Intergenerational Language Transmission and Social Identity (by Dr Ruth Kircher)

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Ruth Kircher is a researcher at the Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning, which is part of the Fryske Akademy in Leeuwarden, Netherlands.

When I visited Montreal for a conference fifteen years ago, it was not only love at first sight but also love at first sounds. The remarkable soundscape of the many different languages spoken in the streets of the city is very different from where I grew up: I was raised in a small town in Germany that was, and still is, almost entirely monolingual – including my parents’ household.

Originally, there were two minority languages in my extended family: Frisian and Yiddish. However, neither of them was passed on to my parents’, aunts’ and uncles’ generation – and so they could not pass them on to me. Like many other families, mine more or less followed the typical pattern of language shift outlined by Fishman (1991, 2001). For families moving from the North Frisian Islands to mainland Germany, it has long been common to raise their children primarily in German to increase their chances of socio-economic advancement. The islands are beautiful but the language tends to be associated with a rather rough climate and hard physical labour such as fishing and farming – so, not what most parents would want for their children. With regard to Yiddish, there were more complex reasons for the language shift that occurred in most secular communities world-wide in the aftermath of the Second World War: in addition to those who did not pass on Yiddish because they wanted to ameliorate their children’s future prospects, there were also many who abandoned the language due to its associations with the Shoah. But for Yiddish and Frisian alike, it can be said that the widespread disruption in their intergenerational transmission has left ‘a heritage without its heirs and heirs without access to their heritage’ (Wisse 2008: 1).

The lighthouse on the North Frisian island of Amrum, where parts of my family are from
My great-great-aunt and her friend in traditional festive Frisian clothing (‘Trachten’)

So I grew up as a monolingual German speaker and it is only now, as an adult, that I am learning both Frisian and Yiddish. Like many new speakers (see e.g. O’Rourke, Pujolar, and Ramallo 2015), I frequently question my own legitimacy as a speaker of these languages – and I admit that sometimes, I am a little envious of people whose families passed on more than one language to them.

A page from my Yiddish textbook. Like Hebrew, Yiddish is written from right to left, and the printed letters look quite different from the handwritten ones – which makes learning how to write quite a challenge!

In Quebec, of course, the situation is more complex: parents have to consider not only French, the majority language in the province, but also English, the majority language in the rest of Canada, in addition to possible heritage languages. Since my first visit to Montreal, I have been back almost every year, and I have met more and more people who were raised – and/or who are raising their own children – with several languages: some with French and English, some with one or the other (or both) as well as a different language, and some exclusively with different languages. Comparing this situation with the history of my own family has made me wonder what it is that makes some parents pass on more than one language to their children, even under complex and sometimes difficult circumstances. In a recent study (Kircher 2019), I therefore set out to investigate what factors affect intergenerational language transmission in Quebec. I collected data with a questionnaire that I distributed throughout the province electronically by means of snowball sampling, and which was completed by 274 parents of different mother tongues. The potential predictors I investigated in this study were:

  • mother tongue,
  • proficiency,
  • language used with partner,
  • language attitudes on the status and solidarity dimensions,
  • Quebec-based social identity,
  • migration background, and
  • location within Quebec.

To clarify: a language that has much status is one that is associated with economic opportunity and high utilitarian value (Gardner and Lambert 1972) while a language that is evaluated positively on the solidarity dimension is one that elicits feelings of belonging – it holds ‘vital social meaning and […] represent[s] the social group with which one identifies’ (Ryan et al. 1982: 9). Attitudes on the solidarity dimension are thus closely linked with social identities.

As a starting point, my study looked at the intergenerational transmission of French and English in Quebec, and the findings show that for both languages, only three of the predictors had a significant effect: firstly, mother tongue – i.e. parents were more likely to pass on the language if they had been raised with it themselves; secondly, proficiency – i.e. the higher parents’ ability in the language, the more likely they were to transmit it; and thirdly, attitudes on the solidarity dimension – i.e. the stronger the parents’ affective attachment to the language, the more likely they were to pass it on.

