43. New speakers, minoritized languages and decoloniality in Europe

This post is also available in: Catalan

Joan Pujolar
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya


What are “new speakers”? Why is there so much interest in them? In this paper, I will explain how the concept of new speakers has emerged among certain linguistic communities and what debates it has given rise to. I will also reflect on what new speakers mean for minority languages that are threatened by language shift. I argue that new speakers could offer hope for the future for these languages but that for them to do so we need to do away with linguistic ideologies associated with the nation-state and colonialism.

Between 2013 and 2017, activities led by an academic network of sociolinguists researching the phenomenon of so-called “new speakers” were undertaken across Europe. The network was overseen by Bernadette O’Rourke, a specialist in Irish Gaelic sociolinguistics who at the time was a professor at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. During this period, around fifty conferences and seminars were organized, with more than three hundred people from twenty-eight European countries participating. And by 2017, the number of scientific publications on the subject had reached 150. More detailed information can be found at https://www.nspk.org.uk/ and in the following publication by Bernadette O’Rourke and Joan Pujolar: From New Speaker to Speaker: Outcomes, reflections and policy recommendations from COST Action IS1306 on New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe: Opportunities and Challenges. IAITH: Welsh Centre for Language Planning, Cardiff, 2019. ISBN: 9781900563123.

This topic emerged during the first decade of the twenty-first century out of a few very specific cases from the Basque Country, Galicia and Ireland that related to the promotion of these places’ respective minoritized languages. For decades, a specific type of speaker of these languages, respectively called euskaldunberriak, neofalantes and gaeilgeoir, had been spoken of within these contexts. All three terms have different lexical nuances: the Basque term literally indicates new “Basque speakers”; the Galician one (literally, “new speakers”) comes across as more generic; and the latter term can designate, according to the context, any speaker of the Gaelic language. However, the terms have traditionally been used to designate people who speak the country’s language but who are perceived as different from the speakers of these languages who have always been around.

To understand the reasons why these people are treated as special speakers, it is necessary to understand the history of European linguistic minorities, most of which share important aspects. They have directly suffered, so to speak, from the imposition of nation-states, a European invention that was subsequently exported across the world via colonialism. All nation-states were articulated around a linguistic group (the exceptions in fact being states with federal structures that are based on linguistic groups). As we know, however, the territories of a state could include speakers of languages other than that of the dominant group. Generally speaking, this dominant group controlled political institutions and held economic power, so nonstate languages suffered political and economic exclusion. The development of infrastructure, investment, technical innovations, services and new economic initiatives was primarily carried out by and for the dominant groups. Speakers of minoritized languages were for the most part second-class citizens left out in the cold in a rural or extractive economy. They could only become integrated into the dominant culture through school, military service or work in the public administration or industry, all of which used the dominant language. The population of these communities shrank: first, they disappeared from large cities and then from towns, until eventually they remained only in small villages and the most remote rural areas. Many states persecuted minority-language speakers through repression and propaganda. But often it was the speakers themselves who decided to stop speaking their language to their children so as to escape from poverty and shame.

This is the story of Europe’s communities of speakers of minoritized and threatened languages, with the exception of a few atypical cases such as Catalan or Flemish, which are spoken by larger and economically stronger communities. However, repression of and/or contempt towards these Europeans began to change after World War II, when civil rights began to be demanded and states started to consider minoritized languages as cultural heritage. As early as 1960, the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education set out the right to be taught one’s mother tongue, something the Council of Europe later specified to a much greater extent with the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (1992). At very different rates and on very different scales, throughout Europe states have incorporated—or allowed the incorporation of—minoritized languages into education. Teaching of these languages was not limited to those who still speak them but also extended to the many descendants of those who spoke them and to the current residents of the original linguistic territories.

This whole process has facilitated these languages being learned by more people. Many people have wanted to take part in social movements that seek to recover them. There have been people who have learned them in courses for adults, and many others have taken their children to bilingual or immersion schools so that they can learn them from an early age. In many cases, the number of speakers of these languages has stopped decreasing or is even increasing slightly. That is far from all that has changed, however, because this new population that has become interested in these languages mostly corresponds to a different economic and geographical profile. It is no longer the usual rural population. These are educated people from all the different professional fields, and they mostly live in towns and cities. In some places for which we have data, such as the Basque Country and Ireland, censuses show that the majority of speakers of these languages are new speakers who fit this profile and live in cities. None of this means that these languages are experiencing recovery on a mass scale. In cities, their speakers are often still very much in the minority, and they can only speak the language to one another. Another development is that numbers of speakers in rural areas have continued to decline because rural depopulation has never stopped. This is why now, in the case of some languages such as Manx or Cornish, no speaker has learned them through conventional transmission within the family.

But this apparent progress of minoritized languages also has its contradictions, and these are what have sparked debates about new speakers. Generally speaking, the promotion of languages is linked to their modernization, which contradicts the symbolic values that have until now been associated with these languages and those who speak them. Promotion of a language nowadays means codifying it so that it can be taught and used in public administration and mass communication. It also requires the language to be spoken by an educated and specialist population that is both multilingual and socially and geographically mobile. These languages can no longer be linked to a place whose people are engaged in a very narrow set of disappearing professions and never move away from a handful of places and landscapes that are idealized as vestiges of the past. Modernizing a language has ultimately meant turning it into a code that is abstract and looks past those who speak it, and then using that code as a criterion for determining merit in education and in society. For the individual, speaking and writing the modern language—that of the state—represented alignment with the behavioural and expressive parameters of the rational man (who was supposed to be not only male but also white, heterosexual and able bodied). Minoritized languages represented the opposite of all this; they were linked to behaviours that bore the marks of tradition and were linked to sentimentality and femininity.

