I was surprised, frankly, during my recent fieldwork to find Zhuang language being used in a QQ chatroom in China. Surprised because Zhuang text is absent from the linguistic landscape. Surprised because many of my interview participants reported they had no Zhuang literacy practices: some young Zhuang people had not even realised local street names and a line on the every Chinese bank note were in Zhuang; it’s written in the Latin alphabet, so they had assumed it was English. But on social media, there it was.
Zhuang is the name of a minority ‘ethnic nationality’ originally from Southern China, and Zhuang is also the name of their language. There are about 18 million Zhuang people, but the proportion who are of native, fluent or partial speakers of Zhuang is hard to pinpoint. Certainly, there is a trend away from using Zhuang at home, in public and in traditional media, especially in cities. I’m currently investigating Zhuang language use, with a focus on the ways that legally enshrined language rights do (or do not) affect the maintenance of a minority language in China. Around the time I was on QQ, various other data were also suggesting to me that online there is more space for Zhuang than there is offline, and definitely more space for Zhuang activism. Some of the online Zhuang language use is organised and some dissipated and impromptu; some is deliberately activist and some seems a less conscious promotion of Zhuang. But all of it is grassroots – or bottom-up – language revitalisation, an approach very different to the top-down language rights and minority language policies existing in China. Looking at my QQ screenshots, I began asking myself what special opportunities social media is providing Zhuang language but also whether using Zhuang on social media has any special impact on offline. In what climate do the grassroots grow into something bigger?
There’s a crop of grassroots language initiatives springing up on online platforms, for all languages all over the world. For example, during my fieldwork, I was asked by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to present on Australian Indigenous language maintenance and in preparing I came across this Yugambeh indigenous language app developed by a local museum-cum-research-centre in Queensland, north-eastern Australia. The app’s effect is amplified through the local primary schools’ Write into Art competition, in which kids use the app to compose poetry. This example, even more than Zhuang use in QQ chatrooms, raised for me the question of how to get grassroots revitalisation which sprouts online to flourish offline.
Transplanting grassroots activity
The link between online language activism and offline language revitalisation movements is a subject Josep Cru (2014) deals with in his recent article. Cru’s case study of grassroots, social-media-enabled language revival follows Mexican university students – Yucatec Maya speakers and would-be-speakers – chatting together on Facebook. Cru (2014 p3) argues that “social media are being appropriated by Maya speakers as a catalyst for language advocacy and activism”. He suggests that part of the impact social media is having on Maya revitalisation stems from the fact that, on Facebook, “Maya can be used on par with dominant languages” (p. 7). But are online platforms always such a level field? They have the potential to be.
Potential online language use
Cru (2014, p. 10) suggests that social media is “a potential catalyst among some youngsters for ethnolinguistic awareness and even political positioning, which is an essential aspect of language revitalisation.” In this way, social media is more than just a “productive new space” for writing down a language typically marginalised in literacy practices. That is, online spaces have a special potential that other media and other domains lack.
But where does this potential come from? I suggest the potential comes from the normative micro-climate of online communication. While Cru’s Facebookers, the kids using the Yugambeh app and my QQ chatters probably have differing levels of social organisation, differing political views about revitalisation, different audiences, and different impacts, one commonality is that online, and especially online on social media, they can all use language in less formal and less standardised ways than they can offline. I’m not arguing online communication has no rules and no norms, simply that they are different from – and often less constraining – than norms in other forms of communication.
Part of the fun, informal, flexible nature of online communication, especially on social media, is that the “fuzziness and the arbitrariness of language boundaries” (Cru 2014, p. 7) is not problematized to the same extent as it is offline in formal use, and especially in offline written forms. Because the integration of different languages and of non-standard spelling and grammar is less remarkable and less of a (socially-constructed) problem in online communication, linguistic features associated with a minority language can be employed online in ways that may not be available in offline, or which may be penalised offline rather than receiving a “valuation-enhancing effect” (Eisenlohr 2004). So this is, arguably, an inherent property of online communication which creates the potential for a minority language to be used on par with a dominant language.
But that potential is not always going to be realised.
Online communication, when it integrates linguistic features associated with minority languages, has the potential to challenge norms of offline minority language (dis)use. But it also has the potential to reproduce those very language norms through which the minority language is dominated.
Actual online language use
It may well be that for Yucatec Maya, the level playing field of Facebook is fertile soil for grassroots language revitalisation. Unfortunately, for many other minority languages, dominance creeps in to online spaces. My own data, while still in the process of analysis, is already suggesting that Zhuang cannot be used on par with dominant languages online.
Social and power structures which minimise Zhuang speech are reproduced online in many ways. For starters, many young Zhuang people have no literacy in Zhuang and almost all non-Zhuang people have no Zhuang language competence whatsoever, so the informational utility of sending an Instant Message in Zhuang is severely restricted. The symbolic and/or phatic use of Zhuang on QQ is sometimes policed by other young Zhuang people: in one instance of my QQ data, a university student uses the Zhuang “haep bak” [‘shut up’] and another student responds “他不是有意的，不理那些话” [‘It has no meaning, ignore those words’]. Even if not receiving a scolding, using some Zhuang language does not import the value of ‘cool-ness’ into communications, largely because minority culture – Zhuang in particular – is still evaluated as ‘backwards’ rather than ‘cool’ in the offline sociolinguistic environment. This perception of low “social capital” is reinforced by the low capital of Zhuang language in both education and employment. This means young people have less reason to use Zhuang online (unless they are deliberately trying to make it cool). Zhuang seems to be rarely used as a resource to create a “we-code” because there is not a wide consciousness of We amongst Zhuang young people.
All this happens with a banality characteristic of linguistic hegemony. In other, less banal circumstances around the world, minority language speakers whose language is associated with civil disobedience, separatism or terrorism may find their online use is policed not just by subtle social processes and throw-away online rebukes, but by state security forces. Online, language choice may be easier, but language choice is also easily monitored.
Becoming a grassroots Green Thumb
My point is that while online minority language use can catalyse grassroots language revitalisation, it can also reproduce processes of minoritisation. What makes a grassroots movement flourish?
Does it depend on how organised the online users are in networks or communities of practice? Does it depend on the form of online media? Does it depend on grassroots activity happening at the same time but offline? In regards to Zhuang in China, the development of one or two shoots to a grassroots movement to a broader change is likely to depend on all three, and more. Certainly, whether online activity in China is actually a hothouse of grassroots political change generally – not just in regards to language revitalisation – is the subject of an ongoing debate (e.g., contrast Yang 2011 and Leibold 2011).
There is still a lot more research to be done on how grassroots politics of language revitalisation develop, online and offline, and how online grassroots activity adds to (or challenges) both top-down policies of language revitalisation and offline grassroots activities.
Cru, Josep (2014). Language Revitalisation from the Ground Up: Promoting Yucatec Maya on Facebook Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 1-13 : 10.1080/01434632.2014.921184
Eisenlohr, Patrick (2004). Language Revitalization and New Technologies: Cultures of Electronic Mediation and the Refiguring of Communities. Annual Review of Anthropology, 33 (1): 21–45.
Leibold, James (2011). Blogging Alone: China, the Internet, and the Democratic Illusion? The Journal of Asian Studies, 70 (4): 1023-1041.
Yang, Guobin (2011). Technology and Its Contents: Issues in the Study of the Chinese Internet. The Journal of Asian Studies, 70 (4): 1043-1050.