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date: 10 April 2021

Language Shiftfree

  • Lenore A. GrenobleLenore A. GrenobleThe University of Chicago, Department of Linguistics


Language shift occurs when a community of users replaces one language by another, or “shifts” to that other language. Although language shift can and does occur at the level of the individual speaker, it is shift at the level of an entire community that is associated with widespread language replacement and loss. Shift is a particular kind of language loss, and differs from language attrition, which involves the loss of a language over an individual’s lifetime, often the result of aging or of language replacement (as in shift). Both language shift and attrition are in contrast to language maintenance, the continuing use of a language. Language maintenance and revitalization programs are responses to language shift, and are undertaken by communites who perceive that their language is threatened by a decrease in usage and under threat of loss.

Language shift is widespread and can be found with majority- or minority-language populations. It is often associated with immigrant groups who take up the majority language of their new territory, leaving behind the language of their homeland. For minority-language speaker communities, language shift is generally the result of a combination of factors, in particular colonization. A nexus of factors—historical, political, social, and economic—often provides the impetus for a community to ceasing speaking their ancestral language, replacing it with the language of the majority, and usually politically dominant, group. Language shift is thus a social issue, and often coupled with other indicators of social distress.

Language endangerment is the result of language shift, and in fact shift is its most widespread cause.Since the 1960s there has been ever-increasing interest across speaker communities and linguists to work to provide opportunities to learn and use minority languages to offset shift, and to document speakers in communities under the threat of shift.

1. Defining Shift

One of the possible outcomes of language contact in multilingual settings is language shift, where speakers of one or more languages cease to use their ancestral language in favor of some other language, often the language of a larger majority community. This process involves a group or group of peoples and is distinct from the change of language usage for an individual.

Language shift occurs at the societal level and is defined as the replacement “of one language by another in the lives of the community members” (Dorian, 1982, p. 44). It can be gradual, taking place across generations and centuries, or rapid, across a single generation. Early work on language shift can be traced at least to Weinreich’s seminal work on contact (Weinreich, 1953). Nancy Dorian’s seminal work on language shift in East Sunderland Scottish Gaelic brought the issue of shift to a broader audience (for a collection of some of her most critical papers, see Dorian, 2014). The spread of the term “shift” is generally attributed to Joshua Fishman. Fishman (1964) offers an early discussion of shift as a field of inquiry, bringing the term to the forefront of contact linguistics, a theme picked up on by Gal (1979) in a thorough case study of social factors of language shift among Hungarian speakers in Austria. Fishman’s discussion of how to reverse language shift (Fishman, 1991) has remained foundational for language revitalization programs and has provided a general framework for assessing language vitality (section 1.2). Language shift is fundamentally a social issue, and thus its study falls under the field of sociolinguistics, but research into shift cuts across subfields and disciplines. Largely determined by historical events, patterns of colonialism, and economic forces, language attitudes, ideologies, and beliefs are driving forces in language shift or maintenance. Understanding the attitudes of minority and majority communities and analyzing their sources are important for deciding how to offset language shift. Language planning and policies can have a direct impact on shift, as can educational policies. Policies that promote monolingualism in a majority language foster shift.

1.1 Shift, Attrition, and Maintenance

The term “shift” is sometimes used to refer to both community and individual language loss, but it is heuristically useful to separate the two. Here language shift is viewed as a community-level phenomenon, and further distinguished from language attrition, the loss of language at the individual level, or more specifically “the (total or partial) forgetting of a language by a healthy speaker” (Schmid, 2011, p. 3), a definition which sees the loss of language in healthy speakers as distinct from that of speakers who lose language faculty due to neurocognitive disorders, illness, or injury (e.g., Broca’s aphasia and Alzheimer’s, dementia). The difference between shift and attrition is discussed at length in Köpke and Schmid (2004, p. 5), attributing the earlier recognition of the need to distinguish intergenerational and intragenerational loss to Kees de Bot and Bert Weltens. Of course, the result of a group of individuals replacing one language with another is language shift.

In shifting communities, oftentimes the processes of both language attrition and incomplete acquisition are at work at once: older people stop using the language and forget parts (of grammar, the lexicon), and children stop learning the language. Even when they have started learning the language as small children, as they grow older, they use it in increasingly limited ways, and it is replaced by the majority language. Although perhaps the heritage language was chronologically the first they acquired, that knowledge is surpassed by knowledge of the majority language, which they use with more people, in more places, and when they receive formal education.

