From Minority Languages to Minoritized Languages

By November 30, 2017Globalization

The national language is the mother tongue of the vast majority of citizens in most European states (Source: Josu Amezaga, MQ Lecture, 22-11-2017)

Last week, Professor Josu Amezaga from the University of the Basque Country, Spain, visited Macquarie University to speak about minority languages: what they are and why they should be given space in the ongoing conversation about linguistic diversity.

Participating in this seminar was a timely opportunity as I embark on my PhD journey. I realized that it is one thing to read books and theses arguing about different forms of linguistic inequalities and yet another to engage in an academic debate. Coming from the Philippines, which is home to 187 languages, according to Ethnologue, I went into this seminar hoping to better understand the value – or lack of value – of these belittled languages.

Focusing on European languages, Professor Amezaga traced the historical roots of the monolingual paradigm to the French Revolution. The one-language-one-nation ideology that became prominent during that period saw some 28 French languages relegated to the position of patois or minority languages. The French revolutionaries were keen to ensure that all citizens shared a common language. Instead of considering bilingualism or a lingua franca—as is the case in the Philippines—they went about eliminating all competitors of French. This hostile policy towards minority languages was set out in Abbé Grégoire’s 1794 treatise entitled “Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d’anéantir les patois et d’universaliser la langue française” (“Report on the necessity and means of annihilating the dialects and of making the French Language universal”).

This shows that minority languages are not necessarily the languages of a numerical minority. Rather they are languages that are subject to active processes of minoritization. While the term “minority language” suggests having small numbers of speakers, the term “minoritized language” is more accurate as it draws our attention to processes of language subordination and to the unequal power relationships that often pertain between “minority” and “majority”.

By contrast, citizens of the Philippines have many different mother tongues (Source:

In Europe, processes of linguistic suppression were so successful that by the second half of the 20th century most European nations were highly monolingual, with the vast majority of citizens speaking the national language as their sole mother tongue. However, globalization and migration of recent decades have thrown this high level of state-engineered monolingualism into disarray.

Many European states have reacted to this “linguistic threat” with new efforts at renationalization, as can be seen in the introduction of language testing for citizenship. Between 1998 and 2015, the number of European states requiring a language test from prospective citizens rose from 6 to 25.

Interestingly, this push to test the language proficiency of immigrants further helps to cement the minoritized position of indigenous minority languages: language testing in France, for instance, is done in French rather than in Basque, despite the fact that the latter is today recognized as an official regional minority language of France.

At the same time, globalization and migration have also pushed language ideologies in the opposite direction, contesting the monolingual one-nation-one-language ideology and giving new legitimacy to minoritized languages. Professor Amezaga showed striking evidence of this trend with TV signals: while around 1,000 TV signals from English-speaking countries reach non-English-speaking territories, 900 signals in languages other than English reach the US. The former is evidence that the media are agents of linguistic homogenization and the latter is evidence that the media are agents of linguistic diversification.

Professor Amezaga’s guest lecture focused on minoritized languages in Europe and the global North more generally. Reflecting on how these insights relate to my home country, the Philippines, it may seem that in this highly multilingual country processes of linguistic homogenization have not been an issue. However, that would be misleading. Our own version of the one-language-one-nation ideology could be called “two-languages-one-nation ideology”: English and Filipino are positioned side-by-side as an essential aspect of the bilingual identity of Filipinos. As a result, the Philippines’ other languages are similarly subject to minoritization.

Furthermore, the challenge posed by globalization and migration to the linguistic status quo of the Philippines does not come from immigration but emigration. Going overseas, primarily for work, has become a viable and even desirable option for many Filipinos, who perceive international labor opportunities as an economic panacea. Consequently, over 10 million Filipinos are estimated to be working or living overseas today. This number is nearly 300% more than the first wave of Filipino migrants in the 1970s, when the overseas employment program was launched. With Filipino migrants now gaining more ground as “workers of the world,” it is worth examining the language component of occupations where they are employed to see how their linguistic repertoire – borne out of a two-languages-one-nation ideology and differential valuing of minority languages – intersects with the language ideologies of destination societies.


The slides from Professor Amezaga’s lecture are available for download here.

Author Pia Tenedero

Pia Tenedero is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University. Previously she taught English language courses to Accounting students at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. She has published on English language use in accounting in the Philippines and her PhD project extends this research to migrant accountants in Australia.

More posts by Pia Tenedero
  • Josu Amezaga

    Excellent briefing of my presentation. It addresses the very core points I wanted to remark. And very interesting issue at the end of your post: the challenge to the languages posed not by immigration but for emigration. Certainly as you said my point of view is from Europe (host to immigrants), and you enrich it by observing the reality from the Philippines. Thank you for that.

    • Pia

      It is you we should thank, Prof. Amezaga, for that informative and eye-opening lecture. I especially appreciate your final admonition to revalue minoritized languages not only as a matter of research interest but essentially as a moral obligation. More power to you and your worthwhile linguistic advocacy!

  • Hoor Raj

    very well developed idea Pia! I am amazed that how our efforts to maintain linguistic homogenization and diversity go side by side, and what are the sufferings caused by this dual statement of purpose.

