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date: 08 December 2019

Vitality Theory

Summary and Keywords

Group vitality is a widely invoked construct in the study of minority language maintenance and interethnic relations. Per the original framework introduced 40 years ago, the more vitality an ethnolinguistic group perceives itself to have, the more likely that it will thrive as a collective entity in an intergroup context. Consequently, research adopting this paradigm—herein termed vitality theory—has studied ways in which objective and subjective group vitality has manifested itself in the endurance of ethnolinguistic groups. The notion of objective vitality includes the factors of demographics, institutional support, and status that characterize the strength of a group in comparison to others present in an intergroup setting. Contrastively, subjective vitality was introduced to highlight how groups may cognitively and affectively perceive these same factors.

A large body of empirical research has been conducted within the vitality theory framework that has resulted in several stages of development. Evidence has shown that while the components of objective vitality (demographics, institutional support, status) do not typically manifest themselves as distinct components in the structure of subjective vitality, they do form a single component reflecting the perceived strength of the group. In addition, several other social psychological factors, such as perception of the legitimacy of intergroup relations, the level of ethnocentrism, and perception of intergroup distance, were incorporated into models of subjective vitality. Relatedly, these factors are shaped into group members’ discourse of vitality, which is a highly dialogical process of negotiation of subjective vitality of the groups engaged in intergroup contact.

The vitality framework has been usefully invoked beyond ethnolinguistic groups, embracing several intergroup settings including age, gender, and sexual orientation. Vitality, which has provoked some controversy in the literature, has also been widely adopted by very different approaches as an umbrella term to denote the long-term sustainability of a group. Scholars in linguistics, sociology, psychology, education, anthropology, and beyond have contributed much to the concept, helping to educate and raise awareness as to why languages die out and the effects of such languages dying out.

Keywords: group membership, intergroup relations, language attitudes, language maintenance, language shift, intergroup communication

The Genesis of Vitality Theory

In its original conception, group vitality referred to “that which makes a group likely to behave as a distinctive and active collective entity in intergroup situations” (Giles, Bourhis, & Taylor, 1977, p. 308). It was argued that three sets of sociostructural variables—institutional support, demography, and social status—were key factors for measuring and monitoring the vitality of ethnolinguistic groups and for better investigating the social psychological processes underlying interethnic behavior, intergroup relations, cross-cultural communication, etc. To this more objective framework for understanding vitality, Bourhis, Giles, and Rosenthal (1981) introduced a measure of subjective (or perceived) vitality, arguing that “knowledge about group member’s subjective perceptions of their own ethnolinguistic vitality may help account for group member’s intergroup attitudes, skills and motivations for second language learning, attitudes towards language usage and use of code switching strategies” (p. 147). Together, these two constructs—objective vitality and subjective vitality—comprise the commonly agreed-upon core of this construct. In this section we provide a discussion of these two facets of vitality and move on to an extended processual model of it.

The vitality framework has enjoyed a significant amount of scholarly attention, and while the clear majority of work has focused on ethnolinguistic groups, it has been fruitfully invoked across several intergroup settings including age, gender, and sexual orientation. It also features as an integral component of ethnolinguistic identity theory (e.g., Giles & Johnson, 1981), which was developed to predict when ethnic groups accentuate or attenuate their distinctive linguistic and communicative features in interaction. The study of vitality has been a fruitful area of academic study; a search of major academic research databases shows it to have appeared in over 1,900 articles published in at least 182 different journals since 1977. Most of these studies (nearly 75%) have been published just in the last 15 years. As noted by Yagmur and Ehala (2011), vitality has gained significant prominence during the 21st century, in no small part due to the ever increasing “effect that globalization has on the dynamics of ethnic and linguistic communities” (p. 101). The vitality framework provides a useful lens for understanding the ever-shrinking boundaries between cultural and ethnolinguistic groups and has been brought to bear in a large range of disciplines, from social and cross-cultural psychology, to political science, linguistics, communication, cultural studies, and more.

The notion of ethnolinguistic vitality was originally proposed as “a conceptual tool to analyze the sociostructural variables affecting the strength of ethnolinguistic communities within intergroup settings” (Harwood, Giles, & Bourhis, 1994, p. 167). Unsurprisingly then, the early research on vitality focused on what has come to be referred to as “objective vitality.” The basic argument of objective vitality is that higher status, institutional support/control, and/or positive demographic trends are indicative of higher ethnolinguistic group vitality. In turn, the more vitality an ethnolinguistic group has, in comparison to relevant outgroups, “the more likely that it will survive and thrive as a collective entity in the intergroup context” (Harwood et al., 1994, p. 168). The natural converse of this statement is that a group with low vitality is unlikely to endure and may eventually cease to exist as a distinctive linguistic group.