Both shift and attrition can be opposed to language maintenance, the continuing use of a language. Maintenance language programs are implemented by communities that feel that their language is under threat of shift, as an effort to bolster usage and forestall shift. One example is Kalaallisut (Greenlandic), the majority and official language of Greenland. Its status as an official language gives it high status and relative stability, but the overall size of the speaker population (an estimated 50,000 or so) plus its position as an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark make it vulnerable. As a result, the Greenland Self-Government has instituted a series of measures to fortify use of Kalaallisut and promote active multilingualism, not shift.

Language maintenance programs are generally not associated with large majority languages, as those tend to be stable and are widely used in government, education, business, and media, virtually guaranteeing their use in everyday life even in multilingual settings. Thus they are not in need of targeted maintenance programs, although may be perceived to be so. The English Only movement in the United States provides an example of perceived but not actual shift. It is supported by people who fear English is giving way to immigrant languages when in fact it is by no means under threat but rather spreading as the world’s major global language. (For arguments that this is a kind of colonialism, see Macedo, 2000.) That said, speakers of majority languages do shift to other languages, almost exclusively to other majority languages, as seen in particular in the case of immigrants who leave a homeland speaking one majority language and learn the majority language of their new country—that is, shift from the immigrant language to the dominant majority language in the new home. An example is Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States, as the second generation receives formal education in English which, together with cultural and societal pressures to assimilate to the Anglo majority, fosters a shift to English (Jenkins, 2018). There is also the case of minoritized majority languages, such as Belarusian or Ukrainian, which are spoken by the majority of the population, and may even have official status, but are under pressure from another language—in these cases, Russian (Pavlenko, 2008). In both cases, speakers of Belarusian and Ukrainian are shifting to Russian, despite its minority status within their national borders.

Language shift is fundamentally a social issue, and thus its study falls under the field of sociolinguistics, but research into shift cuts across subfields and disciplines. Largely determined by historical events, patterns of colonialism and economic forces, language attitudes, ideologies and beliefs are driving forces in language shift or maintenance. Understanding the attitudes of minority and majority communities and analyzing their sources are important for deciding how to offset language shift. Language planning and policies can have a direct impact on shift, as can educational policies. Policies that promote monolingualism in a majority language foster shift.

Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that language contact does not necessarily lead to shift, although it is a frequent outcome. Nonetheless, there are ample counterexamples to shift, where multiple languages are used in contact for centuries. A prime example is the Balkans, which provides the foundational case study for contact-induced change without shift (see “Languages of the Balkans”). Similarly, multilingualism has been maintained in other areas of the world, such as Melanesia (Laycock, 2001), despite global pressures. For a thorough discussion of both acquisition and maintenance of a bilingual repertoire, see Matras (2009, pp. 61–100).

1.2 Assessing Shift

One important contribution of Joshua Fishman’s (1991) work on language shift was the formulation of the Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS), which maps language use by domain as correlated with speakers across generation. In the GIDS model, a vital language is used by all speakers of all generations across all domains; at the other end of the scale, a language is moribund when the remaining speakers are elderly, of the grandparent generation. In Fishman’s work as elsewhere, the position of children as language learners and users is critical to determining vitality, as they are the future speaker base of a language.

GIDS has subsequently been revised by Lewis and Simons (2010) to the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS) to include more levels than in Fishman’s original scale, allowing for more fine-grained distinctions in levels and in particular to expand the ends of the scale. The original GIDS scale did not take into account the kinds of revitalization activities widely seen today, and so the expanded version includes more levels for both ends of the scale—where language vitality is strong and where it is weak. For example, in the original GIDS, Stage 8 “represents a language-in-culture waiting to be painstakingly reassembled and relearned” (Fishman, 1991, p. 93), whereas today we have examples of languages that have been resuscitated from a point beyond Stage 8, with no speakers, to some level of active use. Fishman’s original proposal was based on the need for a framework to assess vitality to understand what measures would be necessary to reverse shift but not to account for increases in vitality due to such efforts. EGIDS is the basic vitality metric used in Ethnologue (Eberhard, Simons, & Fennig, 2020) and thus widespread since this is one fundamental resource for a quick snapshot look at any particular language’s vitality level and featured prominently on such resources as Wikipedia.

Fishman’s GIDS scale is the starting point for a number of numeric assessments of language vitality (or lack thereof), including UNESCO’s Ad Hoc Group on Endangered Languages (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2003), whose list of nine factors involved in endangerment are used for a general snapshot assessment.

2. Causes of Language Shift

Language shift is generally the result of a combination of social and economic factors, prestige and language ideologies, power differentials, and historical trauma. Demographics, such as population size, density, and levels of contact certainly play a role, although socioeconomic and political factors are decisive. The particulars vary from case to case; there are overarching factors that affect most, if not all, speaker communities, even though locally both details and responses differ. This section presents a brief overview of the major factors; their relevance and general impact vary across settings. Although listed as separate categories here, the factors are interrelated, and cause and effect can be difficult to tease apart. Some of the factors listed here are relevant in modern times, such as globalization, while others (political conquest, colonization, economic advantages) cut across history. For broad discussions, see Bradley and Bradley (2020), Grenoble (2011), and Rogers and Campbell (2015) (“Endangered Languages”).