    It reminds me about the territory principle well-described and critically analyzed in Ingrid’s book ‘linguistic diversity and social justice’, that how in terms of preserving one minority language in a particular region, a language is allocated to a particular state by giving it the legislation rights whereby the speakers of other languages in that region badly suffer. Therefore, preserving the minority languages must be a very well executed plan that nobody should suffer the prejudice!

    • Pia

      Thank you Hoor Raj! It is fascinating indeed how promotion of a linguistic ideology can inspire contradictory consequences. Therefore, as you said, extra caution should be exercised when making language decisions. Now, I wonder if it is possible at all for any language plan to be tagged as “prejudice free” since linguistic implications often extend beyond policy makers’ original motivation.

      • Rahel Cramer

        Thank you for this excellent summary and extension of Josu Amezaga’s presentation, Pia.

        It also brought the question back to my mind, how minority languages can be protected without minoritizing others. An important step, as Ingrid Piller expressed during the discussion after the presentation, is a change in discourse. In her Critical Introduction to Intercultural Communication (2017), the section ‘A language with a name’ in Chapter 4 is very relevant to this matter!

        • Pia

          Thanks so much Rahel for thoughtfully pointing out that relevant section in Ingrid’s book. As explained on page 50, the invention of a language with a name necessarily marginalises non-users of this language. By the same process, other languages may be minoritized as they are not accorded the same respect (to paraphrase Lippi-Green,2012).

          Top of mind as an example is the debate over the invention of “Filipino” as the national language of the Philippines. Although largely based on Tagalog, one of the major languages of Luzon, the language was named “Pilipino” and later “Filipino” to create the ideology of a unified and unifying language. The promise is to develop it into a fusion of all the Philippine languages, but that project, which was conceptualised in 1973, has yet to be completed after nearly half a century. I think the ongoing campaigns championing minoritized languages can definitely put this project back on track.

          • Josu Amezaga

            That is a difficult issue indeed. I will try to add my point through the case of Basque language. There are currently five Basque dialects, mutually understandable at a high degree. Fifty years ago, Basque was in a process of clear regression: half a million speakers (counting all the dialects together), no official status, no presence at media (excepting a few magazines) and no presence at school (excepting a few emerging private ‘ikastolas’ or Basque-medium schools). Then, a group of intellectuals pointed out that Basque language should be standardized in a common written form if it was to survive. They created the ‘Euskara Batua’ (unified Basque), which was rapidly adopted by the new schools, writers, emerging media and others. That way, when the political changes at the end of the seventies allowed the Basque Country to have its own government, with its media, schools, official language and so, the unified form was a key factor to extend the Basque language to all those new domains. Nowadays the number of speakers has risen to almost one million, most of the pupils attend schools were Basque is the medium of instruction, almost half of the university students study their grades in Basque, and there are some Basque language TV and radio channels, a daily newspaper and some other media. Basque is also among the 40-50 most used languages on the Internet. That has not been enough to get out from the list of endangered languages of UNESCO, but the progress is evident.

            In the last fifty years there has been a concern, of course, about the rol that the unified standard and the dialects should have in the linguistic panorama. Dialects are mostly used as spoken language, and –quite interestingly- are entering the field of informal writing (social media chats for example), showing a great ability to adapt and to evolve. However, in spite of the tensions that arise between standard form and dialects (I have some discussions with my PhD. students who email me about their progress in informal but also vivid, creative and funny dialectal forms), there is a general agreement that having a standardized form has been crucial for the recovery of the language in all its varieties; and even that if dialects are still spoken, it is due to the fact that the standard form creates a favourable landscape for them too.

            Probably the key for the success of this case is that the standardized form was not created and/or imposed by a political class as a way of legitimation of its social power. In fact it was the result of a popular movement of revitalization of the language against the power (which used Spanish and French). When a new Basque political power emerged (last seventies), the standard form was strong enough and widely accepted, and it kept that popular character.

          • Pia

            I think the story of the Basque language can be a good model on how to change the discourse for minoritized languages. It is quite inspiring how people creatively helped resuscitate Basque, so to speak. Interestingly, I think we see here another example of how standardization can aid in language survival, yet from another perspective, it can also discriminate (perhaps even minoritize) the non-standard form/s.


    An insightful post, Pia! I learned about the diversity of Philippines from your post as well.
    I’m really looking forward to hearing more about your research on Philipino migrants in Australia and how various language ideologies intersect with their pre- and post-migration experiences.

    • Pia

      Thank you, Hongye Bai! I’m equally excited to discover the language experiences of Filipino migrants here in Australia. Extant literature has mostly concentrated on the health care professions like nurses. This time around I’d like to document the hidden linguistic narratives of Filipino accountants. I remember telling someone back home that this is what I wanted to do here. She quickly dismissed my interest with, “Of course, they use English at work. What do you expect?” She is right, of course. But it’s not the complete picture. One thing I’ve quickly learned in sociolinguistics is that language work is not straightforward and simple. It always involves a tricky and exciting process of negotiation. ^_^

  • Camilla Vizconde

    This is exciting Pia! Let others know more about the languages in the Philippines. We have a lot to share given that we have 187 languages.


    Good summary Pia! I really enjoyed reading it.

    Although I missed attending the presentation, I found this summary full of interesting information about Minority Languages.

    looking forward to know more information about your Phd research .

    • Pia

      Thank you, Awatif. I look forward to your sharing of your research as well.