Subjective or perceived vitality is the natural extension of the original vitality framework and “emerged in response to the equal need to take into account individuals’ cognitive representations of the societal conditions which impinged upon them (Moscovici, 1981) … and which could mediate their intergroup behaviors” (Johnson, Giles, & Bourhis, 1983, p. 256). Bourhis et al. (1981) also presented a first attempt to measure subjective vitality in what they referred to as the Subjective Vitality Questionnaire (SVQ). No other facet of vitality theory has received as much scholarly attention as the SVQ; by our estimates, about 45% of all vitality studies utilize some version of this questionnaire.

The fundamental premise of subjective vitality is that group members’ subjective perceptions of relative ingroup/outgroup vitality may be as important as, if not more important than, the group’s “objective” vitality. Fundamentally, individuals act based upon what they perceive. While an individual’s perceptions of vitality are surely dependent (at least in part) on the objective realities of the world around them—thus acting as a mediator between objective group vitality and intergroup behavior—they can also be biased based upon cognitive and motivational factors (Sachdev & Bourhis, 1993).

In 1994, Harwood, Giles, and Bourhis revisited and extended the group vitality framework, providing the first true articulation of what is now considered vitality theory. The extended model they proposed “articulates the kinds of situational elements at a number of levels that impact upon individual’s assessments of in- and outgroup vitalities” (Harwood et al., 1994, p. 181). More fully, they proposed a recursive model showing the precursors, dimensions, and communicative manifestations of vitality assessment.

The extended model, and in turn vitality theory, is composed of nine research propositions, shown in Table 1 (see also Giles & Johnson, 1981). The major advance of this model was an acknowledgment that manifestations of the vitality assessment process can be found in the communicative behaviors of in- and outgroup members and in “intergroup cognitions in terms of social attitudes, attributions, and relational strategies in intra- and intergroup encounters” (Harwood et al., 1994, p. 181). Additionally, this framework refocused the research community’s attention on the process of vitality assessment (in relation to ethnolinguistic groups and beyond), rather than simply the description of intergroup vitality climates around the world.

Table 1. Selected Listing of Research Propositions Composing Vitality Theory


In the absence of marked sociopolitical/economic instability, subjective vitality assessments will broadly reflect the objective vitality of social groups.


The presence of societal instability will lead to marked intergroup differences in the degree of cross-group consensus of intergroup vitalities.


An [individual’s network of linguistic contacts] INLC will be directly related to the objective and subjective vitality of their group. An increase in the use of a particular language within the INLC will lead to more positive appraisals of its vitality, while a decrease in the use of a language in the INLC will lead to more negative appraisals of its vitality.


The salience of vitality concerns will increase as a function of the degree of perceived change in ingroup and outgroup vitality.


A perceived decrease in vitality for the ingroup will lead to an attenuation of intergroup vitality difference by the dominant group and to an accentuation of intergroup vitality difference by the subordinate group.


A perceived increase in vitality for the ingroup will lead to an accentuation of intergroup vitality difference by the dominant group and to an attenuation of intergroup vitality difference by the subordinate group.


High levels of ethnolinguistic identification will “enhance/accentuate” the processes outlined in other research propositions—especially those in research propositions 4 and 5.


All processes described above will be [moderated] by the immediate context of assessment, including language of questionnaire, comparisons invoked, etc.


Group members who perceive their ingroup to have high vitality will tend to converge little toward outgroup members, whereas group members who perceive their ingroup to have low vitality will tend to converge toward the outgroup, and especially so if their identification with their own group is low. As identification with the ingroup increases, members of low-vitality groups will become less likely to converge toward the outgroup.


Group members who perceive their ingroup’s societal position as illegitimate and unjust will be inclined toward divergent intergroup behavior (irrespective of whether they have high or low perceived ingroup vitality). Under conditions of higher perceived legitimacy, low subjective vitality groups will be likely in intergroup contexts to converge or to diverge depending upon the individual’s level of identification (i.e., low or high, respectively), whereas higher vitality groups will no converge (irrespective of their levels of ingroup identification).

Source: Adapted from Harwood et al. (1994).

Vitality Factors

Throughout the genesis of vitality theory, from objective to subjective and beyond, the typical factors used to understand and define vitality have remained relatively stable. As stated above, three factors are believed to primarily drive the assessment of vitality: institutional support, demography, and status. The purpose of this section to define these core factors while also providing examples of the empirical work being conducted in relation to each.

Institutional Support

Institutional support (also known as institutional control) is defined as the “extent to which an ethnolinguistic group has gained formal and informal representation in the various institutions of a community, region, state, or nation” (Harwood et al., 1994, p. 168). As the definition suggests, institutional support can be broadly delineated into two types: formal and informal. Formal intuitional support refers to the position of ethnolinguistic group members in decision-making roles within relevant government, business, industry, media, religious, and cultural domains. Informal institutional support references power in relation to the same domains as formal institutional support, with the key difference being the locus of control. While formal measures the extent to which the ethnolinguistic group is actually able to make decisions (and in turn to exert control), informal measures the extent to which the group “has organized itself as a ‘pressure group’ to represent and safeguard its own ethnolinguistic interests” (Harwood et al., 1994, p. 168). Functionally speaking, institutional support provides a framework for understanding how languages are supported and controlled in certain contexts. However, Esteban-Guitart, Viladot, and Giles (2015) also showed, with data from the Chiapas in Mexico, that the way in which the ingroup construes support and control within its own community institutions is a powerful factor in assessing group vitality.