Moreover, the causes of shift can be external to a community, driven by outsiders and/or outside forces, such as national-level policies, or they can be more internal, with shift resulting from a community’s or an individual’s decision to cease using a language. Section 2.2 refers to the factors that foster shift in individuals as motives, to distinguish them from factors at the larger level of society. The two sets of factors are interrelated: the high prestige of the majority language may influence people at the individual level to undervalue their ancestral, minority tongue. Negative attitudes about one’s own heritage are not created in a vacuum but are the result of a nexus of factors. But these negative feelings at the individual level may facilitate shift.

2.1 Societal Factors


Globalization is a major factor in language contact and shift, for multiple reasons. Access to the global economy is facilitated, even dependent upon, knowledge of a majority language, in particular of English. The global spread of English has put pressure on minority and majority communities alike to learn it, which often comes at the expense of the local, minority language. Globalization is also one of the drivers of massive urbanization, with resulting social and culture dislocations.


Urbanization in and of itself facilitates language shift. Although the use of local languages may be maintained in some local neighborhoods, in general, cities put people in contact with many other people of varying backgrounds, and the need to communicate across different ethnolinguistic groups leads people to learn and use a language of wider communication as a lingua franca. This is often the national prestige language, as those same people also need access to resources that are most often available only in the national or majority language(s). The need for economic advancement is also tied to urbanization; in particular, rural poverty can force people to relocate to urban centers for the hope of better employment.


Economics and economic advancement are closely tied to language shift. Participating in the global, national, or even regional economy generally requires use of a majority language. Access to employment, to the labor force, and to economic advancement depends on having knowledge of one or more specific languages. Moreover, many parents mistakenly believe that learning the home, minority language will hinder a child’s ability to acquire the majority language, and thus out of a genuine concern for the welfare of their children, parents often facilitate language shift in the home.


Policies, both language and educational, can support multilingualism or act as deterrents. Policies that require the use of a single (national) language in specific domains, and that mandate standardized testing, that promote monolingual educational standards all foster language shift. Lack of political recognition for the status of any particular language promotes shift, just as the opposite—official recognition, the possibility of using a language in education, governmental administration—promotes use and vitality.


Language ideologies involve beliefs about languages and their position in society. They form a core part of understandings of the modern nation state. A one-nation, one-language ideology, the identification of a single national language as a critical hallmark of a modern nation state, is widespread. In countries with a single national language, that language is viewed as critical to social and economic advancement. Similarly, in most countries of the world, formal education and government administration and services are accessible in one or a handful of languages of wider communication, which often correspond to the national language. Many societies have strong ideologies about the importance, and even supremacy, of a standard language, which in turn is connected to ideologies of linguistic purism. These ideologies work against use of a minority language, and/or nonstandard varieties, and foster a shift to a standardized norm.


Attitudes and beliefs are also essential to understanding shift and are closely tied to ideologies. In contrast to the majority language, which is often associated with economic and social success, advancement, and opportunity, minority languages and their speakers may be affiliated with a host of negative perceptions, such as backwardness, poverty, and laziness. Such attitudes can be found among the majority population and/or the minority. At the same time, a strong sense of self-esteem and high value for the language and culture can be protective factors that support use and vitality. Positive attitudes are associated with high prestige, and negative with low prestige.


Trauma, including historical trauma, is understood to be a major factor in shift and an impediment to reversing it. Sources of trauma include colonization, war, forced relocation (resulting from war or colonization), and boarding or residential schools; all of these drive attitudes toward use of the language as a prohibiting factor. Contemporary stressors can be equally traumatic. Accelerated climate change (with resulting flooding, coastal erosion, or drought) has forced relocation and migration to cities, as just one example. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected minority communities and is more deadly for elderly people, who are often the most proficient speakers of a language that is in advanced stages of shift.


Colonial histories and the spread of language empires are often considered driving forces behind language shift (Hamel, 2006; Ostler, 2014). Colonization spread a very small number of languages over vast territories and continents, establishing the kinds of power hierarchies that lead to language shift. The concept of language empires can help explain both the diffusion of certain languages as well as their social dominance. Colonizing powers bring with them economic and political dominance which is fortified by, and in turn strengthens, a hierarchical use of languages: the language of the colonizer is dominant, whereas the language of the local (colonized) population is under pressure to assimilate. Colonized groups often have low prestige within their own homelands. Colonization is linked to trauma and is a major stressor that can foster negative attitudes and ideologies.