I am particularly interested in the finding that attitudes on the solidarity dimension turned out to be a significant predictor of intergenerational transmission. It makes sense: after all, it has long been known that ‘irrespective of [their] status connotations, the association of a strong sense of in-group solidarity […] may be a crucial determinant for why certain languages persist’ (Cargile et al. 1994: 224). What intrigues me, though, is what kind of social identity might be associated with these attitudes. Based on the findings of my study, it does not seem to be a Quebec-based social identity – because despite concerted efforts by the provincial government to engender such an identity (see e.g. Kircher 2016a), this did not emerge as a significant predictor. It is also unlikely to be the Montreal-based social identity previous research has attested (Labelle and Salée 2001; Lamarre et al. 2002; Kircher 2016b) – because location within Quebec did not emerge as a significant predictor either. So, this is something I hope to find out about in future research about social identities and intergenerational language transmission in Quebec. Building on studies such as Curdt-Christiansen (2009) and Crump (2017), this research will also focus more closely on languages other than French and English, in the hope of facilitating parents’ efforts to transmit these languages to their children, thereby leaving fewer ‘heirs without access to their heritage’ (Wisse 2008: 1). And who knows – maybe I will even be able to get some Frisian and Yiddish speakers on board. Stay tuned!


Cargile, A. C., H. Giles, E. B. Ryan, & J. J. Bradac. (1994). Language attitudes as a social process: A conceptual model and new directions. Language and Communication, 14(3), 211–236.

Crump, A. (2017). I Speak All of the Language: Engaging in Family Language Policy Research with Multilingual Children in Montreal. In J. MacAlister and S. Hadi Mirvahedi (Eds.), Family Language Policies in a Multilingual World: Opportunities, Challenges, and Consequences, pp. 154-174. London: Routledge.

Curdt-Christiansen, X-L. (2009). Invisible and Visible Language Planning: Ideological Factors in the Family Language Policy of Chinese Immigrant Families in Quebec. Language Policy8(4): 351-375.

Fishman, J. (1991). Reversing Language Shift. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Fishman, J. (2001). Can Threatened Languages Be Saved? Reversing Language Shift, Revisited: A 21st Century Perspective. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Gardner, R. C., and W. E. Lambert. (1972). Attitudes and Motivation in Second- Language Learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Kircher, R. (2016a). Language Attitudes among Adolescents in Montreal: Potential Lessons for Language Planning in Quebec. Nottingham French Studies, 55(2): 239-259.

Kircher, R. (2016b). Montreal’s Multilingual Migrants: Social Identities and Language Attitudes after the Proposition of the Quebec Charter of Values. In V. Regan, C. Diskin, & J. Martyn (Eds.), Language, Identity and Migration: Voices from Transnational Speakers and Communities, pp. 217-247. Bern: Peter Lang.

Kircher, R. (2019). Intergenerational Language Transmission in Quebec: Patterns and Predictors in the Light of Provincial Language Planning. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, online ahead of print: 

Labelle, M. and D. Salée. (2001). Immigrant and Minority Representations of Citizenship in Quebec. In T. A. Aleinikoff & D. Klusmeyer (Eds.), Citizenship Today, pp. 279–315. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Lamarre, P., J. Paquette, E. Kahn, and S. Ambrosi. (2002). Multilingual Montreal: Listening in on the Language Practices of Young Montrealers. Canadian Ethnic Studies, 34(3): 47-75.

O’Rourke, B., J. Pujolar, and F. Ramallo. (2015). New Speakers of Minority Languages: The Challenging Opportunity. International Journal of the Sociology of Language231, 1-20.

Ryan, E. B., H. Giles, and R. J. Sebastian. (1982). An Integrative Perspective for the Study of Attitudes Towards Language Variation. In E.B. Ryan & H. Giles (Eds.), Attitudes Towards Language Variation: Social and Applied Contexts, pp. 1–19. London: Edward Arnold.

Wisse, R. (2008). Ups and Downs of Yiddish in America. In E. Shapiro (Ed.), Yiddish America: Essays on Yiddish Culture in the Golden Land, pp. 1-21. Scranton: University of Scranton Press.

One thought on “Intergenerational Language Transmission and Social Identity (by Dr Ruth Kircher)

  1. Many thanks, dear Dr Kircher! A very nice article. The website of the Harmonious Bilingualism Network (HaBilNet) under my direction is posting a link to your blog soon (the website is not live yet, but here is the url: Best wishes, Annick De Houwer

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