A growing portion of research on institutional support and vitality has focused on concepts like a region’s linguistic landscape to analyze or quantify the salience and cultural influence of languages in multi-lingual cultures and regions. Within this context, the geosemiotics of the linguistic landscape have been examined as quantifiers of the presence of non-native languages, like English, because these markers—like public and commercial signage—serve as public media and form of communication of the status of a language. Li (2015) used this approach to study the linguistic landscape of Suzhou, China. Though not an official language of China, Li found that English was prevalently found alongside Chinese as either translations or romanizations of shop, restaurant, and manufacturer names. He asserts that English functions as a distinctive entity, redefining what it means to be Chinese through the categorization of groups that associate and employ English in the linguistic landscape of Suzhou.

In Singapore, Tan (2014) illustrated the tensions between groups of different ethnic and linguistic heritage, again through analysis of the geosemiotics of the local linguistic landscape. Through this analysis of official signs, an imbalance and prioritization of languages was discovered that ran counter to the official stated policies of the Singaporean government. The official languages of Singapore are English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, and Tamil, and the official policy is “to be even-handed in its treatment of the different ethnic groups, and therefore of the languages associated with these groups” (Tan, 2014, p. 456). However, Tan found a stronger English presence and prioritization on official public signage (e.g., those associated with the mass rapid transit), especially in relation to Malay. In the specific case of Malay, Tan argues that the message being communicated by the discrepant actualization of official policy is “that of the erasure of Malay” (Tan, 2014, p. 452).

Research on institutional support also points to the idea that there is a level of prestige associated with certain languages in terms of the support they receive from formal institutions. Languages that are deemed appropriate and official by government or other high-status establishments receive more attention, respect, and favorable treatment, as opposed to minority or non-native languages. In the Greek Orthodox community of Istanbul, Greek speakers have substantial vitality due to the highly symbolic status of the language, a strong sense of ethnocultural identity, and, perhaps most importantly, relatively strong institutional support, which, in turn, has given the Greek ethnolinguistic minority great resilience in the Turkish-speaking environment (Komondouros & McEntee-Atalianis, 2007). In other settings, such as schools, the use of certain languages is dictated and enforced by the faculty and administration, which can lead to the erosion of non-supported language groups. An ethnographic study of schools in Quetta, Pakistan, portrayed the nature of policy toward indigenous, marginalized languages as biased and unacceptable in the educational environment (Manan, David, & Dumanig, 2014). These schools use Urdu and English as “legitimate languages” to undermine and lessen the usage of indigenous languages; teachers and other administration are required to proctor and reinforce the use of English and Urdu. An analysis of information taken from ethnographies and interviews by Manan et al. (2014) showed that there were cases where those who did not comply were fined or faced corporal punishment. These efforts brought on by the school board were to establish a division between and sense of exclusivism for the indigenous languages to only be spoken in the home and community domains. These top-down government language policies aimed to achieve linguistic homogeneity by reinforcing Urdu and English as the official languages of Pakistan.

Additionally, media representations of languages shape the vitality of the given language. The status of a language in the given country greatly influences the amount of airtime and exposure to such language ethnic speakers will have. Moring et al. (2011) investigated the objective vitality of diasporic languages in South Tyrol, Transylvania, Ostrobotnia, and Uusimaa. Data found that several institutional factors such as being an official language of the region and having laws that required administrative affairs be relayed in the minority language were used to uphold the demographic and cultural strength of these minority groups. Having such institutional support allowed minority groups to establish themselves among the population, which, in turn, allowed them a sense of “consolidated positive status” and right to exercise some control over the media landscape. Since they were more concentrated demographically and had a somewhat stable level of institutional support, there was a relatively high demand for and supply of culturally relevant media. This resulted in high media representation, which in turn reinforced the vitality of the minority groups.


Demographic factors of vitality refer to the distribution and size of an ethnolinguistic group—the geographic distribution of group members, the relative proportion of group numbers, and rates of births, deaths, and intermarriage (Moring et al., 2011). It is generally believed that groups with favorable trends in demography “are more likely to have vitality as distinctive groups than those whose demographic trends are unfavorable and not conducive to group survival” (Giles et al., 1977, p. 309). Similarly, perceptions of shifts in demography, as with perceived changes in immigration and emigration, can have a large-scale influence on intergroup relations as well. Relatedly, sudden and or consistent streams of outgroup members (e.g., refugees of various ideological persuasions) that increasingly change the nature of our neighborhoods, local identities, linguistic landscapes, and so on can be seen as threatening rather than enriching for some, propelling them to acts of discrimination (see Barker & Giles, 2002; Barker et al., 2001).