2.2 Motives at the Individual Level

Factors at a societal level affect decisions at an individual level, and vice versa, making it impossible to completely separate one from the other, and for this reason the motives listed here are represented as a continuation of other factors. A clear-cut distinction between the two categories would be artificial. However, individual speakers’ use of a given language is affected by the choices the individuals make in their personal lives. Moreover, it is not the case that speakers have no agency. Rather, deliberate choices can be made by speakers to shift, or to offset shift. Examples of decisions on a more individual level include:


Intermarriage often results in language shift, as one spouse adopts the language of the other, usually the more prestigious and/or socially dominant language. Even when one parent maintains his or her mother tongue as primary, the children in many areas of the world use just one language, especially if one parent speaks the more dominant language. Prestige and dominance are locally defined. Exogamous marital practices in the northwest Amazon require people to marry outside their linguistic group; the practices are patrilocal and patrilineal, so that the children acquire their father’s language, which is also the language of wider communication in the village. Coupled with emigration to cities and missions, these practices have fostered widespread shift in the region (Aikhenvald, 2012; Fleming, 2016). Ostler (2011, pp. 323–324) frames this in terms of cohabitation as one of the major motivations for speakers to switch to another language.


Family Language Policy, the “explicit and overt planning in relation to language use within the home among family members” (King, Fogle, & Logan-Terry, 2008, p. 907), places an emphasis on the home as a critical place for both language acquisition and use. It is critical to understanding how maintenance and shift operate at the local domain of the home which, in turn, can have a large impact on language use in the broader society. The attitudes, beliefs, and ideologies of the older generations in a family unit—parents and in many cases grandparents—help determine their language choices in the home, and thus are a strong factor in both acquisition and usage for the children. That is, the family is a community of practice with its own norms of language usage (Lanza, 2007, p. 47); the adults in the family set the norms. That said, successful Family Language Policy often involves people outside the immediate home, including extended family members, teachers and educators, and community members more broadly (Schwartz & Verschik, 2013).


Loyalty to one’s linguistic and cultural heritage can offset shift. Positive attitudes, a strong sense of self-esteem, and identity all come together to support language maintenance, and negative attitudes work the other way. The relationship between such attitudes at the individual level and at the larger societal level is complex, and the ideologies of the dominant culture can have a major impact on how individual members of minority communities view their language.

To date, considerable research has focused on the underlying causes of shift and endangerment, and a fruitful area for future research would be a fine-grained investigation of bilingual/multilingual communities where shift does not occur. What factors contribute to sustained vitality and maintenance in multilingual settings?

3. Effects of Shift

Language shift results in a loss of linguistic diversity. While this is perhaps obvious, there are in fact several different routes by which diversity is diminished: Speakers shift to a dominant majority and acquire it fluently; this is an assimilation process, at least from a linguistic stance (even though cultural distinctions may be maintained). The trend toward lessening diversity is seen in the statistics, which present a mismatch between languages and speaker populations, such that approximately 40% of the world’s population speaks one of just eight languages (with Chinese and Arabic varieties counted as single macrolanguages) (Eberhard et al., 2020). Language shift results in a decrease in the number of people speaking one language and an increase in the number speaking a different language. We generally think of the direction of shift in terms of moving from a minority and/or indigenous language to a language of wider communication or power. To be sure, this kind of shift helps account for the spread of a relatively small group of languages over the world.

Stable language communities are characterized by a speaker population that is fluent in the language and can use the language with native fluency in all domains. Language shift is often characterized in terms of decreasing domains where the language is used, a shrinkage in usage, but if we switch the focus of shift from the situation to the speakers, then a hallmark of shift is the lack of ability of speakers to use language in all domains. There may be certain domains where these speakers lack specialized knowledge and also a specialized lexicon or register, being it specialized technical or scientific (physics, medicine, fishing) or particular registers (sports announcer talk). This is obvious in monolingual communities, where a given speaker is completely fluent in a particular language but lacks expertise in certain topics.

3.1 Heritage Languages and Speakers

One category of language shift that is primarily associated with immigration and shift is speakers of heritage languages, who can be more broadly defined as “bilinguals whose weaker language corresponds to the minority language of their society and whose stronger language is the dominant language of that society” (Polinsky, 2018, p. 9). Kupisch (2019, p. 459) specifies that the heritage language “is not an official language in a speaker’s geographical area, and that was acquired at home, regardless of whether the HL was spoken by one or both parents.”

