Migration and Language Contact

Almost daily now we see headlines about migrants who are fleeing the violence in Syria and who are making their way into Europe and elsewhere with the hope that they might find safety in a better place.  Many of these folk entertain the idea that once things settle down they might be able to return to their homeland. Others, perhaps because of trauma or devastating loss, may be resolved to stay where they finally land and to make for themselves a new life in a new location.

Migration is not a new phenomenon and it isn't always motivated by war.  Some migration is motivated by natural disaster, as things like tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, or floods destroy homes and livelihoods requiring people to flee to safer locations, sometimes permanently. In other cases, people may be required to move by fiat of a government or through the acquisition of their lands by private businesses (legitimately or illegitimately).  It may be the case that "development"--the building of dams or the creation of new towns and cities--may displace a population. Migrations of peoples from long ago have largely shaped our understanding of what the "native" languages of a region are.  If you go back far enough, almost everybody came from somewhere else. The movement of English, Spanish, and French speakers across the Atlantic from Europe to the Americas, for example, has drastically changed the language ecologies of the Western hemisphere.  More recent and smaller migrations have further shaped the linguistic environments in which we live as well.

Whatever the cause, the movement of people also means the movement of languages from their original geographic locations to new locations and to new language ecologies. Where once users of the language may have been in contact with speakers of a specific set of other languages, in the new context, they are interacting with a very different configuration of speakers and their languages. 

These changes in the linguistic environment, studied by linguists as "contact linguistics" and by sociolinguists as "language ecology," result in changes in the languages themselves.  Look at the influence that Spanish is having on English in contact zones in North America, for example, and perhaps even more obviously, that English is having on Spanish in both border areas and urban centers. 

As we think about the influx of refugees and safety-seekers in Europe, we can expect to see some significant modifications in the language repertoires of the migrants as Arabic speakers learn German and French and English, as their children may become more proficient in those second languages than they are in their mother-tongue (and certainly more proficient than their parents and grandparents), and as the vocabulary and structure of both the Arabic and the German that the migrants speak is altered by the new kinds and increased level of contact between a variety of different languages.

These contact phenomena touch on the well-known and oft-studied feature of linguistic variation and the implications of that variation for language identification.  When is a contact variety so altered by the influence of a second language that it might no longer be considered to be the same language as the more standard variety spoken in the homeland? We often see references in the press to contact varieties that are the result of longer-term contact between different languages, varieties such as Spanglish, Franglish, Singlish (Singaporean English), Manglish (Malay-English), and other hybridized "dialects" which may at some point be judged to be so different from "standard" English as to be identified as separate languages (much like Spanish, French, and Italian split off from Vulgar Latin centuries ago).

Migration, however, also challenges us to keep track of the inventory of languages within any given country's borders. Ethnologue organizes its presentation of the languages of the world as entries that describe a "language in country."  We have generally given only very summary data about "immigrant" languages in each country, but as the number, populations, and influence of immigrant languages grows both quantitatively and qualitatively, being able to provide an accurate description of the presence of immigrant languages within a country's borders becomes more important and useful. With populations on the move in such large numbers and in so many different directions as they now are, we face significant challenges to our ability to accurately provide the relevant data. 

We are redoubling our efforts to get more up-to-date data but the statistics, like the people themselves, are on the move.



Dear Paul, I am new to this part of Ethnologue. I am writing to you with great urgency. Though I have looked at various languages over time, I am now in need of some guidance for a practical reason. I am trying to distinguish the areas where Mam is spoken in Western Guatemala in order to assist legal assistance efforts for immigrants fleeing these states: San Marcos, Huehuetenango, and Quetzaltenango. If there is a better way to direct this message to persons associated with that language or Mayan Languages in Guatemala, please instruct me. I have found ISO 639-3 page where "Mam" as the language of my inquiry is listed, but a few aspects are puzzling. "towns" are mentioned as areas for speakers, but I would like to confirm that what is actually meant is "municipio". Towns can mean a lot of things, especially in Latin america, so that nomenclature is not very clear for me, at least. The second question is if there is more data on the "towns" that make up the five dialects designated (A list for each dialect would be very helpful). There is one comparison for mutual intelligibility between two of the five dialects on the site. Is there any newer information for other sources to look at. I have read the Atlas Linguistica de Guatemala (Richards: 2003) which lists areas at more and at less risk in terms of municipalities, but that does not give me the larger picture of how many speak which dialect. Also, in an older version of Ethnologue there were estimates for numbers of speakers for several Mam dialects, and I do not see that there now, if it is was changed, is it possible to contact those who changed it and ask if they have updated information? , or was it considered inaccurate? I am trying to create a guide to distinguish the major Mam dialects so that better matches between interpreters and legal service providers can be created and then used. This is a quite urgent matter given there are over 20,000 indigenous language speaking immigrants detained in the US immigration system in one year by my estimates, see: Exclusion of Indigenous Language Speaking Immigrants in the US Immigration system, a technical review; http://www.amaconsultants.org/uploads/5638303bb62f9.pdf I appreciate your consideration of my questions. Blake Gentry
Submitted by Blake Gentry on Fri, 2016-01-15 00:17
Hi Blake:

It probably would be more efficient for us to move this conversation to email or even a phone or Skype call but I'll give you a somewhat brief response here.

I'm assuming you already have a general overview of the territory where Mam is spoken in Guatemala by looking at our language map of Guatemala (http://www.ethnologue.com/map/GT). The political departments of Guatemala would need to be overlaid on that map but you can see that Mam can be found in parts of Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango, and San Marcos with a small enclave on the southern coast.

One focus of our current research is to begin to specify in more detail and more specifically the locations of the languages that we report on. Right now, we are trying to make sure that we can, at least, unambiguously identify the "first level geopolitical subdivisions" where each language is spoken. In our country reports, we provide an index that shows which languages are in each of those subdivisions (in Guatemala that would be an index by "departamento"). While we have other information in the database about locations of languages, we don't have that data in any normalized form. Sometimes it is a list of population centers at various geopolitical levels. In other cases, it is a geographic description in terms of the compass, landmarks, speakers of other languages, rivers, mountains, etc.

Right now, that information is stored in text strings that have no set format and so aren't very searchable or comparable. A next step in our research would be to try to normalize that data though I can't say how soon that work will begin. At that point, we would be more able to answer your question.

You are quite correct that the English term "town" is ambiguous. It may refer to a municipio or it may refer to any other identifiable population center (the cabecera municipal, a pueblo, aldea, caserío, etc.). Because we don't have that data in a normalized form, about the only way to compile a list of municipios where Mam is spoken would be to look at the Region information that we do have and manually assign those location names to their corresponding municipios. As you can imagine, doing that for every language listed in Ethnologue represents a significant task.

The discrepancy between our current listings and what you find in earlier editions is a result of changes that were made to the ISO 639-3 inventory in 2008 when the multiple varieties of Mam that had previously been identified as separate languages were merged into a single language identified by a single ISO code. When that happened we merged the data we had on the different varieties and added their names to our list of dialect names. To my knowledge, there are now no separate estimates of speaker populations for those varieties.

Hope this is somewhat helpful. Use the Contact Form or the Editor email address if you 'd like to discuss this at greater length.

Submitted by M. Paul Lewis on Fri, 2016-01-15 09:32