Getting past the ‘indigenous’ vs. ‘immigrant’ language debate

By August 12, 2015Migration
"The English" migrated to their "ancestral homeland" in the first few centuries of the Common Era (Source: Wikipedia)

“The English” migrated to their “ancestral homeland” in the first few centuries of the Common Era (Source: Wikipedia)

“Indigenous languages” and “immigrant languages” are much discussed in language policy research, but surprisingly little time is spent actually defining those terms. In general, “indigenous” tends to encompass two features: a long heritage in a place; and some form of contemporary disadvantage, usually associated with prior colonisation/invasion. But those criteria are seldom explicated.

An example comes from Nancy Hornberger (1998). She compares the languages of “indigenous groups” and “immigrants”, and efforts to protect these languages – focusing principally on education. But no space is given to defining “indigenous groups”, or indeed “immigrants”. And these blurry defining criteria mean that the two are not clearly distinguished. From here some wrinkles open up, and people can get trapped inside those (more on that later).

Now compare popular articulations of indigeneity. The English (to pick a completely random example) like to see themselves as immemorially Anglo-Saxon (see Reynolds 1985), but try telling that to the sixth-century Britons being shoved westward by waves of Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Franks (who were themselves later shoved around by the Vikings, and so on). The Anglo-Saxons were once invaders, but at some point in the popular consciousness became indigenous. At which meeting was that agreed?

As I noted above, “indigenous” is not just historically significant. It relates to present-day disadvantage (by no means limited to language). This is perhaps why “indigenous” is less frequently used in European countries, whose homegrown ethnolinguistic minorities might be marginalised but not as acutely as the indigenous people of the always delightfully euphemistic “New World” – who drag behind them nasty histories of dispossession, and carry on top of them desperate social exclusion in the present (relative poverty, disproportionate incarceration, shorter life expectancy, etc.).

There are, then, deeply political resonances behind the mobilisation of a term like “indigenous”.

"Indigenous" European Minority Languages (Source: Barbier Traductions)

“Indigenous” European Minority Languages (Source: Barbier Traductions)

Now consider a piece of governmental language policy, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. For “indigenous” it prefers “autochthonous”, and for “immigrant” it uses “allochthonous”. Autochthonous languages are defined vaguely as “traditionally used within a given territory of a State”, while the latter, the “languages of migrants”, are excluded from the Charter’s remit. Here we come closer to defining and distinguishing “indigenous” and “immigrant”, but not much closer.

Perhaps the clearest deconstruction of indigeneity is Anthea Fraser Gupta’s book chapter, ‘Privileging Indigeneity’ (1997). She pertinently asserts that “groups do not remain discrete, but merge, especially through marriage. Migration, language shift, and intermarriage are long established human practices. They have not stopped. It is dangerous to solidify this fluidity into policy.” This throws things into sharp relief: if “traditionally used” is a definition of indigeneity, then how long, in years, is “traditional”?

Consider Hindi in the UK. It’s a minority language with a centuries-long tradition, but happens to be associated with an ethnic group whose migration is ongoing, not ancient history.

Of course, Hindi is not a minority language everywhere, but what about, say, Potwari in the UK, ‘traditionally’ spoken in Pakistan but a minority language there and everywhere else too.

What’s that? Not traditionally spoken in the UK? Oh, sorry.

Gupta’s 1997 chapter has never been followed up substantially, or even cited more than a few times – mostly pretty superficial citations too (judge for yourself: One other useful contribution comes from Lionel Wee. In his book Language Without Rights, he argues that “the communicative needs of immigrants cannot be appropriately addressed by … the collective right of an ethnic minority group to a heritage language. … In this regard, the traditional notion of language rights will need to be recast as an individual’s communicative right to be heard and understood” (2010: 143). This is the beginning of a much needed fundamental debate in language policy research. (Sadly this point of Wee’s is something of a diamond in the rough; his book is otherwise not very good – see my rather scratchy review here.)

But this rabbit hole gets deeper. What about languages that are not only associated with migrants, but that don’t even have an intuitive ethnolinguistic heritage or a long history?

"Le nouchi ivoirien, une langue à défendre!" (Source:

“Le nouchi ivoirien, une langue à défendre!” (Source:

Take the creole Nouchi, in the Ivory Coast, arising in the 1980s through contact between French and various Ivorian languages. Nouchi is indigenously Ivorian but has no obvious ethnic pedigree. It arose because street traders, itinerant workers, and others in the Ivorian grey economy – who didn’t share a common language – needed to communicate. From a rich mix of diverse people striking deals, talking shop, agreeing, disagreeing, socialising, eating, dancing and falling in love, came about a more distinctive set of words, phrases, and grammatical features. This story of language genesis is as old as human speech itself. And in the worldwide context of overwhelming language death, Nouchi could be celebrated as a new indigenous minority language.