Heritage languages are often understood more narrowly to encompass the languages of immigrant communities only, where the dominant language is that of the new country and the home and heritage language that of the region of origin. Under both definitions, the immigrant communities are characterized by language shift. In general, shift in these populations occurs across three generations: the first generation arrives with full proficiency in the language of their homeland; it is their primary language and this language continues to dominate and function as L1 as they acquire the language of the new country. The second generation acquires the ancestral language in the home and learns the new language, at the latest, when they enter the school system. This second generation often maintains some level of bilingualism, using the heritage language in interactions with first-generation speakers, in the home, and possibly in the local neighborhood, whereas the new language is used in other domains. Heritage speakers do, however, exhibit considerable variation in terms of proficiency in the L2, the heritage language. But the third generation usually exhibits full shift with very limited to no knowledge of the ancestral language. This pattern is typical across immigrant communities throughout the world (Potowski, 2010).

Language shift in such communities is similar to shift in indigenous communities, with a major—and potentially crucial—difference, namely, that the ancestral language is in most cases robustly spoken in the homeland. Immigrants may potentially have access to speech communities where the language is vital, even if they themselves do not live in such a community. Shift in immigrant communities involves subsets of the larger speech community. Increasing global connectivity has made it ever easier to stay connected and to access media in the target language. In this respect, there is a significant difference in terms of the challenges and opportunities for reversing language shift in immigrant versus indigenous populations.

3.2 Shift and Endangerment

Language loss is largely the end result of language shift, unless it is interrupted and reversed, and so studies of shift and of endangerment often occur in tandem. A vital, robust language is widely used in different domains by speakers of differing ages and backgrounds; it is vibrantly part of daily life. Shifting languages are characterized by decreasing frequency of use: The language is used in fewer and fewer domains, with the final holdout being the home. While the reduction in domains is not in and of itself an absolute guarantee of ultimate language loss, it is a critical indicator of language shift. Indeed, vitality scales place languages that are used in all domains as the most vital, and endangered languages are used in few domains. As the number of domains where the language is used shrinks across the larger speech community, the opportunities to use it and to learn it decrease.

Another critical indicator of shift and endangerment is a lack of intergenerational transmission. Shift can be understood as affecting two different categories of speakers in populations where there is endangerment. First is the lack of child acquisition of the ancestral language. Oftentimes, even in cases of rapid loss, the lack of transmission to children is not totally abrupt but rather one or more generations are raised with incomplete acquisition. That is, the target language becomes a home language and its use may be limited to that domain. Frequently, when children receive formal schooling in a majority language, they bring that language home with them.

3.3 Speakers, Shift, and Variation

Language shift ecologies are characterized by variation in speaker proficiency, and this variation is symptomatic of shift. That is because one key diagnostic of language shift occurs when children are not learning the language: Intergenerational transmission is crucial for language vitality. Children represent future speakers; thus, for a language to be vital, it must be used by future generations. In cases of rapid language shift, this loss can occur across a single generation: A language can disappear rapidly if there is a relatively small speaker base and all children cease learning the language at once. But even rapid shift occurs unevenly across the larger community of all speakers, with some members continuing to use the language in the home even after others have given it up. Moreover, people have varying opportunities to use the language. One of the characteristics of language shift ecologies is that they are dynamic and show considerable variation, what can be seen as a cline or continuum of speakers, in terms of acquisition, proficiency, and usage.

There are a number of metrics which rank speakers according to the parameters of age (generation) and proficiency. In stable language ecologies, speakers of all generations are highly proficient across all domains. Shift ecologies differ in this regard, with community members ranging greatly in terms of fluency and access to the language. They can be arranged on a continuum, with fluent speakers on one end and nonspeakers on the other. Older fluent speakers differ from younger fluent speakers (Dorian, 1981), even in cases of normal language transmission, as language change is constant independent of shift. Speakers with lower levels of proficiency are often called semispeakers, although this term has a negative connotation. This category generally refers to speakers who have acquired some but not full proficiency—that is, they are characterized by interrupted acquisition and their grammars may be more like those of heritage speakers, a question in need of further research. Concepts such as native versus nonnative speaker are problematic in settings where people acquire a language in nontraditional ways but become fully competent (O’Rourke & Ramallo, 2011). In addition, there are rememberers or rusty speakers, people characterized by attrition. Individuals may become more or less fluent over time, depending on the kinds of choices they make and the circumstances in which they find themselves.

4. Language Shift in Historical Perspective

Although language shift (and resulting endangerment) is the focus of considerable current research, it is not a new phenomenon. The field of contact linguistics is often associated with the historical reconstruction of historical contact and shift (where applicable, as contact does not necessarily lead to shift). From a modern perspective, we can find evidence of prehistoric language shift in multiple cases. In some cases, there is evidence of language contact and shift but no living language, and reconstructing the spoken language prior to shift can be challenging. Contact linguistics draws on archaeological and historical evidence in addition to linguistic data to reconstruct language contact and the social and power differentials that lead to shift.

