'Bilingualism' isn't working

Many people say the state should promote bilingualism, without having a clear idea of what they mean. Here are some useful quotes obtained in 2001 from the Géolinguistique web site of the Université Laval, Québec (unfortunately this site is no longer on the web).

According to Fishman (1971, p.234),

"The concept of diglossia is sociological, as opposed to the more vague concept of bilingualism, which is merely an individual skill used for communicating in two or more languages in as many domains as possible. If this individual ability is widespread in the group concerned, it may coexist with diglossia, but this is not necessarily always the case...

"according to the definition of Fishman (1967)... (diglossia is) the stable existence of two or more complementary and non-conflicting idioms used for contact within the same group. Diglossia exists, therefore, when one language is reserved for certain domains and one or more other languages are reserved for other domains...

"a basic definitional property of speech communities is that they are not defined as communities of those who speak the same language (notwithstanding Bloomfield 1933), but, rather, as communities set off by density of communication or/and by symbolic integration with respect to communicative competence, regardless of the number of languages or varieties employed (Gumperz, 1964)."

"Speech communities that have both diglossia and bilingualism seem to be the most stable for minority languages. With diglossia, there is a clear separation between languages and values remain distinct, yet complementary, in the various social domains. Without diglossia, one language would replace the other as the roles and values that separate them soon merge together and become blurred..."

This theory explains the way in which Irish has given way to English. The committee on Language Attitudes Research concluded in the 1970s that language use in Ireland was not based on domains but on networks. ie Irish and English were not used for different purposes; language choice depended on who people were talking to. As English spread through the population, Irish-speaking communities survived only in the most isolated and economically backward areas. People in those areas formed separate speech communities and had little contact with English-speaking Ireland. As contact increases, they merge into speech communities which speak English and lose their Irish. Ó Riagáin (p31) states that a study by him in 1971 "...showed that not merely were the Irish-speaking areas much smaller than suggested by census statistics, but that within their local social setting they tended to be marginally located vis-à-vis the social networks centred on villages and small towns".

It is worth recalling Hindley's comment, that many sociolinguists view full bilingualism as a stage on the road to language Death. He should perhaps have said full bilingualism without diglossia leads to language death.

The section of Shaping The Future which deals with different models of bilingualism is noticeably threadbare. Teaching Irish to all school children has not resulted in widespread bilingualism, and there has been no attempt by the government to promote diglossia. The only domains where Irish predominates are in Irish medium schools and in some homes.

Most experts seem to agree that there are only two sets of conditions which will enable a lesser-spoken language like Irish to survive: one is if it is the sole language used for certain purposes; the other is if it has a substantial numbers of native speakers who do not speak the language from which it is under threat, and who are concentrated together in a secure geographical location. Therefore the only hope for maintaining Irish is to have a separate speech community where English is either excluded, or is restricted to tightly defined uses.