So is it celebrated? Not quite. Although a vibrant feature of Ivorian popular (sub-)culture, Nouchi is typically looked down on by mainstream media and other guardians of all that is right and good in the world, as broken French and/or a subversive subaltern code. That even includes minority language sympathisers. In a book-length discussion of Ivorian minority languages, Ettien Koffi (2012) mentions Nouchi only once (p. 207) and then only as a kind of curiosity. (See my somewhat irritable review of Koffi’s book here.)

The same fate has befallen Tsotsitaal in South Africa, another recently born creole “including elements of Zulu and Afrikaans … from the working class outskirts and townships of Johannesburg … used by (would-be) gangsters and rebellious township youth. … [L]anguages like Tsotstitaal are not legitimated … and their speakers are marginalized” (Stroud & Heugh 2004: 202).

Dynamic urban vernaculars also have a tendency to change and transform much more quickly than older languages. That is of course part of the appeal for their speakers, but another reason for indifference among those who prefer languages to sit still.

No maps exist for emergent "indigenous" languages (Source: Sueddeutsche)

No maps exist for emergent “indigenous” languages (Source: Sueddeutsche)

This kind of sneering at emergent contact-based vernaculars is common elsewhere, for example Rinkeby Swedish (Milani & Jonsson 2012), Kiezdeutsch (Wiese 2015), and Multicultural London English (Kerswill 2013, 2014) – even though, like “indigenous languages”, these are also used by minorities, spoken nowhere else on earth, and associated with poor, marginalised ethnic groups. Because they lack an identifiable ethnic lineage, and because they arose in the grubby dirt of modern cosmopolitanism – not the sacred dust of bygone ages – they paw at the lowest rung of the linguistic hierarchy.

This is perhaps the biggest problem for poorly defined terms like “indigenous” and “immigrant”: people get caught in the wrinkles between them. Speakers of emergent vernaculars are so distained they don’t even get a term of their own.

So the meaning of “indigenous” in language policy is complex, seldom explicitly defined, and even more rarely problematised. But whatever its meaning, it clearly isn’t just “us what was here first”. That in turn begs the more important question for “immigrants”: if the Anglo-Saxons ultimately became indigenous, then how long will others take to qualify? How many centuries do you have to be around? Why not decide, in years, how long it takes to be counted as indigenous, traditional, autochthonous, etc.? I hope it’s clear that I’m sketching a rather large red herring. The answer is neither possible nor desirable.

Perhaps a better solution would be to balance consideration of indigeneity with other factors, not least socioeconomic disadvantage. “Indigeneity” as currently discussed is still important: historically unjust land grabs followed by centuries of being disgracefully screwed over – continuing into the present – still need redress. But combining this with a broader focus on material wellbeing could yield greater parity with speakers of “immigrant languages”, and even of emergent vernaculars.

“[A] frequent critique of language endangerment discourse is that it displaces concerns with speakers on to a concern with languages” (Heller & Duchêne 2007: 4–5). In the wider social sciences, debate crackles and sparks over whether the “cultural turn” has over-interpreted inequality as culturally driven, stealing attention away from social class and other structural barriers (e.g. Crompton 2008: 43–44). That kind of debate in language policy is well overdue. Since her 1998 article (cited earlier), Nancy Hornberger and others have managed to dislodge the constrained focus on education in promoting minority languages. Surely the next advance should be to get beyond “indigenous”/“immigrant” as the prime categorisation, even to get beyond languages as such (an unsettling thought for a linguist), and to consider more fully the lives of the people who speak them.

Related posts: The diversity of the Other, Inventing languages. References

Crompton, Rosemary. 2008. Class and stratification. Bristol: Polity Press.

Gupta, Anthea Fraser. 2002. Privileging indigeneity. In John M. Kirk & Dónall P. Ó Baoill (eds.), Language Planning and Education: Linguistic Issues in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland. Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona. 290-299. [Pre-print available:]

Heller, Monica & Alexandre Duchêne. 2007. Discourses of endangerment: sociolinguistics, globalization and social order. In A. Duchêne & M. Heller (eds.), Discourses of endangerment: Ideology and Interest in the Defence of Languages. London: Continuum. 1–13.

Hornberger, Nancy. 1998. Language policy, language education, language rights: Indigenous, immigrant, and international perspectives. Language in Society 27(4): 439–458.

Kerswill, Paul. 2013. Identity, ethnicity and place: the construction of youth language in London. In P. Auer et al. (eds.), Space in Language and Linguistics. Berlin: De Gruyter. 128–164.

Kerswill, Paul. 2014. The objectification of ‘Jafaican’: the discoursal embedding of Multicultural London English in the British media. In Jannis Androutsopoulos (ed.), Mediatization and Sociolinguistic Change. Berlin: De Gruyter. 428–455.

Koffi, Ettien. 2012. Paradigm Shift in Language Planning and Policy: Game-theoretic Solutions. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Milani, Tommaso M. & Rickard Jonsson. 2012. Who’s Afraid of Rinkeby Swedish? Stylization, Complicity, Resistance. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 22(1): 44–63.

