Language transmission among migrant Catalan speakers in New York City

Language transmission among migrant Catalan speakers in New York City
Eva J Daussa
University of Groningen

ccCC BY 4.0

Cite as: Daussa, E. J. (2017, December). Language transmission among migrant Catalan speakers in New York City.  Paper presented at the Third UC Intergenerational Transmission of Minority Languages Symposium: Challenges and Benefits.


Understanding why parents transmit which of their languages or not, and how they manage, is especially interesting in the case of mixed and migrant families, since typically these parents are forced to make conscious choices regarding their language repertoire. I present one such case within the USA, a rich multilingual society, yet where, due to the hegemony of English, intergenerational transmission of other languages is oftentimes weak. Through a questionnaire and interviews, I examine linguistic practices and ideologies by multilingual families residing in NYC, in which one of the parents is born in Catalonia. Potential languages for transmission are: two locally available and globally projected languages, English and Spanish; and Catalan, not only a minoritized language at home, but also one with no presence in the American landscape. In the sample of 62 families, parents transmitted Catalan in a surprising proportion, and in many cases at the cost of Spanish. A motivational analysis revealed that the determinant factor was the distribution of integrative and personal values among the languages and the symbolic role that the languages had in the construction of identity.


Thank you/Faafetai tele for a great presentation that addresses one of the really big questions we are also examining -How do we resist the hegemony of the super killers like English/ Spanish / French/ Russian/… of minority languages better? Your research suggests that the Catalan struggle for identity and language over all these years provided these parents with resilience and determination to overcome the usual hegemony we find in our Pacific communities in New Zealand and in many other settings? No doubt that conscientisation works to break down the hegemony around Catalan? However it is a pretty special case -even stronger determination for autonomy and identity experiences that Måori indigenous communities have been through in our country /region/Pacific/ Aotearoa/NZ .
How then can we develop such conscientisation programmes elsewhere when the hegemony on English / Spanish …has such a grip on peoples minds attitudes and behaviours ? Certainly as other papers here have suggested, careful examination from being an insider, of parent’s, children’s and their community attitudes, values, identity issues is essential before developing prog and campaigns would be very important.
We also believe that across virtually all world settings gaining status in the Civic/ Public Domain( Govt Local govt public events and activities, work ,….. generally and especially through Early Childhood Education (Pre-school)and Bilingual Education among their peer groups is essential in most settings..
So a Question- How strong is the use of Catalan by the children of these parents 1) at home? 2) in the Catalan community? church? 3) among each other in the public … sports..? as we have put up a proposition based on our findings so far to be tested that second and third and later after migration children in hegemonic settings will speak and raise their children in the language/s they went to school in, not necessarily the languages their parents spoke to them at home ? This suggests unless they were schooled bilingually they will default to the hegemonic world language ? Well there you are a great paper thank you again Ia manuia /- best wishes Judy and John Aotearoa NZ /Samoa /Tonga

