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Review of  Maintaining a Minority Language

Reviewer: Louisa Willoughby
Book Title: Maintaining a Minority Language
Book Author: John Gibbons Elizabeth Ramirez
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 16.163

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Date: Sat, 15 Jan 2005 21:59:42 +1000
From: Louisa Willoughby
Subject: Maintaining a Minority Language: A Case Study of Hispanic

AUTHORS: Gibbons, John; Ramirez, Elizabeth Grace
TITLE: Maintaining a Minority Language
SUBTITLE: A Case Study of Hispanic Teenagers
SERIES: Multilingual Matters
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2004


In this important study, Gibbons and Ramirez survey 106 Hispanic
teenagers living in Sydney in order to investigate what factors lead to
second generation immigrants developing high level proficiency in their
parents' language. As such it asks three main questions: what constitutes
high level proficiency in Spanish (and how can we measure it), to what
degree do Spanish-speaking teens in Sydney appear to have acquired this
proficiency, and what social and institutional factors appear to correlate
with high level proficiency? These questions make "Maintaining a Minority
Language" a book for language testers and educators as much as for those
working on language maintenance and shift, and one which gives valuable
insights to both fields. Importantly too, authors take seriously the question
of what can be done to aid the acquisition of Spanish, and particular higher
level Spanish, in a minority context and provides numerous practical
suggestions for parents, educators and policy makers to help promote
language maintenance among the second and subsequent generations.


The volume consists of eight chapters, including an introduction and
conclusion. The first brief chapter introduces the study, giving an overview
of why solid biliteracy plays an important role in language maintenance
before outlining the sampling procedure and basic demographics of
Gibbons and Ramirez sample.

Chapter two "Language Proficiency" discusses the issue of academic
language proficiency in much more depth. The chapter begins by outlining
the features of academic English in some detail, and then compares them to
academic Spanish by means of a close analysis of texts from Hispanic and
English school text books aimed at both primary and secondary students.
This close analysis of textbooks not only demonstrate ways in which
conventions of academic Spanish differ from those of academic English
(particularly the different roles nominalisation plays in the two languages)
but also explores the way academic language varies between the more
junior and senior textbooks. This understanding of basic and more
advanced features of academic Spanish is then used to guide the
development of the cloze tests discussed in more detail in Chapter three.

Chapter three "Measuring Proficiency" essentially outlines the methodology
used in this study. As Gibbons and Ramirez developed a unique
methodology for this project, involving C-tests, an oral proficiency test
based on informal conversation and cloze texts based on texts from age-
appropriate Hispanic school texts, the section should be of great interest to
those working in the areas of language testing and assessment. A particular
strength of this methodology is that the C-test and cloze tests were also
administered to a group of similarly-aged Spanish native speakers in
Santiago, allowing results from the Sydney tests group to be discussed in
terms of age-appropriate development, rather than simply in terms of
grammaticality. The section also provides a very basic overview of results,
illustrating the differences in scores from students in Sydney and those in
Santiago, as well as outlining correlations between the different measures –
such as the correlation between high scores for appropriate accent in the
oral test, and strong performance on the C test.

The first half of Chapter four, "The societal", focuses on the wider
environment, outlining the status and demographic of Spanish in Australia
before moving on to a more detailed analysis of the place of Spanish in
education and the media in Sydney. The second half of the chapter looks
specifically at the role of societal variables in determining interviewees
scores on the proficiency tests, specifically addressing the influence of age,
sex, parental education and parental occupation. The Santiago sample is
also analysed in terms of parental occupation and education. Perhaps
surprisingly, the authors find no significant correlation between language
proficiency and measures of Socio-Economic Status (SES) in the Sydney,
concluding that in the minority context contact with other speakers or
media in the ethnic language become the crucial variables and far outweigh
the effect of classic sociological variables such as gender or parental