Demographic data are perhaps the most commonly used of the three objective vitality factors, especially in research focused on subjective vitality, both as a predictor of subjective vitality and as a means of quantifying and sorting groups objectively. Additionally, census information is often used as a tool for better understanding issues related to vitality, such as language shift. For instance, Schaberg and Barkhuizen (1998) interviewed South African women in mixed-race marriages to examine German language shift and maintenance of mothers and their children in family settings. They found evidence of a shift away from the low-vitality language toward the more demographically dominant languages of English or Afrikaans.

As an extension of group size, researchers have used mapping techniques to visualize the proportions and locations of language users. Demography of languages in Africa was investigated through language maps, which suggested that radical language shifts were occurring (such as influence of European language on African language and culture) despite efforts used to promote language heterogeneity being put into place (Brenzinger, Heine, & Sommer, 1991; for the Finnish context, see Liebkind, Henning-Lindblom, & Solheim, 2008). The promotion of language heterogeneity by encouraging the use of multiple languages was used as an approach to allow coexistence between minority and majority languages, as well as alleviate the threat of European languages and extinction of minority languages.

Since demographics are typically results of changes over time in this increasingly common world of diaspora, it is important to look at patterns of migration to understand how and why people inhabit their current regions. Hedberg and Kepsu (2003) considered historical emigration patterns (waves of labor migration, seeking higher salaries/opportunities) of Finland’s Swedish speakers to Sweden to assess how their mobility has contributed to the diminishing vitality of the Swedish language in Finland.


Status factors “are those which pertain to a configuration of prestige variables of the linguistic group in the intergroup context” (Giles et al., 1977, p. 309), determined by the extent to which the social status of a member or members of a group are recognized in inter- and intra-group contexts. Status is a broad category and includes economic, social, sociohistorical, and language status (both within and without the “boundaries” of the linguistic community). While in the original account, status was included among objective vitality factors, it is only partly an objective property of groups, to the extent that it is legally fixed (official language, right to marry for gays, caste systems).

A well-known example of objective status is the caste system in India in which each member of society is born into a certain social class and assigned status per the rank of it. As the chosen indicator for determining social class from birth, Jaspal (2011) examined the ways in which the caste system is responsible for enacting identity and social space not only in the whole landscape of Indian society but also within/between members of “scheduled caste” (an official designation that generally refers to the lower segments of Indian society) and higher caste groups.

Recognition and status can also be defined in socioeconomic terms. Socioeconomic status (SES) in most societies (and in contemporary India) is based on the perception of a group’s economic and cultural capital, which is more flexible than “class,” allowing for greater social mobility. Puah and Ting (2015) measured how socioeconomic status shaped perceptions of stereotypes among Hokkien and Foochow speakers in Malaysia toward speakers of each language and Mandarin speakers. Perceptions were assessed through stereotypical traits associated with Hokkien and Foochow, both regional minority dialects that have less status when compared to the more globally dominant Mandarin Chinese. These results indicate that much of status is a socially shared belief about the worth of a group, that is, a subjective factor, closely connected to other social psychological phenomena related to intergroup perception.

Relatedly, Sachdev, Bourhis, Phang, and D’Eye (1987) found that the history of job segregation and discrimination against Chinese in Canada has in many ways led to lower group vitality perceptions among first-generation Chinese Canadians. However, second-generation Chinese Canadians, cued by the fact that “many of the new Chinese immigrants are professionals, technicians and business people who have attained high social status” (Sachdev et al., 1987, p. 293), reported “inflated” perceptions of ingroup vitality. Therefore, stereotypes, both positive and negative, express the perceived status of a group in societies in which status classes are not rigidly fixed.

Conceptual Analysis of the Vitality Construct and Its Components

The concept of vitality has been criticized for being too general, poorly defined, not easily operationalized, and not precise enough in predicting language maintenance or shift (e.g., Haarman, 1986; Husband & Khan, 1982; Tollefson, 1991). An argument could be made the much of this criticism has been overly hasty and ideologically driven (Johnson et al., 1983), but some critiques of the vitality framework have proven useful in leading to further theoretical development. In that vein, we engage in a critical analysis of the vitality construct and its subcomponents.

Definitional Issues

There is still some ambiguity as to the notion of vitality itself, partly because it is used in several theoretical traditions that are fairly distinct from each other. In the definition provided by Giles et al. (1977, p. 308), vitality is defined through a group’s ability to behave as “a distinctive and active collective entity in intergroup situations,” yet vitality itself is not this ability, because it only “makes a group likely to behave” in such a manner. Therefore, as Ehala (2010) argues, the group’s ability to act collectively is at least partly independent of its objective vitality—a group with unchanged vitality may still be more or less likely to behave as a distinctive and active collective. In fact, many national awakenings provide direct evidence of a situation where a group suddenly starts to act as a collective force despite any long-term decline in its objective vitality. For this reason, the original definition of vitality by Giles et al. (1977) misses an important variable that stands between the sociostructural factors that support a group’s ability to be a distinctive and active collective and its actual ability to act as such a collective.

