On language preferences in multilingual societies

Nov. 15, 2023
  • Researchers at IFISC (UIB-CSIC) mathematically model linguistic ideologies to understand why some languages are spoken more than others.

  • The study, published in Chaos, examines the influence of interaction between populations on linguistic dynamics. 

Researchers at the Institute for Cross-disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems (IFISC, UIB-CSIC) have published a study that adds a new dimension to our understanding of how language use evolves, especially in multilingual societies. Until now, most existing models have focused mainly on the social prestige of languages as the primary factor influencing their adoption or extinction.   The model proposed by the authors, published in Chaos, shows that language ideologies, i.e., collective beliefs and attitudes towards particular language forms, significantly influence language shift processes. This research not only provides a framework for understanding the extent to which bilingual speakers use languages, but also reveals how personal and collective beliefs can drive long-term language shift. 

IFISC researchers Pablo Rosillo-Rodes, David Sánchez and Maxi San Miguel used mathematical models and agent-based simulations to study how multilingual societies evolve. Within their theoretical framework, speakers in a community may have different preferences for different language varieties, and these preferences may align or conflict with social attitudes towards language prestige. Their findings reveal that coexistence of languages, or different varieties of the same language, becomes less likely as communities with opposing linguistic ideologies interact more. In other words, this study underlines the need to take individual preferences into account in understanding language shift processes, a factor that has been overlooked in most previous quantitative studies. 

The article analyses the interaction between communities with different language preferences, identifying different regimes of language shift. For example, a weak interaction between different communities could be seen when a ruling elite increases exchange with the local population, resulting in a subtle linguistic shift. An intermediate interaction is exemplified by the Norman elite who, after conquering England in the 11th century, gradually abandoned French in favor of English, or the rise of Hindi versus the decline of English in present-day India. Surprisingly, in both cases the language replaced is the one that enjoyed the highest status. This phenomenon could not be understood with previous models. On the other hand, in Belgium, with reasonably high interaction between the two main speech communities, Flemish and Walloon maintain their respective languages. However, with a very high degree of interconnection between human groups, as for example in Latin America during colonization, many indigenous languages disappear in favor of the more socially prestigious language (Spanish or Portuguese). 

The work has important implications for governments and organizations involved in language planning, enabling better-informed decisions and proposals. 

The authors conclude that future models will need to integrate geographical and other sociolinguistic factors into language shift processes, an area in which some work has already been done. This will require more robust datasets that capture language use and preferences in order to make more accurate predictions.

Photo: A. Costa/UIB

Modeling language ideologies for the dynamics of languages in contact. Rosillo-Rodes, Pablo; San Miguel, Maxi; Sanchez, David. Chaos 11, (2023). DOI: 10.1063/5.0166636


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