“Language Change or Shift” in Sociolinguistics

Language, as defined by most, is the most common form of oral and written communication among humans. While each human who is capable of producing and receiving (hearing) sounds, uses a specific language to communicate, many speech communities are often seen to change from one language to another. Language change or shift, also known as language transfer or language replacement, is the process through which a speech community shifts to a different language, usually over a prolonged period of time. One common example of language shift in South Asia would be the use of Sanskrit. While Sanskrit has resided as one of the most common languages in the Indian Subcontinent, it has slowly been replaced by languages such as Hindi, Urdu and Bangla over time. Also, Bangladesh is home to over 22 ethnic languages, including Garo, Chakma, Bawm, Marma, Khasia, Monipuri, Tripura, Khumi, Orao and Shantals among many others, where each community has their own unique language. As many of them do not have their own alphabets, most of these languages are seldom documented. As the state language of Bangladesh is Bangla, and academics are offered in three linguistic mediums being Bangla, English, and Arabic, most of these indigenous communities have to shift or change their language when they choose to pursue academics with the mainstream population.

Language shift mostly tends to exist if there is an absence of initiatives in regards to language maintenance. There are various linguistic and social factors that determine language change or shift in society.

Factors such as migration or immigration may often result in language shift or change, a language shift is often possible only if the learner is willing or has already learned fluency in a second language.

However, most of the time, the reasons behind a language shift are either economic, social or political. In the case of Bangladesh, finding employment is the most commonly found reason for the ethnic communities to shift their language. As Bangladesh’s dominant population speaks Bangla while a significant population is taught English in mainstream education, Tripura or Chakma speakers are less likely to find work if they do not speak the official state language of the country.

Little or no steps are often taken to maintain certain languages that are spoken among speech communities. While this issue has a socio-economic ground, minority languages are mostly deprived of being treated as equal to majority languages as policy-makers do not tend to invest in or decentralize the sounds of the masses (majority). As a result, while ethnic communities cannot use their mother tongue outside their community, they often feel demotivated to continue practicing their own language in a professional field or while communicating outside their community among friends or peers. As no economic, political or social benefits are obtained by learning their own language, seldom does any individual pay heed to the necessity of the maintenance of the ethnic languages in Bangladesh. Social factors such as inter-marriage can also result in a language shift or change for social individuals.

Demography also plays a vital role in cases of language shift. While the residents of urban areas often tend to incline towards official or formal languages to carry out their daily proceedings, dwellers of the rural areas mostly prefer to use their own dialect as they are isolated from cross-cultural experiences and prefer to stay within the comforts of their own community. For instance, regional dialects or ethnic languages are very common to the population of their residing regions. While the people of Chattogram speak their own regional dialects, the ethnic communities residing in areas of Bandarbans, Rangamati or Khagrachari only use their own language to communicate within their regions.

The most common language shift occurs in ESL or EFL classrooms when the teacher or the students trans language. Trans languaging refers to the process of shifting from one language to another in verbal communication just for the sake of communication. Two types of language shifts are seen in language classrooms-code switching and code mixing. While this language change or shift is temporary and does not have any documented evaluation to claim itself as language shift, interchanging between languages and not maintaining one language in the classroom can both lead to benefits and harms for the students.

If we take the example of an English class for Bangle-speaking students, mostly we come across two types of trans languaging situations for both teachers and students. While the teacher sometimes prefers to utter complete sentences in Bangla (mother tongue) to explain something related to the target language (English) (Come Switching), sometimes they might just choose certain words within a long sentence to explain an object, emotion, or concept that are known to their students but the learners are ignorant to the English term that is used to address it (Code Mixing). The students are often seen to do the same however, the reason behind students changing or mixing codes is that they are not fluent in the target language and often borrow words, phrases or even sentences from the mother tongue to express their emotions or views.

To conclude, language shift or change often results in language loss as over a period of time, the language loses all its functionality in terms of social, economic or cultural usage by its speakers. Sadly, people tend to let go of the fact that it takes years for a language to take a proper shape and exist in its standard form. As linguists, languages are no less than treasures and are always worth treasuring. As, when language is lost, the history, heritage and traditions of a race also leaps down the black hole with it.


Written By Ashley Shoptorshi Samaddar

Notre Dame University Bangladesh

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