The term vitality is also used in several frameworks of language maintenance, and in these frameworks vitality is understood as a group’s long-term sustainability, not as one of several factors that supports its sustainability. For this reason, Ehala (2015) proposed a new definition that is more in line with the actual practice of how the term is used in language maintenance and ground-level vitality studies: “vitality is a group’s ability to maintain and protect its existence in time as a collective entity” (p. 1). The word ability refers both to the structural ability that enables sustainability such as demographic strength and the extent of its institutional support (i.e., the objective vitality) as well as the dynamic ability to maintain and protect, that is, to act as a group to secure its own sustainability (i.e., subjective vitality).

This broader definition can be applied to characterize vitality of different types of groups, because it leaves the nature of the structural ability and dynamic ability undefined. For ethnolinguistic groups, the ability to be sustainable as a collective assumes the maintenance of language practices and continuity of ethnic identity. For other types of groups (religious, professional, subcultural), the particular structural factors necessary for sustainability and how the group manifests itself as a distinct collective can be different. Thus, vitality is any group’s ability to maintain temporal continuity, that is, to resist assimilation.

Difficulties of Operationalization

While the notions of objective and subjective vitality are heuristically instructive, it is very hard to calculate the overall vitality as the sum of a large number of different factors in a way that would make meaningful comparisons possible. For example, which language has higher vitality: Qetchua, with several million of speakers but a very weak institutional support system, or Faroese, with 50,000 speakers but with strong institutional support. Further, even if the number of speakers is roughly similar, it is hard to rank their vitality if their strengths and weaknesses on factors of institutional support (number of schools, churches, newspapers, and books published, hours of TV and radio broadcast, number of societies and ethnic organizations, etc.) are different. There is no principled way to rank groups on these parameters in anything but the most general terms. Even if the number of institutions for two groups is similar, it would be hard to assess how actively they are used, how many participate, etc. Clearly, the descriptions of institutional support would need to be lengthy and detailed, and even then it would be hard to make an objective assessment of how much higher the vitality of one is in comparison with other.

The situation is even more difficult with the measurement of status factors. First, it is not entirely clear whether status is an objectively measurable structural property of a group or a social consensus over the ranking of groups made based on some assessment criteria. It is possible to get information about the status by surveying the general population, by asking the subjects’ assessment about the prestige of certain groups relative to other groups. Yet in this case, status depends on the group that does the assessment. For example, some ethno-religious groups have often been assigned a rather low status by the mainstream societies they live in, yet per their own value system, it is the mainstream society that is corrupt and has rather low status. Thus, status is observer-relative, that is, subjective.

Status has objective properties if the majority assessment is taken as the objective reflection of different groups’ status in this society, and particularly when it is institutionalized in law or regulations. For example, the status of a language as a state language, official language, educational language (and the extent of this in different school levels) all could be described and formalized clearly for objective vitality assessment and comparison. Similarly, the status of gay communities can be measured in respect to how they are institutionalized—whether they have the right to marry, or to form civil partnership, whether this sexual orientation is legal or considered a crime.

From the three components of objective vitality, only demographic factors can be reasonably objectively measured using reliable censuses and other available statistical data that states collect about the ethnolinguistic background of their populations. The difficulties associated with measuring the institutional support and status factors objectively and presenting the results in a sufficiently fine-grained vitality scale for meaningful comparative research is perhaps the main reason why the objective vitality construct has not been adequately operationalized and there is no widely accepted research instrument for assessing objective vitality.

Problems with the Validity of the Instrument

Measuring subjective vitality was operationalized by the SVQ, which focuses on the perception of objective vitality (Bourhis et al., 1981). The recurrent problem with this instrument is that the underlying three-component structure—comprised of status, demography, and institutional support factors—fails to consistently emerge based on empirical data (see, however, Giles, Rosenthal, & Young, 1985).

Abrams, Barker, and Giles (2009) explored the latent structure of the SVQ further. Their analysis suggested that there is no empirical basis for the three-component structure of objective vitality, based on a study of 430 self-identified African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans taking undergraduate communication classes at universities and community colleges in southern California. However, what they found, similar to previous studies (see, e.g., Pittam, Gallois, & Willemyns, 1991), was that the whole 21-item set of questions aligned well to just one underlying latent factor, with a solid Cronbach alpha well over 0.7.

What these findings suggest is that the subjective vitality as conceptualized by SVQ measures a single factor that could be defined as the perceived strength of the group. According to social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Turner & Brown, 1978), the perceived strengths of the ingroup and outgroup affect the choice of strategy to improve the collective identity: if the ingroup is perceived as strong and the intergroup power relations are perceived to be illegitimate, the subordinate group may choose a social change strategy (or social competitive) to improve its status; that is, it is likely to act collectively to demand justice and more rights. If the strength differences between the groups are large, social mobility is a more likely strategy to improve the self-esteem of the subordinate group.

