The Battle of Tongues: When Languages Collide, Which Survives?

Battle of Languages Illustration

New research explores how language ideologies and inter-community interactions impact language shifts in multilingual societies. Utilizing a quantitative approach and mathematical modeling, the research reveals how individual language preferences and societal dynamics influence the survival, coexistence, or extinction of language varieties. The findings have implications for linguistics, applied mathematics, and language preservation policies.

The life or death of a language often depends on individual preferences and social prestige.

Researchers from the University of the Balearic Islands have shown through a mathematical model how language preferences and societal interactions affect the coexistence and survival of languages in multilingual societies, with significant implications for language preservation and policy-making.

Language has the power to shape our perceptions and interactions with the world. Different languages can coexist, but their dynamics are shaped by the communities that speak them – and how those communities interact with each other. Shared beliefs, assumptions, and feelings toward specific language forms often determine whether a specific language will survive or disappear, especially within multilinguistic societies.

Research Insights on Language Shift

In Chaos, by AIP Publishing, researchers from the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain incorporate language ideologies, along with the impact of interaction between individuals with opposing preferences, on the language shift process.

“Our findings lead to the conclusion that the more mixing that occurs between different social groups, the more challenging it becomes for language varieties to coexist within the same society,” said author Pablo Rosillo-Rodes. “The dynamics of the system has a subtle dependence on both the preferences of the speakers and the coupling between different communities.”

Ideologies Lead to Linguistic Attitudes

Ideologies lead to linguistic attitudes expressing favor or disfavor toward a language. A study on language dynamics in multilingual societies reveals how individual preferences and community interactions influence the survival or extinction of languages, providing insights for linguistics and language preservation. Credit: Adrián García (IFISC, UIB-CSIC)

Existing work from sociolinguistics showed that the social prestige of a language was considered the main factor leading to its extinction or survival. Insights in language contact from these previous studies, in combination with sociolinguistic studies on language ideologies, were used by the researchers to present a comprehensive picture of how language varieties are distributed in societies.

Mathematical Modeling in Linguistics

The team chose a quantitative approach based on a society in which only one language with two varieties, the standard and the vernacular, existed. The resulting mathematical model can predict the conditions that allow for the coexistence of different languages, presenting a comprehensive view of how language varieties are distributed within societies. Individual preferences for specific languages play a pivotal role in language dynamics, sometimes overcoming any social prestige associated with a particular language variety.

Findings on Language Coexistence and Extinction

Under certain conditions, various levels of interaction between people with different language preferences can lead to the extinction of one of the languages. However, the event can be followed by the return of the dead language and ultimately its eventual dominance. By studying finite-size effects, the researchers also found that the duration of the coexistence of language varieties increases exponentially with society size.

“This work influences linguistics with quantitative perspectives, contributes to models of applied mathematics, and encourages interdisciplinary collaboration while emphasizing the need for more comprehensive data in computational linguistics,” said Rosillo-Rodes. “It holds significant insight for language planning and public policies aimed at preserving endangered languages.”

Reference: “Modeling language ideologies for the dynamics of languages in contact” by Pablo Rosillo-Rodes, Maxi San Miguel and David Sánchez, 14 November 2023, Chaos.
DOI: 10.1063/5.0166636

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