The vitality of language communities can affect the quality of intergroup communication between speakers of contrasting language groups. This is the case where accent, dialect, and language not only provide important cues for the categorization of speakers, but also serve as salient dimensions of ethnic identity. Vitality is defined as “that which makes a group likely to behave as a distinctive and collective entity within the intergroup setting” (Giles et al. 1977, 308). The more vitality an ethnolinguistic group enjoys, the more it will be able to use its own language so as to survive and thrive as a collective entity.
Three dimensions of socio-structural variables influence the vitality of ethnolinguistic groups: demographic, institutional support, and status. Demographic variables are those related to the absolute number of speakers and their distribution throughout the national, regional, or urban territory (e.g., birth and mortality rates, mixed marriages, and immigration/emigration patterns in and out of an ancestral territory). Demographic factors constitute a fundamental asset for ethnolinguistic groups as “strength in numbers” and they can be used as a legitimizing tool to grant language communities the institutional support they need to foster their development within multilingual settings.
Institutional control is defined as the degree of control one group has over its own fate and that of out-groups and can be seen as the degree of social power enjoyed by one language group relative to competing linguistic communities (Sachdev & Bourhis 2005). The extent to which a language group has gained formal and informal representation in the institutions of a region, state, or nation constitutes its institutional support. Informal support refers to the degree to which a linguistic community is organized as a pressure group to represent and safeguard its own language interests in key state and private domains. Formal support refers to the degree to which members of a language group have gained positions of control at decision-making levels of private institutions and the local/national government. Such control improves the likelihood that the first language will be taught and used in education, provided as a language of health-care in hospitals, used as the language of work in business and government services, and included as the language of broadcasting. The presence and quality of leaders within formal and informal institutions representing language groups also contributes to the institutional support of language communities. Gains in institutional support often depend on the emergence of activists and charismatic leaders who succeed in mobilizing groups to struggle for greater institutional control of and support for their ingroup language use.
Language groups that have made gains on institutional support factors are also likely to benefit from considerable social status relative to less dominant groups. The status variables are those related to a language community’s social prestige, its socio-historical status within the state, and the prestige of its language and culture locally, nationally, and internationally. Social psychological evidence shows that speakers from high-status groups enjoy a more positive social identity and are likely to use their own language in a greater range of private and public situations. Conversely, being a member of a disparaged, low-status linguistic group can sap the collective will of minorities to maintain themselves as distinctive language communities, leading to linguistic assimilation. The experience of belonging to a highvs low-status language community is reinforced through language stereotypes and enshrined through the adoption of language laws that legislate the relative status of language communities within multilingual states (Bourhis & Maass 2005).
The above three dimensions combine to affect in one direction or the other the overall strength or vitality of ethnolinguistic groups. A language community may be weak on demographic variables but strong on institutional support and status factors, resulting in a medium vitality position relative to a language minority weak on all three vitality dimensions.
The subjective vitality questionnaire (SVQ) was designed to measure group members’ assessments of in/outgroup vitalities on each item constituting the objective vitality framework (Bourhis et al. 1981). Vitality research using the SVQ showed that, overall, group members are realistic in perceiving their vitality position along the lines suggested by “objective” assessments of ethnolinguistic vitality (Harwood et al. 1994). However, studies have also shown that group members can be biased in their assessments of owngroup/outgroup vitalities. For example, perceptual distortions in favor of ingroup vitality occur when language groups exaggerate the strength of their own-group vitality while underestimating the vitality of the outgroup. Perceptual distortions in favor of outgroup vitality involve language groups who underestimate the vitality of their own-group while exaggerating the vitality of the outgroup.
Studies have shown that ethnolinguistic vitality can mediate a broad range of language attitudes and communicative behaviors. Combined objective/subjective vitality assessments allow language groups to strategically plan and mobilize not only to limit linguistic/ cultural assimilation, but also to act more efficiently to improve their own-group vitality relative to coexisting groups in multilingual settings.
- Bourhis, R. Y., & Maass, A. (2005). Linguistic prejudice and stereotypes. In U. Ammon, N. Dittmar, K. J. Mattheir, & P. Trudgill (eds.), Sociolinguistics: An international handbook of the science of language and society, vol. 2, 2nd edn. Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 1587–1601.
- Bourhis, R. Y., Giles, H., & Rosenthal, D. (1981). Notes on the construction of a “subjective vitality questionnaire” for ethnolinguistic groups. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 2, 145 –155.
- 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. London: Academic Press, pp. 307–348.
- 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.
- Sachdev, I., & Bourhis, R.Y. (2005). Multilingual communication and social identification. In J. Harwood & H. Giles (eds.), Intergroup communication: Multiple perspectives. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 65 – 91.