Another thorough exploration of the predictive power of the SVQ was conducted by Allard and Landry (1994), who measured how well it predicted the choice of language in bilingual French-English settings in several Canadian provinces compared to the alternative instrument of Beliefs on Ethnolinguistic Vitality Questionnaire (BEVQ). The latter consisted of two sections: questions about exocentric beliefs (i.e., beliefs about objective vitality) and about egocentric beliefs (i.e., beliefs about one’s own future behavior relative to normative beliefs about language maintenance). These authors predicted that SVQ would align with the exocentric beliefs of BEVQ and both these measures would be weaker predictors of language choice than egocentric beliefs. The results of their study confirmed both predictions.

Vitality has been used widely over the years as an integral component of several theoretical frameworks including models of bilingualism (e.g., Clément, 1980; Giles & Byrne, 1982) and ethnolinguistic differentiation (Giles & Johnson, 1981). Some other models are in critical dialogue with the original conceptions of vitality, and we describe two of these below.

Cultural Autonomy Model

The cultural autonomy model (CAM; Bourhis & Landry, 2008; Landry, Allard, & Deveau, 2010) is a direct theoretical development of vitality theory, particularly in terms of objective vitality. CAM also incorporates the interactions between the components, thus it is a dynamic model of vitality. The model includes four components—social proximity, institutional completeness, ideological legitimacy, and collective identity—and outlines relations between the components (Figure 1). The edges of the tripod model correspond roughly to the components of the standard version of objective vitality. The central element in the model is social proximity, which incorporates the key demographic variables of the vitality theory: the absolute number of group members and their proportion in the general population. Basically, it is the sphere of home–friends–neighborhood–ommunity nexus that is crucial for the intergenerational transmission of language and cultural practices (Fishman, 1991).

Vitality TheoryClick to view larger

Figure 1. Cultural autonomy model. (Adapted from Landry, Allard, & Deveau, 2010, p. 33)

Institutional completeness roughly corresponds to institutional support in vitality theory. CAM further posits a relationship between institutional completeness and social proximity—the more concentrated the group members are territorially, the easier and more likely it is that the group would establish social institutions for its own sustainability. Institutional completeness thus depends both on the community’s ability to build social institutions and on the support of the wider society (e.g., legislation, public funding). This larger institutional support depends directly on the ideological legitimacy of this group within the larger society. Such legitimacy is institutionalized through official status, which is either given or not given to the group and their language, or active downgrading of their position in the society by the majority (as in the case of the new immigrant communities in some societies). Thus, ideological legitimacy expresses the institutionalized aspect of the group status in the society and corresponds somewhat to the status component of vitality theory.

At the center of the CAM model is collective identity, which Landry et al. (2010) see as a shared understanding of the group as such, with its history and destiny. They admit that collective identity is hard to understand and measure, but it has the “ability to ‘mobilize’ and ‘govern’” (Landry et al., 2010, p. 33). They argue that collective identity is the basis for cultural autonomy but do not specify how collective identity affects the processes that take in place in the other three components of the model. The collective identity’s “ability to mobilize” suggests that it is close to the version of vitality theory elaborated in Ehala (2010), which we discuss next.

Extended Subjective Vitality Model

The extended subjective vitality model, developed in Ehala (2009, 2010), claims that subjective vitality as perception of objective vitality (and measured by SVQ) is just one among several social psychological factors that contribute to a group’s ability to act collectively. The model aims to expand upon social identity theory (see Tajfel & Turner, 1979) to further specify the wider social psychological conditions that make group members choose collective strategies rather than individual strategies for improving their social status. For example, according to Giles et al. (1977), the likelihood of collective action depends on whether the subordinate group perceives alternatives to the existing intergroup situation. If cognitive alternatives are perceived, the subordinate group is more likely to opt for social change. Turner and Brown (1978) argue that the perception of cognitive alternatives depends on three factors: stability of the intergroup situation (i.e., how likely it is that the status hierarchy could be changed); legitimacy of the intergroup setting (i.e., the extent that the status differential is perceived to be just and moral); and the permeability of group boundaries.

Developing these ideas, Ehala and Zabrodskaja (2014) claim that intergroup stability is a function of two factors—the perceived strength differential between the groups and the perceived intergroup discordance. if the outgroup is perceived to be stronger than the ingroup, and the situation is considered legitimate with little intergroup distrust, the overall intergroup situation is perceived as stable. If the ingroup is perceived as nearly as strong as the outgroup and/or the intergroup hierarchy is deemed illegitimate (accompanied by strong distrust toward the outgroup), the situation is perceived as unstable. The perception of instability increases the group’s likelihood for collective action, whereas the perception of stability suppresses it. According to the extended model, subjective vitality is further affected by the perception of the permeability of group boundaries: the more permeable they are perceived to be, the smaller is the likelihood of collective action. This may be because it is far easier for the group members to leave the group individually than to try to improve its status collectively. The fourth factor in the model is utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism is a value system in which rational calculation of material gains, pragmatism, and innovation are considered valuable. It is in conceptual opposition to traditionalism that values cultural roots and emotional attachment to a heritage identity. In general, the more utilitarian minority group members are, the more likely they are to seek to abandon the heritage identity in favor of mainstream identities. The more traditional they are, the more likely they are to retain their heritage identity. This means that a high level of utilitarianism among group members reduces their likelihood for acting collectively as a group.