Chapter five "Interpersonal Contact" explores the effect of social networks
on participants' Spanish language proficiency scores. The chapter begins
with an overview of the application of social network theory to linguistic
research and introduces Milroy's (1980) methods for measuring the
strength of network ties between people. Following Milroy (1980) and Li
(1994), the authors distinguish between 'strong', 'weak' and 'passive'
network ties. Strong ties involve regular and meaningful social contact,
whereas weak ties develop between acquaintances, and passive ties are
formed between emotionally close but geographically distant friends and
relatives. The bulk of this chapter concentrates on the role of strong
network ties in promoting Spanish proficiency, by examining the degree
participants speak Spanish with a range of relatives and close friends, and
charting the correlations between using Spanish with certain people and
scores on the various proficiency tests. In particular it found that speaking
Spanish with the mother correlates strongly with high scores for correct use
of idiom in the oral test, while speaking Spanish with the mother, an older
sibling or a cousin correlated reasonably well with high scores on all
aspects of the oral test and the C test, but do not have a predictable impact
on the cloze test results. The role of weak and passive network ties in
promoting Spanish proficiency is also examined, however only weak
correlations are found, leading the authors to conclude that it only strong
network ties exert real influence on language proficiency.

Chapter six "Education, Media Use and Literacy" focuses on the degree to
which participants engage in Spanish educational and media opportunities
in Sydney, and the influence this engagement has on higher level Spanish
proficiency. As part of this analysis, the authors first consider what
constitutes biliteracy, and the degree to which literacy skills are transferable
from one language to another. Discussion of education finds that
attendance at Sydney's Spanish Saturday schools can improve scores on
basic literacy, oral proficiency and the C-test, however the Saturday schools
do not appear to give children the skills needed to score well on the higher
proficiency level cloze tests. Engagement with Spanish media – including
books, newspapers, CDs and the internet – in contrast produced positive
outcomes across almost all testing areas, suggesting consuming ethnic
media may be one of the most valuable things a family can do to support
language maintenance.

Chapter seven "Attitudes and Beliefs" explores participants perceptions
about Spanish (and English where appropriate) across areas such as
emotional attachment ('Spanish is a beautiful language'), utility ('Spanish is
useful for gaining employment in Sydney') and vitality ('In Sydney most
people want Spanish to be kept alive'). In line with earlier research, Gibbons
and Ramirez find a correlation between language proficiency and ethnic
pride, utility and status of the ethnic language, but in addition to this
cannon they find resistance to the international hegemony of English plays
a significant role in boosting language proficiency scores.

The book ends with a short conclusion, which both reflects on the
methodology used in the study and provides numerous practical
suggestions to support language based on the Gibbons and Ramirez's


"Maintaining a Minority Language" is an exceptionally well written book that
will no doubt prove interesting to those interested in language testing and
language maintenance alike. By eschewing self-reported proficiency in
favour of detailed and specialised language testing Gibbons and Ramirez
take the road less trodden in language maintenance studies, but the work
they put into designing their testing regime is certainly worth it in the
richness of the data these tests generate. "Maintaining a Minority Language"
thus provides much-needed 'objective' data (insofar as any test results can
be deemed truly 'objective') in a field where conclusions have often had to
rely on the self-assessment of individuals, with all the vagaries and
inconsistencies that these entail. This is not to say that Gibbons and
Ramirez's methodology cannot or should not be critiqued, however since
the authors reflect on their methodology, its problems and room for
improvements throughout the book such criticism in the context of a review
would be unfair. "Maintaining a Minority Language" makes clear its status as
an experiment with a new methodology, and the book will hopefully spawn
more research further refining Gibbons and Ramirez methods and adding
to our understanding of the relationship between social networks,
education and media consumption and ethnic language proficiency.

In conclusion Gibbons and Ramirez provide a landmark study, which
complements existing work on the Sydney Spanish Community (such as
Clyne and Kipp 1999) and gives important insights not only for those
working within the community but also for scholars of language
maintenance and shift and language testing as well.


Clyne, Michael and Sandra Kipp. 1999. "Pluricentric languages in an
immigrant context: Spanish, Arabic and Chinese". Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Li, Wei.1994. "Three Generations, Two languages, One Family: language
choice and language shift in a Chinese community in Britain". Clevedon:
Multilingual Matters.

Milroy, Lesley. 1980. Language and Social Networks. Oxford: Blackwell.


Louisa Willoughby is a PhD student with the Language and Society at
Monash University, Clayton. Her doctoral research focuses on the
relationship between language and cultural maintenance and identity
construction among the teenage children of immigrants to Australia
looking specifically at the role of the secondary school experience in
promoting language maintenance and shift.

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