Stroud, Christopher & Kathleen Heugh. 2004. Lingusitic human rights and linguistic citizenship. In Jane Freeland & Donna Patrick (eds.), Language Rights and Language Survival: Sociolinguistic and Sociocultural Perspectives. Manchester: St. Jerome. 191–218.

Wiese, H. (2015). “This migrants’ babble is not a German dialect!”: The interaction of standard language ideology and ‘us’/‘them’ dichotomies in the public discourse on a multiethnolect. Language in Society 44(3), 341-368. DOI: 10.1017/S0047404515000226

Author Dave Sayers

Dr. Dave Sayers (ORCID # 0000-0003-1124-7132) is a Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. His research interests include language policy and planning, and variationist sociolinguistics. His website is

More posts by Dave Sayers
  • Janet Enever

    Thanks Dave for this very useful perspective – particularly as Nancy has recently been one of our visiting profs!

    I will encourage colleagues working on ‘indigenous’ languages to comment further on your arguments!
    Best, Janet

  • Thanks for the article Dave. Enjoyed it.

    This is a related discussion from Mehdi Hasan’s show ‘Head to Head’ where he interviews Paul Collier on immigration, diversity, etc.

    The issue of what is ‘indigenous’ is interesting and emerges at around 5:49 into the recording.

    Perhaps it adds to the discussion here.

    Best wishes


  • Alexandra Grey

    Agreed, Dave, more problematisation and debate about “indigenous” would be useful. But the policy split is not always between indigenous/immigrant language. In regards to the PRC, where I focus my research, “indigenous” is used by academics (writing in English) in reference to people and languages in a subversive challenge to the official avoidance of that term. The state prefers instead the label “minority ethnic nationality language” (少数民族语言). “Immigrant” languages do not enter into the policy picture.

    See for example Beckett and Postiglione (eds) 2012 book, China’s Assimilationist Language Policy, in which the contributors intentionally use the double-barreled label “indigenous and minority”. In their opening chapter, Beckett and Postiglione explain the politics of “indigenous” in China (p.4). In chapter two, Minglang Zhou argues that China’s minority people are, in fact, mostly indigenous (p.18). Now, there is a concern (for me) that these authors treat indigeneity as a question of fact not a social construction. However, the fact that the term was problematised and discussed was one of the strengths of this book, in my view. (The book has weaknesses too, especially in making out it bold thesis that the language policy is assimilationist, see e.g. Erbaugh’s review: The China Quarterly/ Volume 210 /June 2012, pp 527-528. That review also has a weakness in failing to grapple with a policy saying one thing and doing another as Shoamy’s work on hidden policies suggests.)

  • Alexandra Grey

    Also, mentioned in regards to this blog post on the BAAL email list but more useful if the Language on the Move readership can see it here, was this suggestion of related material: Mehdi Hasan’s show ‘Head to Head’, interview with Oxford Professor Sir Paul Collier, author of Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism: discussion of “indigenous” from 5min49sec:

  • Tom Ricento

    A nice discussion on an important topic. I would refer readers to my recent article ‘Thinking about language: What political theorists need to know about language in the real world’ in Language Policy13(4), 351-39 (2014) which deals with language, culture, identity, and rights; it’s in the thematic issue ‘Language Policy and Political Theory’, co-edited by T. Ricento, Y. Peled, and P. Ives (also published as a book by Springer: Language Policy and Political Theory: Building Bridges, Assessing Breaches’, 2015). John Edwards has also written on the issue of ‘who is indigenous’ and I would say that the major (consensus?) criterion for categorizing a language as indigenous is political and has to do with a history of oppression, colonization, and contemporary marginalization, as you note in your piece. As you note, time depth can never work, since ‘originalness’ is a historical and political construct, part of the myth of nationism/nationalism (to use Fishman’s distinction).

    Tom Ricento, University of Calgary

  • Peter L Patrick

    Having debated some of this with Dave Sayers before, I would say a couple things for non-specialist readers: (1) “indigenous peoples” is not an uncontroversial term but much has been written discussing and defining the term in human rights discourse, eg If you can define the people, then “indigenous language” is easy. Such recent discussions DO take the causes of socioeconomic disadvantage into account already. (2) No such agreement exists for “immigrant” but that doesn’t mean no reasonable solutions are possible. For language purposes, you could look at defining locally w.r.t. not first presence but presence in significant numbers (eg most Hindi and Caribbean people arrived in Britain from the 1950s on, though yes some preceded by centuries), by measures of integration or assimilation, etc. – all highly relevant to language maintenance. Recent immigrants will never receive the same language rights as other groups, anywhere, full stop – partly because of recency. (3) The problem of emerging contact vernaculars is a non sequitur in this blog, that does not bear on defining immigrant or indigenous language rights. (Anyway, Multicultural London English is not one.) I love ’em – I am a creolist – but it just is not the relevant issue. (4) A solution that treats indigenous language speakers and recent immigrants the same is neither realistic, nor desirable (unless an unrealistically good one is imagined). They are too different. In sum, we should not seek to “get past” this distinction/debate, but rather understand it better.