One classic example is Etruscan, attested from approximately to 700 bce to 50 ad or so. Etruscan was a language spoken by a people who were the dominant power in central and upper Italy (or Etruria) and there are no modern descendants who speak it; it was lost as a spoken language through shift to Latin, and it is known to us today from more than 10,000 inscriptions and texts, although the overwhelming majority (some 90%) of them are epigraphs that consist of only a name, whereas others are only somewhat longer texts about daily life. In the first half of the 8th century, the Etruscans borrowed writing (and the alphabet) from Greeks living off the coast of Campania (Wallace, 2008, p. 17). At this point, Etruscans were clearly in contact with Greeks.

Language shift from Etruscan to Latin proceeded at different times, depending on the political relationship between a given Etruscan city and Rome. Those cities located in southern Etruria, with closer political ties to Rome, switched to Latin (in both speaking and writing) earlier than the more distant cities in the northern region. Wallace (2008) argues that it is likely that people in higher social classes acquired Latin before those in lower classes, as it would have been more beneficial to them (socially, economically, and politically), to which we might add that Latin would have also been more accessible. Certainly, higher social classes are more likely to have been literate. At any rate, Latin inscriptions begin appearing in the southern region as early as the 2nd century bce but not until the 1st century ce in the northernmost regions of Etruria. A series of Etruscan/Latin bilingual funerary inscriptions attest to a period of bilingualism, when both languages were simultaneously in use (Wallace, 2008, pp. 27–28). From what is known today about the contact ecology, we can understand why it resulted in language shift. The Etruscans did not have a centrally organized state but rather were organized more loosely into city states, which did not have the collective political power and dominance of the Romans.

A contrastive example is provided by Manchu language shift, where the dominant, ruling people shifted to the language of the people they had conquered. The Manchu (or Jurchen), a Tungusic people from Manchuria, ruled China from 1644–1911 in the Qing Dynasty. With over 10 million people, they constitute the fourth largest ethnic population in China today (2010 Census) and yet the language is largely moribund. It survives in the Sibe language, a descendent of a Manchu dialect. The Sibe moved to the western province of Xinjiang where they lived surrounded by Turkic and Mongolic peoples and insulated from Chinese Han influence. But the Manchu, despite political power, were (and are) greatly outnumbered by ethnic Han, and have largely assimilated linguistically and culturally with near complete shift (Norman, 2003; Ostler, 2011, p. 322).

5. Theories of Language Shift

One of the major questions about language shift is why it happens. Why do some communities shift while others maintain multilingual practices? Understanding the factors that drive shift is key to understanding how to offset or even reverse them, which is central to language revitalization. There are a number of different theoretical models of language shift, but all center on the importance of social factors in one way or another. This section provides an overview of some of the more widely held theories.

Pioneering work in providing a theoretical framework for contact-induced change and language shift comes from Thomason and Kaufman (1988, p. 53) who categorize the linguistic results of contact in terms of a basic dichotomy of language maintenance versus shift, where borrowing is associated with maintenance and interference with shift. More specifically, their model takes into account intensity and duration of contact. Contact-induced change in situations of language maintenance is characterized by casual contact, with little bilingualism and lexical borrowing limited to nonbasic, noncore vocabulary. In contrast, in contact with shift, if the shifting group is small vis-à-vis the rest of the population, it will have little impact on the language as a whole and there will not be interference from the dominant language in the ancestral language. Contact-induced change and shift of the entire speaker population as whole happens with long-term cultural pressure, resulting in either massive grammatical replacement or shift (and thus language loss).

Thomason and Kaufman’s framework is foundational to all current work on language shift. Especially important is the recognition that intensity and duration of contact, together with the relative size of the shifting group and access to the target language, are determinative factors in the outcome.

5.1 Language Ecologies and Resilience Theory

One proposal is that language shift is a natural process in the development of language ecologies. Wendel and Heinrich (2012) present a framework that models language shift and revitalization within an overarching ecological model; although somewhat dated, it still presents an excellent overview and schema for understanding these processes. In an ecological model, not only are languages completely lost due to disease, natural disaster, or genocide, but often they are replaced by majority languages due to patterns of colonization and exploitation, a model of evolutionary language ecologies put forth most famously by Salikoko Mufwene (2001, 2008). Mufwene’s theory stems from analogies based on evolutionary biology, likening linguistic features to genes, a language population (as a collection of idiolects) to a species (as a collection of organisms), and speakers to viruses. A core argument is that speakers make linguistic choices dependent on social dynamics. The model underscores the importance of social and economic factors in language choice, and that population size is not a determining factor in language vitality. In Mufwene’s sense of ecology, language loss and birth are natural processes: New languages are created as others disappear, and this is a natural kind of system, one that linguists cannot (and perhaps should not) attempt to change. Such arguments echo, in part, Ladefoged (1992), who argues that the notion that linguists should “preserve” languages is paternalistic, similarly noting that “different cultures are always dying while new ones arise” (p. 810). These points are well taken, although they presuppose that it is specifically community-external linguists, and not members of speech communities themselves, who are the leaders of language revitalization movements and reversing language shift. This is not, at present at least, the case; see section 5.

