Family Multilingualism in Medium-Sized Language Communities

by Emili Boix-Fuster (Volume editor) Albert Bastardas-Boada (Volume editor) Rosa Maria Torrens (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 336 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 257


Medium-sized language communities face competition between local and global languages such as Spanish, Russian, French and, above all, English. The various regions of Spain where Catalan is spoken, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania show how their medium-sized languages (a term used to distinguish them as much from minority codes as from more widely-spoken codes) coexist alongside or struggle with their big brothers in multilingual families. This comparative analysis offers unique insight into language contact in present-day Europe.

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction (Albert Bastardas-Boada / Emili Boix-Fuster / Rosa Maria Torrens-Guerrini)
  • Mixed-Language Families in Catalonia: Competences, Uses and Evolving Self-Organisation (Albert Bastardas-Boada)
  • Narrative Discourse in Interviews of Linguistically Mixed Couples (Xavier Laborda Gil)
  • Discourses on Language and Language Choice Among Danish/English-Speaking Families in Denmark (Anne Larsen / Marie Maegaard)
  • Monolingual Language Ideology, Multilingual Families and the Dynamics of Linguistic Diversity in the Czech Republic. Insights from Analysis of Discursive Practices in Research Interviews (Helena Özörencik / Magdalena Hromadová)
  • Contact Between the Titular Language and the Post-Colonial Language in Bilingual Lithuanian-Russian Families Within the Context of the Growing Role of English (Svetlana Markova)
  • Family Language Policy in the UK: Identity Building and Language Maintenance at Home (Bibi Stacey / Josep Soler)
  • New Speakers’ Ideologies and Trajectories in Bilingual Families in Catalonia (Emili Boix-Fuster / Anna Paradís)
  • Language Uses and Linguistic Ideologies in Mixed French-Catalan Families in Catalonia (Francesc Bernat I Baltrons)
  • Mixed Couples in Catalonia: Intergenerational Language Transmission and Language Use (Rosa Maria Torrens-Guerrini)
  • Thematic Index
  • Series index

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When depicting multilingualism in the world, there has been a tendency among scholars and laypeople alike to employ simplistic dichotomies. Analysts, for instance, have focused mainly on the opposition between hegemonic and minority languages. As usual, however, reality is much more complicated and ambiguous. The current processes of globalisation and internationalisation under modern capitalism, for example, show a nuanced scenario in which many medium-sized language communities (MSLCs) are striving both to maintain their languages in everyday communication and to use them in high prestige domains. As set out in previous work (Boix 2015, xi), “we define MSLCs, mainly from the demographic point of view, as communities that speak languages which are not international languages, nor languages with a large number of speakers, nor (at the other extreme) minority languages or languages that are not widely spoken. In demographic terms, MSLCs are conventionally defined as languages spoken by between one million and 25 million people”. Vila and Bretxa (2013, 3-4) have added some further distinctions to this definition:

“The languages included in this intermediate group are far from homogeneous. They range from fully standardised languages with a long record of written literature, to varieties that have rarely transcended the status of oral vernaculars and tend to be regarded as dialects of other languages. Many of these languages enjoy some sort of official status in one or more countries and even in supranational institutions, while others have no legal protection at all. Some are widely used on the internet and for software facilities; others have only a marginal presence in the virtual world. Some of these communities are universally literate in their language, whereas in others literacy is universally provided in a different language. Still others are far from literacy in any language at all. Many of these languages are used as a means of instruction in higher education; others do not even enter kindergartens. Some of these languages are hegemonic in their communities’ press, radio and television, while others only rarely ← 7 | 8 → enter these domains. In general terms, the majority of these languages are not considered to be in immediate danger of extinction, thanks to their demography and the advantages it provides, while some are seriously at risk. Indeed it would be erroneous to think that all these languages lead an untroubled life. Debates about the long-term sustainability of many of these languages may often be regarded as unrealistic by speakers and specialists alike. Nevertheless, in spite of all these debates, many of these languages, especially but not only those that have gained the status of official language in a nation state, constitute vivid examples of linguistic sustainability in virtually all domains of social life. This makes them appropriate for analysis in order to make progress in the field of language policy.”

