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Oceania Newsletter 26, March 2001


By Madeleine Hulsen. 2000. ISBN 90-9013990-7, pp. 261.
PhD Thesis, University of Nijmegen, Nijmegen.

Madeleine Hulsen

This study investigated the relationship between language loss and language processing in a three-generational group of Dutch migrants in New Zealand. The purpose of the study was to gain more insight into the why and how of language loss, by combining a sociolinguistic and a psycholinguistic approach to language shift and loss. Language loss can be perceived of as an overarching term, which includes both processes of language shift and processes of language attrition. Language shift in this case refers to the gradually decreasing use of the first language, which eventually results in the monolingual use of the second language. In the context of the present study language attrition refers to a deterioration of first language skills as the result of non-use or lack of contact. Both language shift and language attrition can occur within and between generations, i.e. at the intra- or intergenerational level. However, language shift is often investigated in the process of several generations and thus usually refers to an intergenerational and group process, while language attrition usually refers to individual speakers' decreasing competence in their mother tongue at the intragenerational level.

The subjects in the present investigation included migrants and second- and third-generation descendants of migrants who had left the Netherlands during the 1950s and early 1960s. During these years large numbers of Dutch people left their country because of the unfavourable economic situation shortly after the war, unemployment, overpopulation, the threat of the Cold War, and the feeling many people had of belonging to a lost generation. The Dutch government was highly supportive of the mass migration, as it meant a solution to the country's overpopulation, housing, and unemployment problems. New Zealand needed a new inflow of people because of a great shortage in its labour force and declining numbers of migrants from Great Britain, the traditionally preferred "source" country. Referred to as the 'whiter than white' policy, New Zealand's immigration policy was strongly aimed at assimilation and exhibited underlying racial beliefs. These 'push' and 'pull' factors may have been conducive to language shift among the Dutch, which is known to be very fast. Other factors that are likely to have speeded up the linguistic assimilation of the Dutch in New Zealand are the cultural and linguistic similarity with the English language and culture, a high rate of exogamy, the absence of demographic concentrations of people of Dutch descent despite their large numbers, and attitudes towards their own language and culture. I In order to determine language shift patterns of the subjects under study (N=90), I investigated language use within and between generations, attitudes towards the language and language maintenance, self-reported language proficiency, and the role of social networks by means of a number of questionnaires.

In sharp contrast to the observed patterns of language shift, most studies of Dutch overseas have found only marginal levels of language attrition in the sense that lexical items or grammatical structures have been 'erased' from memory. This may have to do with the fact that most studies only looked at the outcomes of the process of language shift. It is, however, quite possible that the results of reduced language contact can be detected at a more subtle level. There may be changes in the way the language is processed which need not result in overt speech deviations, but can be evidenced in, for example, reduced fluency, hesitations, and difficulty in retrieval. Therefore, the study also included a number of 'on-line' psycholinguistic experiments (picture naming and picture-word matching) that tested whether the lexical knowledge had actually disappeared from memory or was merely difficult to retrieve under time pressure.

Overall, the results with respect to language use indicate a fast pattern of language shift, which already starts in the first generation when communicating with their partners. In the second generation the use of Dutch further decreases, while in the third generation hardly any Dutch is used. If the Dutch language plays any role in the family, it is often only of a symbolic nature. Some subjects reported the use of Dutch for domestic concepts, such as stoffer en blik (dustbin and brush), onderzetter (coaster), stofzuiger (vacuum cleaner), and de tafel dekken (to lay the table). The use of Dutch outside the family is very limited.

The results of the experimental tasks show that productive language skills in Dutch decrease considerably with each generation, in line with the patterns of language shift, while even in the first generation there are indications of decreased productive skills. The receptive skills, however, appear to be largely unchanged, which indicates that the lexical knowledge is merely difficult to retrieve under time pressure, but not 'lost' in the sense that it has been erased from memory. Continued active language use in various domains outside the home and a positive attitude towards language maintenance were found to be key factors for language maintenance.

Contact details:

Madeleine Hulsen
Institute of Applied Social Sciences (ITS)
P.O. Box 9048
6500 KJ Nijmegen
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 24 36 53567
Fax: +31 24 36 53599

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