Working within a broad understanding of language ecologies, Bradley and Bradley (2020, pp. 75–78) introduce resilience thinking as a response to language shift in a form they refer to as Resilience Linguistics. The aim of the model is to understand the factors that contribute to language shift and thus help target responses to them in a strategic way to reverse shift. The underlying thinking is that ecosystems, including language ecologies, go through change as a result of environmental pressures, and that the systems can adapt, reformulate, and become more resilient. By revising this model to account for language ecosystems, we can pinpoint environmental factors that cause shift and determine how to counteract them to build resilience. Fitzgerald (2017) maps out a framework for resilience, which she defines as “the ability to adapt and even thrive under adversity” (p. e280) focusing on revitalization and increasing language vitality and rejecting deficit-based models of shift.

5.2 Ethnolinguistic Vitality Theory

While Resilience Linguistics is anchored in research about ecosystems responding to environmental change, Ethnolinguistic Vitality Theory is grounded in a socioanthropological way to understanding human behavior. It is an approach that aims to identify “that which makes a group likely to behave as a distinctive and active collective entity in inter-group situation” (Giles, Bourhis, & Taylor, 1977, pp. 308–309). It takes into consideration a set of factors that influences a group’s sense of self, identity, and attitudes about their language and culture. These factors are divided into three categories: status (e.g., social prestige and sociohistoric position), demographic (numbers of group members and territorial distribution), and institutional support, including education, media, and a set of demographic factors (e.g., population size, birth rate, exogamy vs. endogamy, migration patterns, among others). Taken together, they define a group’s vitality level. Groups with low vitality are likely to shift and assimilate, whereas high vitality groups are more likely to retain their language. As in other models, a nexus of social and historical factors, attitudes, and beliefs, coupled with demographic factors, is a strong predictor of the outcome of contact. Ehala (2015) provides an overview of the model.

6. Modeling Language Shift

There have been a number of mathematical models proposed for modeling language shift, to predict the outcome of contact and the extent of possible shift and to understand ways to address it. Importantly, models that incorporate the wide variety of factors that contribute to shift can help identify which ones operate in particular local language ecologies. And the model in and of itself can evaluate the relative relevance of one factor over another in shift versus maintenance. The models, although often simplifying the complex dynamics of shifting communities, enable researchers to single out particular factors and calculate their relevance in shift or maintenance.

For example, Prochazka and Vogl (2017) look at Slovene shift using a model based on principles of cellular automata/agent-based modeling, combining it with empirical data to track changes in both time and space. The model is demonstrated on a case study of Slovene to German shift in Austria; the authors conclude that the single biggest factor in vitality (or shift vs. retention) is the possibility of interacting with other speakers, and that this factor outweighs others. Running the model on historical data for shift from the 1880–1910 period, it is shown to accurately predict the actual historical outcome. An advantage to the model is that it treats language shift on a microscopic rather than a macroscopic scale. However, their model uses only a handful of parameters (urban areas, bilingual schools, and parish language) and simplifies the complexities of shift.

Much of the work in mathematical modeling of language shift was inspired by a seminal paper by Abrams and Strogatz (2003) who use differential equations to model language shift across several case studies. As they themselves note, they simplify the social situations by assuming languages are fixed and in competition for speakers, and they further assume—for simplicity—no social hierarchy and monolingual speakers. But languages are not fixed but dynamic, and we know that an individual speaker’s linguistic repertoire is dynamic and changing even throughout the course of a single day. This grossly oversimplifies the actual linguistic facts and social circumstances, both central to language shift. Views of speakers as monolingual users of static linguistic codes have been replaced with an understanding of speakers as multilingual, multidialectal, with dynamic linguistic repertoires who practice translanguaging (García & Li, 2014; Wei, 2018).

7. Responses

Responses to language shift are varied but fall into two basic groups. Linguists and scholars have been engaged in documenting languages and speech communities before they have fully shifted. The basic goal is to make records of the language while still possible. The other response is to promote revitalization of the languages that are in advanced stages of shift, and to undertake measures to maintain language usage while still possible. Language shift or retention is generally not the result of conscious decisions of an individual or group of individuals but rather the result of interactions between a number of societal factors (Jenkins, 2013; Porcel, 2011). Language revitalization, in contrast, is the result of a deliberate decision to increase language vitality and usage.