A fair amount of common ground has been found among these MSLCs:

There is no need for language shift in order to thrive economically and socially. In other words, maintaining whatever sort of local languages does not necessarily hinder progress and welfare;

Most MSLCs use elaborate, complete languages;

Linguistic sustainability may not require monolingual societies. Multilingualism tends to be the norm rather than the exception; and,

There are low expectations for the learning of medium-sized languages by other people.

These characteristics, therefore, give MSLCs some homogeneity in terms of the problems and challenges they face. In this volume we address the issue of family language transmission in these comparable communities.

Family language policy is a growing research field, and an especially interesting one in that it encompasses macroscopic and structural social aspects (mainly the uneven distribution of power in society) as well as microscopic aspects, namely emotional, psychological and personal factors, which are not mutually impervious.

The two first chapters in the volume set out general transversal aspects of this subfield. The first chapter, which is by Albert Bastardas-Boada (“Mixed-language families in Catalonia: Competences, uses and evolving self-organisation”), analyses and critiques the exaggerated use of the concept “family language policy”. ← 8 | 9 →

Bastardas-Boada finds the very concept of family language policy to be awkward. Drawing on concepts from complexity theory, he introduces “self-organisation” and “emergence” to postulate the relative autonomy of families in their language choices. Thus, family agents are capable of determining for themselves the principles that will guide their own behaviour. Their cognitive-emotional impulses are very often more decisive than sheer calculation. Actually, a combination of three factors (personal linguistic affectivity, group identity, and perceived future utility) constrains customary language choices in the family.

Xavier Laborda’s chapter, entitled “Narrative discourse in interviews of linguistically mixed couples”, identifies and interprets discourse markers of autobiographical storytelling. His analyses stem from semi-structured interviews with partners in bilingual families. Laborda’s theoretical frame follows the Bruner-Weisser model, taking into consideration the elements that refer to agents and their actions, to the sequence of events, to the canon or rule, and to the perspective of the storyteller. Thus, the study of storytelling processes in the interviews provides references on the linguistic skills and habits of multilingual families.

The following four chapters deal with specific case studies of language contact in families in Western and Eastern Europe, specifically between Danish and English in Denmark (chapter 3), Lithuanian, Russian and English in Lithuania (chapter 4), Czech and English in the Czech Republic (chapter 5), and English with regard to other exogenous languages in the United Kingdom (chapter 6).

First of all, Anne Larsen and Marie Maegaard’s contribution (chapter 3: “Discourses on language and language choice among Danish/English-speaking families in Denmark”) discusses language ideologies in Denmark. They find that a purist ideology pervades the country and affects both Danish and English usage. For instance, poor English is perceived as an index of low educational level, whereas a good English accent is an index both of high social status and of unfriendliness and disloyalty. Based on self-reported language choices, Larsen and Maegaard present discourses on which the subjects draw in order to legitimise their various linguistic strategies and attitudes. These discourses mirror macro-discourses on language choice circulating in ← 9 | 10 → society. For example, most respondents emphasise that children should learn Danish because they will learn English in any event.

Helena Özörencik and Magdalena Hromadova (chapter 4: “Monolingual language ideology, multilingual families and the dynamics of linguistic diversity in the Czech Republic: Insights from the analysis of discursive practices in research interviews”) start from the assumption that the growing linguistic diversity in the Czech Republic challenges the dominant “monolingual” language ideology and that such dynamics appear in the constellations of language ideologies in certain social settings, including multilingual families. Their contribution is based on biographically oriented narrative interviews with mothers in such families who themselves grew up in a monolingual Czech environment. The discursive practices in the interviews are analysed using H. Sacks’s notion of tellability. The analysis reveals that respondents who try to come up with a tellable answer often draw on shared metalinguistic beliefs. However, there are also instances in which shared beliefs make certain items untellable and stimulate discursive practices so that tellability is restored. This suggests that the constellations of language ideologies in multilingual families are heterogeneous, containing not only items reproducing the dominant ideology but also items reflecting the mothers’ biographical experiences.