All the components of Ehala’s model are fully operationalized for triangulated quantitative-qualitative research (see the instrument in Ehala & Zabrodskaja, 2014) and are invoked for comparative research of subjective vitality in the Baltic countries and some other post-Soviet societies. Since the survey instrument involves Likert-type of scales, each of the parameters of the model can be expressed numerically so that exact scores can be calculated. This enables comparative assessment of vitality with very high precision.

Discussion and Future Directions

As outlined, the notion of vitality has been extensively theorized and developed during the last 40 years and, as alluded to above, studied in many contexts around the globe (Figure 2).

Vitality TheoryClick to view larger

Figure 2. Vitality studies conducted throughout the world in the past 40 years.

While the concept of objective vitality has been clear, it has been challenging to measure it with accuracy and precision. One useful large-scale assessment instrument is the EGIDS scale used in the ethnologue classification of language endangerment (Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2016). It uses only a few robust indicators: the formal (official) status of the language, intergenerational transmission of language, and its use in different domains (from international to home, differentiating between generations if necessary). The EGIDS scale can be complemented by questionnaires about language choice in different domains of use (such as the Individual’s Network of Linguistic Contacts Individual’s Network of Linguistic Contacts (INCL), developed by Allard & Landry, 1994). Administering such a survey enables scholars to gather scalar data about which languages are used to which extent in different institutional settings (e.g., home, neighborhood, school, workplace, medical institutions, media). These data provide a good indicator of the institutional support a language has received in a particular domain. Even though it is an indirect measure, it can give fine-grained complementary assessment to EGIDS and is well suited for comparative research. Another relatively easily measured indicator of objective vitality is the absolute number of speakers and their concentration in a specific territory.

Therefore, we suggest that a fairly complete description of objective vitality of a language community can be provided by its EGIDS score, basic demographic data, and the self-reported data about the choice of heritage versus mainstream language in different domains of communication. Thus far there is no good matrix for evaluating the objective vitality of other communities than ethnolinguistic ones (see, however, Giles et al., 2000; Kramarae, 1981). As the nature of these communities (cultural, lifestyle, etc.) can be rather versatile, the ways of assessing their objective vitality is likely to differ to a considerable extent.

The development of the subjective vitality concept has been very diverse, but a few consensually agreed-upon points have emerged over decades of research. First, it is connected to and a function of social (collective) identity as specified in ethnolinguistic identity theory (Giles & Johnson, 1981, 1987), Ehala’s (2010) extended subjective vitality model, and the cultural autonomy model. The connection between collective action and the emotional attachment to social identity has been confirmed in experimental studies as well (see Ellemers, Kortekaas, & Ouwerkerk, 1999). Second, it is understood that perceptions of vitality as measured by the SVQ form just one aspect of the construct that is much more complex social psychologically. There are several different elaborations of these parameters, such as Giles and Johnson (1987), Harwood et al. (1994), and Allard and Landry’s (1994). As Ehala (2010) argues, subjective vitality must be understood as a group’s ability to act collectively, i.e., its level of social mobilization.

The most current theoretical elaboration of this understanding of subjective vitality is the Web Model of intergroup settings (Ehala, Giles, & Harwood, 2016). Based on prior work on vitality, social identity, and self-categorization theories, these scholars propose that high subjective vitality is the consequence of high levels of six social psychological parameters: emotional attachment to group identity, boundary impermeability, ethnocentrism, perceived strength of the group, perceived illegitimacy of intergroup power relations, and perceived level of intergroup distrust. High levels of these six parameters lead to the emergence of hot identities characterized by high subjective vitality (Ehala, 2011). The Web Model makes a prediction that the dialogic rise in subjective vitality of the groups in contact could, in certain settings, lead to escalation to the “Ground Zero” of intergroup communication in which negotiable intergroup communication ceases, with any further escalation leading to overt intergroup violence.

While much has been achieved over four decades in terms of both empirical forays in many parts of the world (see Figure 2) as well as in conceptual wood-clearing, much obviously remains. First, we have an array of vitality (or vitality-centric) models that would benefit from reconfiguration and measurement into those that coherently and parsimoniously address specified research questions and how conceptions of vitality are explanatorily useful in specific domains. These might include (but not be limited to) predicting and understanding: language attitudes and language use; proficiency in second and foreign languages; code-switching between languages and dialects; maintenance of heritage languages; the salience of social identity across intergroup settings; and collective communicative actions to rewrite supposed injustices.

Second, the clear majority of empirical research conducted relies on quantitative measures such as surveys, and there is a dire need to follow up the processual path initiated by Harwood et al. (1994) into exploring the discourses of vitality, not only in face-to-face interaction and in traditional media, but also in the various forms of electronic communication such as texting, blogging, and the social media. Third, we need programmatic comparative study of different intergroup settings from, for example, gay–straight to political parties to military–civilian to understand the power of relative vitalities in impacting our group thoughts, feelings, messages, and social interactions. Finally, there are so many isolated ethnolinguistic vitality studies conducted in various parts of the world (see Figure 2) that a thorough meta-analysis is required, which would give us insights into what different vitality profiles emerge, where, and why. Hopefully, this chapter, in pulling together very diverse (and sometimes provocative) perspectives on the vitality construct and its implicated processes, will be useful toward these and other ends.