7.1 Language Policies and Conventions

Policies and other political instruments can influence attitudes about minority languages and help create conditions for their active use. Such policies can be implemented at different levels—international, national, regional, and local—but clearly one can outpower the other. That is, a local policy promoting the language may face insurmountable challenges if it is at odds with a national policy. Language policies vary greatly from country to country and are subject to change. This section presents a few major international conventions which are designed to promote language usage and thus interrupt and even arrest language shift.

At an international level, the United Nations issued the International Declaration of the Right of Indigenous Peoples. Article 13, section 1 states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures [. . .],” and section 2 puts the responsibility on the states to “take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected.”

The Council of Europe adopted the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages in 1992 to protect regional and minority languages and to provide spaces for their active use.

The Charter is complemented by the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, adopted in 1994, which is intended to protect the rights of national minorities, including their rights to express, preserve and develop their linguistic and cultural identity.

Implementation of both requires active participation on the part of the European countries which have ratified it to take measures to promote minority languages and their speakers. Actual compliance varies, but the two conventions set the tone for respecting minority languages and cultures and help elevate their prestige at national and international levels.

7.2 Language Documentation

One response by researchers is to document and preserve records of the language practices of the last speakers while still possible. On the one hand, this is critical work, as a full documentation of a language is critical for scientific and social purposes alike; on the other, the race to document often drives them to work with the most fluent remaining speakers, and this is what Perley (2012) is concerned with in terms of zombie linguistics. This causes social problems in terms of valorizing the highly fluent elderly speakers and devaluing the language abilities of younger speakers, L2 learners, and thus perpetuates language ideologies which stand in the way of active use of multilingualism and translanguaging practices. Critically, this strategy creates large research gaps. As we focus on the outcomes, we know very little about the linguistic processes of language shift itself. The push to document fluent and only fluent speakers comes at a cost, socially and scientifically. Moreover, despite the fact that research increasingly shows that an individual’s proficiency in one or another language can change throughout a given day, that it is more accurate to think of linguistic repertoires and translanguaging practices in multilingual communities, we continue to treat languages as bounded, countable entities, and speakers as if they were speaking one and only one language at a given time. Similarly, speakers are classified into relatively rigid categories that do not reflect their range of repertoires. More research is needed to understand the linguistic, cognitive, and social processes that are involved in language shift.

Given the current rapid rate of language shift and loss, the documentation of many languages is somewhat a race against time. There is a strong tendency to prioritize documentation of understudied (and especially of unstudied) languages with small speaker bases as they are viewed as the most vulnerable. These metrics can be easily distorted. Quantifying the vitality in terms of speaker numbers objectifies the language and gives the mistaken impression that languages, and speakers, are countable, whereas in fact current research shows that there are no clear-cut boundaries between languages, in particular in multilingual communities, and defining who is a speaker and who is not is often problematic (Evans, 2001; Hill, 2002). Yet enumeration continues to dominate as a snapshot metric for assessing vitality and thus shift. Perley (2012) coins the term “zombie linguistics” to refer to the practices of linguists who separate language from speakers, objectifying and reifying the language, and argues that language documentation—the dominant response to language shift among linguists—itself contributes to this objectification. Despite these challenges, documentation is a critical response to language shift and presents the possibility of documenting not only the languages before they are lost but also the process of shift in progress.

7.3 Revitalization

As a community shifts language use, the opportunities and needs to use that language decrease, as does the number of possible interlocutors within the shifting community. Even fluent, L1 speakers may forget the language overtime due to disuse. One response to a desire by community members to revitalize their language is to reverse the shift. This may at first be surprising (and counterintuitive), as it suggests that those very speaker populations that are in the process of shift change their minds, as it were, and work to revitalize their language. In fact, the situation is considerably more complicated, since language shift may be the unconscious reaction to external factors beyond the control of speakers.

Revitalization programs are on the rise in many parts of the world, resulting in a growing group of new speakers, people who have learned the language through revitalization or reclamation languages. Increasingly, academic and community linguists are partnering with educators, community members, and policymakers to reverse language shift. It is not uncommon to see younger generations regret loss and work to reclaim their language, even if it has not been spoken for generations. Myaamia (Leonard, 2019) and Wôpanâak language reclamation projects are two such cases of northern Native American communities reclaiming their language and provide exemplary models for flipping discourses of loss and endangerment to ones of vitality and resilience.

Further Reading

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  • Potowski, K. (2013). Language maintenance and shift. In R. Bayley, R. Cameron, & C. Lucas (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of sociolinguistics (pp. 321–339). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


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