Their chapter puts forwards a new view of the current dynamics of linguistic diversity in Czech society and especially of the challenges relating to the dominant monolingual ideology and the social groups emerging with the rebirth of diversity, including multilingual families. If the constellations of language ideologies are heterogeneous and contain items based on biographical experience that outweigh shared beliefs, it seems that these challenges are at least partly mutual. However, as far as we could ascertain, the different types of items in the constellations are distributed unevenly throughout the population. The dominant ideology, therefore, appears strikingly efficient in guiding the metalinguistic reflections of individuals regardless of the practices they observe or engage in in everyday life, unless a discursive consciousness relating to shared beliefs is stimulated by transformative, usually uneasy, biographical experiences. ← 10 | 11 →

The fifth chapter, which is by Svetlana Markova (“Contact between the titular language and the post-colonial language in bilingual Lithuanian-Russian families, with the growing role of English”), focuses on the problems of Russian language study, language deprivation and the opportunities for Russian acquisition and development in bilingual Russian-Lithuanian children and migrant Russian children living in Lithuania, with the English language being dominant in the environment. The author argues that the type of parental language behaviour in the family decides the attitude toward Russian language study. The research involved interviews with 6 families. The study aims to review and study not only bilingual families, but also Russian-speaking ones, because the search for respondents abroad leads one way or another to finding respondents who possess at least two languages. In addition, there were expert interviews with a teacher of mixed Lithuanian kindergarten groups and a teacher of beginners’ classes in a Lithuanian general academic school.

Bibi Stacey and Josep Soler (chapter 6: “Family language policy in the UK: Identity building and language maintenance at home”) seek both to gain insight into how often parents in the UK use different languages at home, and to uncover the prevailing ideologies of parents and what sorts of strategies they use to promote their minority languages at home. The research questions are: (1) What are the reported language practices of multilingual families? (2) What are the ideologies of the parents in multilingual families surrounding the notion of FLP? (3) What management strategies do parents reportedly employ in maintaining minority languages whilst raising multilingual children? It was found that while generally there is a preference for English in the families’ homes, multilingual parents do show a preference for speaking the minority language to their children, and most parents have positive ideologies about raising children bilingually and about language learning, which they see as an advantage, albeit one that comes with certain challenges. In addition, most parents explicitly reported planning their language use at home. The strategies that had a greater impact on increasing the use of the minority language in the home were the application of OPOL, reading books and watching TV in the minority language, and relying on relatives. ← 11 | 12 →

Finally, the last three chapters focus on plurilingual families in today’s Catalonia, where the most recurrent language contact occurs between Spanish and Catalan (chapter 7), simultaneously with more variegated combinations such as French, Catalan and Spanish (chapter 8), and Italian, Catalan and Spanish (chapter 9).

Emili Boix-Fuster and Anna Paradís’ contribution (chapter 7: “New speakers’ ideologies and trajectories in bilingual families in Catalonia”) is based on thirteen interviews of Catalan/Spanish families and it shows particularly how Spanish-speaking L1 partners become Catalanised and use Catalan in addressing their children. They are then new speakers. Factors that explain this choice are pinpointed and discussed. Respondents argue that they prefer Catalan when addressing their children, because they will learn Spanish anyhow, given the demographic and social hegemony of Spanish in Catalonia today.

The last two chapters study two long-standing exogenous communities in today’s Catalonia. First, Francesc Bernat (chapter 8: “Language uses and linguistic ideologies in mixed French-Catalan families in Catalonia”) illustrates, based on semi-structured interviews, how the French community appears to have a very high loyalty towards its language and culture, even when living abroad.

Then, Rosa Maria Torrens-Guerrini (chapter 9: “Mixed couples in Catalonia: intergenerational language transmission and language use”) gathers and analyses interviews with Catalan/Spanish/Italian mixed families. Her study presents a large number of discursive fragments that are transcribed and analysed using interactional discourse analysis and ethnomethodology, since discourse is the basis of all the results obtained. Indeed, detailed analysis of linguistic form allows for the content to be validated. For example, the study of transcodic markers and, more specifically, the function of code-switching in discourse, such as the base language used, is an instrument for reinforcing response content. The same applies to pronominal markers and other elements of linguistic form.

To sum up, while the nine chapters do not adopt exactly the same focus, the overall picture gives a variegated insight into the challenges and prospects – the vulnerability and sustainability – of several medium-sized linguistic communities in Europe. Most chapters analyse language ← 12 | 13 → ideologies and language behaviour in multilingual families in the Catalan medium-sized language community in Spain. Three chapters, however, discuss this family multilingualism in three other cases, namely Denmark, Lithuania and Czech Republic. Finally, a stylistic remark: due to the diversity of their methodological and theoretical approaches, each scholar has followed different kind of transcription conventions.


