Atilla Kiss

Learners’ language ideologies about historical minority languages: Romanians learning Hungarian and Finns learning Swedish


Friday 8 November, 11.30-12.00, E0105

Despite its significance, the voluntary learning of historical minority languages by the titular majorities has received little attention both as a subject of study and as a practical tool to foster tolerance between cohabitating and neighboring ethnicities. Such a need has been noticed by EU institutions (Rindler Schjerve and Vetter 2012: 34-35). In fact, the advancing European integration has made this task even more urgent than before. 

In the general framework of learning historical languages, there has been a number of studies in the Western European context focusing on endangered or regional and autonomous settings (on learning Welsh, see Newcombe 2007; on learning Gaelic, see McEwan-Fujita 2010; on learning Basque, see Azkue & Perales 2005; on learning German in South Tyrol, see Cavagnoli & Nardin 1999). To date, however, few attempts have been made to present the complexities of voluntary learning in East Central European contexts in general, and in the Romanian context in particular – where Hungarian is a historical minority language (but see Marton and Vincze 2011). 

Previous studies usually recognize that language ideologies are central to understanding issues involved in the learning and teaching of a historical minority’s language. I understand language ideologies as “cultural, metapragmatic assumptions about the relationship between words, speakers, and worlds” (Gal 2006: 388). The aim of my paper is to illuminate the language ideologies that challenge and hinder or foster and enable the learning of historical minority languages by adult members of dominant majority populations in the two analyzed contexts. To achieve this objective, I conduct an ethnographic study of learning Hungarian by Romanians and carry out an exploratory comparison with Finns learning Swedish in voluntary settings. Similarly, in the case of Finland, the contemporary voluntary learning of Swedish has received very little attention.
The research questions for this study are formulated as follows: 
– Which of the typical learner types study the historical minority’s languages in the given contexts? 
– What are the representations, descriptions, or evaluations of the Hungarian (and Swedish) language and its varieties in the opinion of the majority of learners? 
– What underlying ideological considerations hinder or facilitate learning in the Romanian (and Finnish) contexts? 
– What political positions and cultural notions in the anthropological sense are linked to learning of the local historical minorities’ languages in Romania (and Finland)? 

I approach the field from the perspective of anthropological sociolinguistics and apply ethnographical data collection methods (see Heller 2008; Blommaert & Dong 2010). My interview data consists of open-ended, semi-structured interviews with Romanians about learning Hungarian and comparative interviews with Finns learning Swedish. I use interactional analysis of discourse, an appropriate epistemological tool for linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics, in order to better understand the construct of social reality (cf. Heller 2001: 251). I draw up typical Second Language Learner portraits: map family background, motivation, language contact, and the socio-cultural aspects of my informants in order to gain insights into their language ideologies about their regional “personal adoptive languages” (Maalouf 2008: 7).


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