Receptive Multilingualism: Language Policies and Other Determinants

For today’s intercultural contexts, English as the lingua franca (ELF) is often considered the default option, while RM tends to require particular preconditions and prior negotiation between the participants, as Hulmbauer (2014, 275) has stated (see also Braunmuller 2007, 30-31). The first precondition for RM is that the participants understand each other’s languages well enough, at least “passively”. Understanding can be based on the linguistic similarity of the languages, on language acquisition, or on both (Zeevaert 2007, 109-110). Earlier research (Harmavaara 2013, Harmavaara 2014; Vershcik 2012; Kaivapalu and Muikku- Werner 2010) on RM between the speakers of the relatively closely related Estonian and Finnish languages suggest that mutual understanding in such interaction is based on the similarity of the languages, but also on language acquisition, context and world knowledge, and the intersubjective work accomplished during interaction. Estonian and Finnish are structurally very similar, but there are significant differences in their lexicons (Laakso 2001; Laalo 1992).

Other preconditions for RM vary from situation to situation. However, RM is more likely to occur in situations where it is a “common practice” (Hulmbauer 2014, 276), shaped by “ideologies, historical beliefs and attitudes on the one hand and language policies on the other” (Rehbein et al. 2012, 252). For example, in Scandinavia RM is a widely known practice supported by the Nordic countries.[1] The mainland Scandinavian languages, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, are generally considered mutually intelligible, and Pan-Scandinavism is based on the ideology of Norden as a coherent community (Ostman and Th0gersen 2010). This is reflected in the official language policy of the Nordic countries, where the preference of being able to converse in Scandinavian languages is recorded (The Declaration on a Nordic language policy 2006, 92, 93).

However, having an explicit language policy does not guarantee that it will always be implemented. RM is not a self-evident choice even between the speakers of the mainland Scandinavian languages.[2] Several studies (e.g. Borestam Uhlman 1994; Delsing and Lundin Akeson 2005; Schuppert 2011) report that especially Danes and Swedes struggle to understand each other. Difficulties in understanding lead to arguments against the use of RM in Nordic cooperation. In the interviews conducted by Ostman and Th0gersen (2010), Scandinavian languages were perceived as tools to construct both Scandinavian and national identities, but the use of English was welcomed, too, especially when mutual understanding would otherwise have been threatened (Ostman and Th0gersen 2010, 122-123).

Similar results have been reported in studies that focus on quadrilingual Switzerland. RM, also called the “Swiss model”, is based on the assumption that all Swiss citizens are competent in several national languages (Ludi 2007, 161). The Swiss model is used on the federal level, and it is officially encouraged by the Minister of Education (Werlen 2007, 142, 154). In reality the choice of mode varies according to how multilingual a Swiss region is and depending on its established practices (Werlen 2007, 142-143). Furthermore, both Werlen (2007) and Ludi (2007 and references) report that even in contexts where the Swiss model is applied, within actual conversations language choice is highly varied. Different modes (RM, native-non-native interaction and ELF) are mixed, and languages are chosen based on the language skills of the participants and the interactional needs of the situation.

Still, according to Ludi (2007, 173) and Werlen (2007, 154), the existence of such a policy creates a sphere for utilizing RM.

The use of RM does not need to be derived from a national-level policy, but can also be more locally agreed upon. Studies by Roelands (2004, reported and reflected on by Ribbert and ten Thije 2007) and Beerkens (2010) focused on German-Dutch RM in institutional constellations. German and Dutch are closely related languages, but there is no national-level policy on using RM (Beerkens 2010, 40-49). However, Beerkens found that in the Dutch-German border area RM is practiced along with ELF. There RM is both a top-down process, with language agreements (in governmental organizations), and a bottom-up development based on what is considered a convenient way of communicating (in civil society organizations) (Beerkens 2010, 68). Beerkens (2010, 286) did not find a significant correlation between explicit language policy and the use of RM; instead, the best predictors for using RM were the contact with the speakers of the cognate language, and a positive attitude towards the regional dialects and RM. Also Ribbert and ten Thije (2007) report that individuals and their language skills and preferences played a major role in choosing between different multilingual modes, yet the bilingual structures of the organization fostered RM.

In Europe, RM research has been guided by the official language policy of the EU, which emphasizes linguistic diversity and diverse language skills among citizens (see e.g. ten Thije & Zeevaert 2007, 1-2; Beerkens 2010, 18-20; Rindler- Schjerve and Vetter 2007, 49-50). Estonian and Finnish are official languages of the EU, which means that the EU language policy applies to Estonian-Finnish contact. However, regardless of the long and close contacts between Estonia and Finland, there is no explicit state-level language policy regarding using the cognate languages in Estonian-Finnish interaction, and RM is by no means a default mode. However, Estonian-Finnish RM does occur, for example, in tourism (see Verschik 2012), families, workplaces and academic co-operation.

As suggested in the studies reported above, the choice of RM in Estonian-Finnish constellations is influenced by different determinants related to the characteristics of individuals, social settings and situations. However, the national-level developments undoubtedly form a general framework for choosing the mode of interaction at the local level. Ribbert and ten Thije (2007), Beerkens (2010) and Ludi (2007) all estimate that one of the languages having a higher status may hinder choosing RM. The Soviet occupation of Estonia changed the previously equal relationship between the states and the languages. Finnish became the language of a wealthy Western country, while Estonian was spoken in a region of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet times Finnish had high prestige in Estonia, and the Finnish language and media had symbolic value in the psychological resistance to the occupation.[3] Even today 21% of Estonians claim to have a command of Finnish on the communicative level (European Commission 2012, 21[4]). Estonian does not have the same status in Finland. Estonian is not generally taught in Finnish schools, whereas in many Estonian schools Finnish is one of the foreign languages offered. The EU and the free mobility of labor have intensified the contacts between Estonia and Finland, and there is a large Estonian minority population in Finland (see Koreinik & Praakli, this volume).

  • [1] Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland.
  • [2] Even less so when Icelanders and Finnish-speaking Finns are involved (see Delsing and LundinAkeson 2005; Ostman and Th0gersen 2010, 112).
  • [3] See Graf and Roiko-Jokela (2004, 169-189) on the importance of Finnish TV broadcasts in northern Estonia during the Soviet era, and the sporadic learning of Finnish through Finnish TV.
  • [4] The Eurobarometer reported the three most common languages spoken besides the mothertongue. Estonian was not on the Finns’ list.
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