Boix-Fuster, Emili 2015. Introduction. In Boix-Fuster, Emili (ed). Urban Diversities and Language Policies in Medium-Sized Linguistic Communities. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 11–17.

Vila, Francesc-Xavier / Bretxa, Vanessa 2013. The Analysis of Medium-sized Language Communities”. In Vila, Francesc-Xavier (ed.) Survival and Development of Language Communities: Prospects and Challenges. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 1–17. ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 →


Mixed-Language Families in Catalonia: Competences, Uses and Evolving Self-Organisation

1.  Introduction: ‘Family Language Policy’ or ‘Self-Organisation’?

In recent years the term ‘family language policy’ has begun to circulate in the international sociolinguistics literature (cf. Spolsky 2004, 2007, 2012, King et al. 2008; Caldas 2012; Schwartz & Verschik 2013)1. From a conceptual standpoint, however, the creation and/or use of this syntagma, applied directly to the language decisions taken by family members to speak to one another, can raise questions about whether one should apply what appears rather to be a framework that pertains to actions arising out of institutionalisation, public debate, and formal decisions to a phenomenon produced ‘spontaneously’. ‘Language policy’, which is also commonly associated with the term ‘planning’, has traditionally evoked the study of actions taken by public authorities at the level of the institutional and social use of languages and of their process of decision-making, implementation and any effects on social language behaviours that may ensue. The expansion of this concept to the level of interpersonal uses in families, which corresponds to another sphere involving elements that are distinct from those of the political level or of a formally constituted organisation, can be misleading and conceal phenomena specific to this level of social reality. Applying too ← 15 | 16 → mimetically that which belongs to our understanding of what we have called ‘institutionalised communications’ (Corbeil 1983) to the level of ‘individualised’ behaviours (cf. Bastardas 1999a and b) can lead to an inadequate understanding of the mechanisms involved in the decisions on language that emerge within families.

At the same time, however, there is certainly a need to account for what occurs in family units at the level of language behaviours because it is the area in which the fundamental processes of language maintenance or shift take place. If there is intergenerational transmission of the parents’ language forms, these forms constitute the basis of the language or languages of infants. And if not, those forms that are not transmitted within the family will not persist, unless individuals can acquire them elsewhere. One possible approach that may assist in our thinking about the sociolinguistic dynamics in families is to use some of the concepts developed in recent decades in the context of cybernetics and systems theory and more recently gathered under the umbrella of ‘complexity’ or ‘complexical’ perspectives (cf. Bastardas 2013, 2014, 2017, and Massip & Bastardas 2013). ‘Self-organisation’ and ‘emergence’ (Ashby 1962, Holland 1998), for instance, may be well-suited to the task of accounting for what occurs linguistically within social units as a result of interaction unregulated by the authorities. These two concepts help to express phenomena that exhibit order and organisation and that have not been directly ‘programmed’ by a hierarchically higher level of control, but rather are produced ‘naturally’ and not necessarily ‘planned’ by the individuals involved. This enables us to conceive of such phenomena as ‘bottom-up’ rather than as ‘top-down’2. As we shall soon see, however, given the inextricably interadaptative and ← 16 | 17 → interwoven—in short, complex—nature of many of the phenomena of reality, this self-organisation is often neither ‘pure’ nor contextless, but is a mixture blending dynamics relating to the various influences that can affect a process (cf. Kasper 2014). Certainly, language behaviours do not happen in a social vacuum nor in an ahistorical or apolitical moment, and they can be clearly influenced by the institutional contexts in which they take place. At the same time, their actors can nevertheless have a not inconsiderable degree of autonomy to affect the final result of what occurs linguistically in the home.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 336 pp., 1 coloured ill., 1 b/w ill., 20 tables, 2 graph.

Biographical notes

Emili Boix-Fuster (Volume editor) Albert Bastardas-Boada (Volume editor) Rosa Maria Torrens (Volume editor)


Title: Family Multilingualism in Medium-Sized Language Communities