Spanish language maintenance and shift among the Chilean community in Auckland

Lee, Sarah Elsie
Bell, Allan
Couper, Graeme
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Master of Arts in Applied Language Studies
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Auckland University of Technology

Language often plays a significant role in a migrant’s sense of cultural identity and, more broadly, the cultural identity of migrant communities is deeply affected by issues of language maintenance and shift. Existing New Zealand literature in the field includes studies of migrant communities from Europe, Asia and the Pacific (Starks, 2005) but there are still sizeable migrant communities whose language needs have yet to be investigated.

This thesis addresses the situation of one migrant group by investigating Spanish language maintenance and shift among the Auckland Chilean community, the most established of the Latin American communities in New Zealand. It investigates the attitude of the community to language maintenance and shift, the importance of language to its cultural identity and if and how the language is being maintained.

An ethnographic approach provided a rich narrative which allowed the community’s experience of language maintenance and shift to be shared from its perspective (Dörnyei, 2007). The fourteen participants were Chilean migrants who had arrived in New Zealand as either adults or children and were sourced through snowball sampling. Their ages ranged from early twenties to late sixties and, at the time of the interviews, their length of residence in New Zealand varied from several years through to almost forty years. Qualitative interview data was supplemented and verified through observation of language use at community events (Talmy, 2010) while community records provided background information on the community.

This study shows that the Chilean community greatly values its language with each of the participants identifying the Spanish language as being core to their identity. Surprisingly, this included participants who did not believe that it was absolutely necessary to pass the language on to their children.

The high status of the language within wider New Zealand society, which is enhanced by the popularity of the children’s television programme Dora the Explorer, plays an important role in supporting the community’s cultural identity and providing an impetus for participants to pass the language on to their children.

However, there are many challenges to intergenerational language transmission which need to be addressed if language shift is to be avoided. An increase in mixed marriages, in particular, means that increased institutional support is imperative if children are to acquire a parental community language. The economic, academic and cognitive advantages that bilingualism can offer also need to be brought to the attention of community members so that they can make educated language choices for their children.

This research is particularly timely given the growing population of Spanish speakers in New Zealand, and also the recent launch by the Royal Society of New Zealand (2013) of the issues paper Languages in Aotearoa New Zealand which urges action in the area of maintenance of community languages.

It is hoped that this thesis will act as a tool for the community, allowing them to better assess the state of the language and providing them with recommendations that might aid them in language maintenance efforts.

Language maintenance , Language shift , Bilingualism , Ethnography , Spanish , Chilean
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