    Dear John, thank you for your comments and generous praise. The points you mention are of extreme pertinence. Let me address them (rather superficially I am afraid).
    1. Catalans are indeed an exceptional case (as I show by comparison with similar minority Galicians), since for once, they are not such a small group (10 million speakers), have undergone 40 years of language revitalization policies, and have a strong movement for autonomy. However, they are also extremely vulnerable in their territory, insofar as they are controlled by a strongly hegemonic government, as seen currently, when the political dispute has had as a consequence the banning of Catalan in public administration, and several attacks on Catalan school and media. However, those policies were quite successful in giving speakers the psychological strength, the arguments and the context for the strengthening of their minority language. As seen with Galician, with less determined policies, the result is very different in diaspora (and at home).
    2. Each ecology will have to develop its own programs –Catalan seem to have found the balance that worked, so after 40 years you have two generations of convinced and proud speakers. Making Catalan language play a central role in the construction of identity, adopting an inclusive approach (Catalan is s/he who speaks Catalan, no other factors such as origin (own or parental), ideology, race, etc. being as important was crucial, since Catalan became the main way for integration and social cohesion.. Only recently, with the struggle for political autonomy, identity considerations are shifting towards accepting linguistic diversity, thus Spanish-speaking population, and people speaking other languages (there are 300 languages spoken in Catalonia due to migration) are equally accepted as Catalans, as long as they support the project for the new country, in a civic nationalistic way. All of this is being worked out, with Catalan-speaking people who are against independence rightfully complaining about them being pictured as “lesser Catalans”. This is extremely complicated, but just an appetizer.
    3. The language of the children, as I mention in the video, is typical of heritage speakers in migration contexts. There is a lot of variation, and in general, Catalan, even if present in the linguistic repertoire of the children to stay, is unlikely to be further transmitted if the new generation stays in the same country. It however varies a lot, with some families moving back to Catalonia and the kids being able to assimilate thanks to this earlier exposure. Also, one finds of course many language contact effects, so these children (and their parents) speak their own dialect of Catalan in fact. Despite of this, most of this American Catalan children are only distinguishable from Spanish Catalans when speaking Catalan, because their contact phenomena is different from the contact phenomena found in the second group, and because they don’t speak Spanish. Keep in mind that there is not such a thing as a monolingual Catalan speaker, so Catalan is always spoken with lots of identifiable contact features. In a nutshell, these kids are perceived as speaking “deficient Catalan”, as much as their peers in Catalonia, just for different contact constellations. But there is a lot of variation.
    4.Schooling is a big issue. I am currently looking at what goes on in London and Berlin, where the Catalan community has created a Saturday school (not religious) for Catalan migrants, which have increased recently due to socioeconomic-political reasons. But it looks to me that these parents take the education of their children as part of their parenting, since the children go to hegemonic schools in the country and the Catalan education is relegated to home and visits to extended family in Catalonia.
    Finally, I am lately interested to find out the feedback effect that this diaspora population is having over the Catalans “back home”, since the international projection is nowadays crucial for this vulnerable population in Catalonia. It is part of the ideology of minority cosmopolitanism that I am exploring with my collaborator Tilman Lanz. Hopefully, I will get around to put in writing these ideas soon…
    Thanks again for engaging with my presentation. I hope I have increased your interest in this population. Best wishes!

Dear Eva,
What a fantastic presentation! So well designed and so global! If I may ask, I’d love to know about more about how you designed the language attitudes questionnaires. What kinds of question did you ask, how were the questionnaires distributed and how did you analyse the responses? Were the questionnaires in English, Spanish or Catalan?
Also, could I ask you to write a little about how you identified and recruited your participants?
Many thanks, Kerry

Dear Kerry,
thanks for your kind words. I am sorry I didn’t see your message until after the Christmas break, but I’d like to offer a brief answer still. For attitudes, we took qualitative interviews as point of departure, in order to elicit the content of the questions. Thus, we would get parents to tell us in open form what values they assigned to the different languages, and we designed the questionnaire based on those, in order to assess the relative generality within the wider population. A first set of questions took each of the languages (Spanish, Catalan, English, other), and asked the parents to rank the importance of such language for a number of functions, including: make friends, watch tv, get a job, be liked, integration, raise children. Informants ranked each language separately with a scale: very important/important/not very important/not important at all. Another set of questions offer a bunch of statements, and asked people to agree/not agree in a scale of 5 for each language separately; statements had been collected from interviews and also supplemented by others found in similar literature, mainly David Lasagabaster’s study on the Basque community in the NO of the USA. For example, “I like hearing [language]”, “It is worth learning {language]”. Yet another set of questions asked parents to mark which of the languages a set of given statements applied for them, given the premise “I want my kids to speak…”; statements were, for example, “because it will help them find a job”, “because then I can speak this language every day at home”, or “because it helps them travel and communicate with different people”. All questions and statements were previously categorized as belonging to each of the values (instrumental, integrative or personal).
We distributed the questionnaires on-line. the responses were analyzed using SPSS. Questionnaires were available in the three languages, and parents could choose which language.
Participants were recruited through the organization Catalan Institute of America, a grassroots group of immigrants (families and individuals) with a long tradition in NYC. Mostly, however, the informants were not linked to such organization, and they were recruited through snowball.
Hope this was informative!
PS: I also enjoyed your video a lot!!

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