In all, the volume achieves its goals. Further research should continue to explore the outstanding concern reiterated in Cormack’s concluding remarks: specific ways in which MLM can help strengthen minority languages.
Bell, Allan. 1997 (1984). Language style and audience design. In Nikolas Coupland and Adam Jaworski (eds.), Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook (pp. 240-50). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
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Fishman, Joshua. 2001. From theory to practice (and vice versa): Review, reconsideration, and reiteration. In Joshua Fishman (ed.), Can threatened languages be saved? Reversing language shift revisited: A 21st century perspective (pp. 451-482). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
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| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Lida Cope is an associate professor of applied linguistics in the Department of English at East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina. Most of her published research focuses on the language, culture and identity of ethnic Czechs and Czech Moravians in Texas. She directs the development of the Texas Czech Legacy Project (University of Texas at Austin), which will offer an open-access web-based archive documenting this population's unique dialect and cultural heritage.