A behavioural model of minority language shift: Theory and empirical evidence

PLoS One. 2021 Jun 4;16(6):e0252453. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0252453. eCollection 2021.


Natural languages with their speech communities tend to compete for speakers, very much like firms compete for market shares. As a result, some languages suffer a shifting pressure which might lead them to their extinction. This work studies the dynamics of language shift in the context of modern bilingual societies like the Basque Country, Ireland and Wales. They all have two official languages, linguistically distant: A, spoken by all, and B, spoken by a bilingual minority. They also have a bilingual education system that ensures a steady flow of new bilinguals. However, a decay in the use of B is observed, signalling that shift processes are at work. To investigate this apparent paradox, we use a novel approach in the literature of language competition. We build a behavioural game model with which bilinguals choose either language A or B for each interaction. Thus, they play repeatedly the game. We present a theorem predicting that under reasonable assumptions, any given population of bilinguals will converge into a linguistic convention, namely into an evolutionary stable equilibrium of the game, that always embeds a proportion of bilinguals shifting to A. We validate this result by means of an empirical version of the model, showing that the predictions fit well the observed data of street use of Basque and daily use of Irish and Welsh.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Models, Psychological
  • Multilingualism*
  • Social Behavior*

Grant support

J.R. Uriarte acknowledges financial support from the Basque Government and the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad (PID2019-106146GB-I00)]. The funders had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.