From this point of view, modernizing a language can ultimately displace and stigmatize the people who have always spoken it, reproducing old prejudices against the rural world. And this is a tension between these communities and new speakers whose emergence can be perceived in a variety of ways. New speakers are mainly so as an outcome of their studying these languages, and this has implications. First, a very specific variety of language is learned from studying: the standard form, or the formal or literary register, depending on the case in question. Second, the minority language is not the first that most new speakers learn, but rather their second or third. And so they can be identified immediately by the way in which they speak. On the one hand, they speak in a very formal manner that sounds artificial to traditional speakers. On the other hand, their accent and the fact that their ways of saying things come from other languages—especially the dominant one—stand out. They often have difficulty with the minority language’s sounds and grammatical features that vary from those of the dominant language. And so many “lifelong” speakers have the feeling that these new speakers are ultimately just imposing the dominant language’s pronunciation and ways of saying things. In some contexts, this is a particularly painful paradox, as people have different ideas about what they understand to be “authentic language.” The model taken up by new speakers corresponds to a language whose “barbarisms”—that is, the foreign elements (above all lexical ones) that the language’s habitual speakers have been using for a long time—have been carefully cleaned up by philologists. For example, the device that so-called “néobrétonnants” call “pellgomz” has always been called a “telefon” by Bretons. Many of the latter group roundly refuse to adopt a way of talking that they associate with a people who stress the final syllable of all words, something that is altogether strange in Breton and comes from the habit of speaking French. In the worst-case scenario, this may end up excluding traditional speakers from accessing the few symbolic and economic incentives provided by language-promotion policies, such as obtaining accreditation to teach the language or working in public administration or the media. It may even cause some to flatly refuse to associate with new speakers and to permanently give up using the language that is the focus of the defence efforts.

All of these dynamics pose new contradictions within minority-language communities and affect language planners, language workers (creators, linguists, journalists) and speakers in general alike. On the one hand, the process of modernizing the language is itself what triggers insecurities and sometimes a crisis in the communities, even though this process is still the only hope of preserving it. New speakers represent the future that efforts have always sought to secure for these languages. But the only way in which these languages can have this future is if most of what is imagined about them in terms of their place being in the past, in tradition and in sentimentality is overcome. Beyond the pigeonholes to which they had been confined, these languages are now being appropriated by other people, and they bear the marks of other languages and transcend their usual places. Although this transcendence and transformation must be seen as a testament to their continuity and vitality, the question remains whether this transformation must be made by breaking away from memory but maintaining the forms of hierarchy and exclusion that the modern world has constructed based on languages and that have always harmed their speakers.

If we accept that the linguistic ideologies of modernity are the focus of these contradictions, I would like to suggest that we follow the thread of this idea, which brings us to the subject of colonialism. Colonialism is, after all, the project developed by European nationalisms to take control of the rest of the world. It is no coincidence, then, that so-called “indigenous languages” have been treated in similar ways to European minoritized languages in many respects. Colonial subjects were also by definition considered excluded from modernity, as were their languages and lifestyles. In many of these contexts, new speakers have also become very important, as Fishman acknowledged in his renowned work Reversing Language Shift. In many communities, it is common for languages to be learned by adults, or even for them to be taught by grandparents to grandchildren or for them to be taught by people who do not usually speak the language but who are recognized by the community as having authority to teach it. The subject of indigenous languages also makes the link between the use of languages and the cultural and economic lifestyles of each community much more visible.

However, it is interesting to note that, at least until now, those whose work focuses on revitalizing indigenous languages have not reported the contrast we have seen between new and “old” speakers. Rather, the area of contention is the question of how to teach the language and why (it being understood that one thing leads to the other). The works of Duchêne and Heller (2007); Makoni and Pennycook (2007); Wesley (2017); and McCarty et al. (2019) agree in their identification of colonialism as the paradigm that guides the ways in which languages are codified, taught, presented, and represented in these communities. That is, colonialism determines a way of doing things that in the end symbolically confiscates from speakers the matters of what their language is like, what their relationship with it should be and how it should fit within the future they believe their communities should have. This is why there is more and more talk of “decolonial” approaches: it is no longer a question of dismantling the colonizers’ political and military structures, but one of constructing knowledge paradigms that are free of the ideological schemes that have been left behind on populations’ consciences.

Simply applying modernity’s ideological and procedural schemes to minoritized languages creates these contradictions. The challenges posed by new speakers to Europe’s minority languages are, in any case, an expression of the social and economic changes that the whole planet is experiencing, and they are therefore not altogether disconnected from those of other minoritized languages around the world, where people are also working hard to learn them. In Europe and the rest of the world alike, all this is the product of the penetration of capitalism into the last corners of the inhabited world—a capitalism that has always used colonialism to justify its conquering mission. Linguists around the world are sounding the alarm over the rapid disappearance of ways of life that are the basis for thousands of the planet’s small languages. The only way to prevent many languages from disappearing surely does not involve respect for their communities’ political and economic sovereignty alone. Their linguistic sovereignty must also be respected.



Duchêne, Alexandre, and Monica Heller. 2007. Discourses of endangerment: ideology and interest in the defence of languages. New York: Continuum International.

Leonard, Wesley Y. 2017. “Producing language reclamation by decolonizing ‘language’”. Language Documentation and Description 14 (September): 15-36. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2013.794806.

Makoni, Sinfree, and Alastair Pennycook. 2007. “Disinventing and Reconstituting Languages”. In , 1-41. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

McCarty, Theresa L., Sheilah E. Nicholas, and Gillian Wigglesworth. 2019. A world of indigenous languages : policies, pedagogies and prospects for language reclamation. Bristol: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

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