Further Readings

Ehala, M. (2010). Ethnolinguistic vitality and intergroup processes. Multilingua, 29, 203–221.Find this resource:

Ehala, M., Giles, H., & Harwood, J. (2016). Conceptualizing the diversity of intergroup settings: The web model. In H. Giles & A. Maass (Eds.), Advances in intergroup communication (pp. 301–316). New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

Giles, H., Bourhis, R. Y., & Taylor, D. M. (1977). Towards a theory of language in ethnic group relations. In H. Giles (Ed.), Language, ethnicity, and intergroup relations (pp. 307–348). London: Academic Press.Find this resource:

Giles, H., & Byrne, J. L. (1982). An intergroup model of second language acquisition. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 3, 17–40.Find this resource:

Giles, H., & Giles, J. L. (2012). Ingroups and outgroups communicating. In A. Kurylo (Ed.), Inter/cultural communication: Representation and construction of culture in everyday interaction (pp. 141–162). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Giles, H., & Johnson, P. (1981). The role of language in ethnic group relations. In J. C. Turner & H. Giles (Eds.), Intergroup behavior (pp. 199–243). Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Giles, H., Noels, K., Ota, H., Ng, S. H., Gallois, C., Ryan, E. B., et al. (2000). Age vitality across eleven nations. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 21, 308–323.Find this resource:

Harwood, J., Giles, H., & Bourhis, R. Y. (1994). The genesis of vitality theory: Historical patterns and discoursal dimensions. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 108, 167–206.Find this resource:

Kramarae, C. 1981. Women and men speaking. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.Find this resource:

Kristiansen, T., Harwood, J., & Giles, H. (1991). Ethnolinguistic vitality in “The Danish Capital of America.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 12, 421–448.Find this resource:

Sachdev, I., & Bourhis, R. Y. (1993). Ethnolinguistic vitality: Some motivational and cognitive considerations. In M. A. Hogg & D. Abrams (Eds.), Group motivation: Social psychological perspectives (pp. 33–51). New York: Harvester/Wheatsheaf.Find this resource:


Abrams, J. R., Barker, V., & Giles, H. (2009). An examination of the validity of the Subjective Vitality Questionnaire. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 30, 59–72.Find this resource:

Allard, R., & Landry, R. (1994). Subjective ethnolinguistic vitality: A comparison of two measures. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 108, 117–144.Find this resource:

Barker, V., & Giles, H. (2002). Who supports the English-only movement? Evidence for misconceptions about Latino group vitality. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 23, 353–370.Find this resource:

Barker, V., Giles, H., Noels, K., Duck, J., Hecht, M., & Clément, R. (2001). The English-only movement: A communication perspective. Journal of Communication, 51, 3–37.Find this resource:

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Ehala, M. (2010). Ethnolinguistic vitality and intergroup processes. Multilingua, 29, 203–221.Find this resource:

Ehala, M. (2011). Hot and cold ethnicities: modes of Ethnolinguistic Vitality. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 32(2), 187–200.Find this resource:

Ehala, M. (2015). Ethnolinguistic vitality. In K. Tracy, C. Ilie, & T. Sandel (Eds.), The international encyclopedia of language and social interaction (pp. 1–7). Boston: John Wiley.Find this resource:

Ehala, M., Giles, H., & Harwood, J. (2016). Conceptualizing the diversity of intergroup settings: The web model. In H. Giles & A. Maass (Eds.), Advances in intergroup communication (pp. 301–316). New York: Peter Lang.Find this resource:

Ehala, M., & Zabrodskaja, A. (2014). Hot and cold ethnicities in the Baltic states. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 35, 76–95.Find this resource:

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Esteban-Guitart, M., Viladot, M. A., & Giles, H. (2015). Perceived institutional support among young indigenous and mestizos from Chiapas (México): A group vitality approach. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 36, 124–135.Find this resource:

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Giles, H., & Johnson, P. (1981). The role of language in ethnic group relations. In J. C. Turner & H. Giles (Eds.), Intergroup behavior (pp. 199–243). Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Giles, H., & Johnson, P. (1987). Ethnolinguistic identity theory: A social psychological approach to language maintenance. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 68, 69–100.Find this resource:

Giles, H., Noels, K., Ota, H., Ng, S. H., Gallois, C., Ryan, E. B., et al. (2000). Age vitality across eleven nations. Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, 21, 308–323.Find this resource:

Giles, H., Rosenthal, D., & Young, L. (1985). Perceived ethnolinguistic vitality: The Anglo- and Greek-Australian setting. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 6, 253–269.Find this resource:

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Harwood, J., Giles, H., & Bourhis, R. Y. (1994). The genesis of vitality theory: Historical patterns and discoursal dimensions. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 108, 167–206.Find this resource:

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