Language maintenance and shift in the Chinese community of Greater Philadelphia

Su-chiao Chen, University of Pennsylvania


This study explores the process of Chinese maintenance and shift in the Chinese-American community of Greater Philadelphia with emphasis on consideration of language use and language attitude. Chinese maintenance in this study is defined as the degree to which Chinese Americans continue to use Chinese; Chinese shift is defined as change in amount of Chinese language use. Data for the study were collected ethnographically in three major settings: Chinese schools, Chinese homes and American schools. Language use is investigated in terms of six kinds of language functions: expressive, directive, poetic, contact, metalinguistic, and referential. Language attitudes are investigated in terms of the values attached to English and Chinese by community members. The process of language maintenance and shift is explained by examining the intertwining of the functional language use and the perceived values held, and is described in terms of three language functions: integrative, instrumental and communicative. A theoretical framework, drawing from the literature of the sociology of language (including sociolinguistics), is presented to guide the interpretation of the findings of the study. Results indicate that the amount of functional Chinese use and the perceived values of Chinese vary across the two generations, which shows that the Chinese language is in the process of shift in the Chinese-American community. Regardless of the differences between the two generations, the attitude of "English first, Chinese always" in language use is generally shared. The active use of and positive attitude toward English are due to English being the language for expressing appropriate social norms and gaining access to the resources of the mainstream society. The perceived sociocultural and economic advantages of Chinese show that it is valued as an additive which enriches the experience of the Chinese Americans. Whether or not Chinese persists in being maintained and/or shifted largely depends on whether or not the factors which affect maintenance or shift continue to exist. Based on the findings, implications for U.S. language policy and for the Chinese-American community are drawn.

Subject Area

Language arts|Linguistics|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Chen, Su-chiao, "Language maintenance and shift in the Chinese community of Greater Philadelphia" (1992). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9227637.