The ‘new speaker’ label focuses on the experience of multilingual individuals who adopt and use a language of which they are not native speakers. It is a relatively recent construct.
The term originated in minority language sociolinguistics but has now come to be used in critical sociolinguistics more generally to engage with debates around ‘nativeness’.
In the context of minority languages and revitalization projects such as Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Galician,Irish, Manx, Occitan, etc., this discussion has been more recent. In the past, the focus was to a large extent concerned with native speaker communities.
The new speaker category emerged in the context of minority language research and discussions amongst a small group of European-based researchers concerned with overlapping issues of legitimacy, linguistic authority and language ownership in post-revitalization situations, specifically in the context of Catalan and comparative work on Galician and Irish.
The specific use of the term ‘new speaker’ in fact drew inspiration from the Galician category of neofalante (literally neo or new speaker).
There had not been any explicit labeling in the Catalan or Irish contexts although other terms existed. The term Gaeilgeoir (literally Irish speaker) had been used as a folk concept to refer to Irish speakers who acquired the language outside of traditional Gaeltacht areas, distinguishing them from cainteoir dúchais (meaning native speaker).
Kathryn Woolard had already made explicit use of the term “New Catalans” in the eighties to refer to first language speakers of Spanish who had acquired Catalan through the education system and who adopted bilingual practices.
The focus of discussions around the new speaker category was on understanding the ideologies and practices of individuals who acquired a minority language outside of the home, what motivated them to become speakers of a minority language and the challenges and opportunities that this presented.
The new speaker label thus came to be used as an umbrella term for researchers working in and across different minority language contexts and provided a platform to examine these issues collectively.
The new speaker label also struck a chord with scholars working in a variety of other multilingual contexts. This included:
- 'new speakers' in the context of migration,
- 'new speakers' in the contexts of translation where the focus has tended to be given to translating into one’s mother-tongue,
- 'new speaker' teachers of English and their legitimacy compared to native speakers,
- 'new speakers' experience as transnational workers, or in the context of transnational networks connected to youth cultures often associated with the use of international languages such as English, Chinese, French, Spanish.
Researchers in these sub-disciplines have been also questioning the uncritical emphasis on “native” speaker models.
The formation of the COST network provides a space for this broader discussion which included this broader spectrum of new speakers in a multilingual Europe.
It has allowed us to develop connections between regional minority languages and other perspectives on new speakerness and hopefully shed new light on the challenges and opportunities involved in becoming a new speaker of language.
O’Rourke, Bernadette, Joan Pujolar, Fernando Ramallo. 2015. New speakers of minority languages: the challenging opportunity. Special Issue. International Journal of the Sociology of Language. 231. [available for open access directly from IJSL webpage]
Pujolar, Joan. 2007. Bilingualism and the Nation-state in the Post-national Era. In Duchêne, Alexandre & Monica Heller (eds.) Bilingualism: A Social Approach, 71–95. Basingstoke: Palgrave-McMillan.