Variation and Standardization: Romansh in Switzerland

An article about Romansh in the latest Weekend Australian is very interesting and relevant to my PhD research on the teaching of variation in language. Romansh has been the fourth official language of Switzerland since 1996, but there are five main dialects of the language among its 60,000 speakers, and none of the dialects are the official form (called Romansh Grischun or RG) that is taught in schools and published in books. Instead of unifying the speakers of the various dialects in an attempt to save the language from dying out, the standardized form has only brought about resentment and anger among students who do not want to learn from books written in a language that no one actually speaks.

My PhD research is on variation in the lexicon (vocabulary) of French, and if the variants are included in textbooks so that students can learn all forms of the French language as well as the cultures that are inseparable from it. The types of variation I am investigating are geographic and stylistic, or the various dialects of French throughout the world and formal vs. informal variants of words. Variation occurs at all levels of language, but I am focusing on the lexicon instead of the grammar because it the most salient feature of variation and the largest obstacle to comprehension for learners of French.

A lot of researchers argue against the standardized form of French that is taught in textbooks because it is actually no one’s native spoken language and students cannot acquire communicative competence by learning it, nor can they possibly learn the cultures of the various Francophone regions that are reflected in the varieties of language. Overcoming prescriptivism and language purism has always been difficult with regards to French, and the textbook publishing industry’s resistance to change because it could potentially lead to loss of profit have also contributed to the clone-like effect of language textbooks. Luckily some lexical variation has made its way into a few textbooks, though it seems mostly limited to Quebecois vocabulary of formal variants.

All variants of a language should be considered equal to each other, rather than one standardized (or even mother country) form being seen as superior to the others. American, Australian, and British English are all equal just as Canadian, Hexagonal, and Swiss French are all equal. Variation is a natural and inherent part of language; standardization is not.

Opponents of Romansh Grischun believe that it will only lead to the native dialects, as well as their cultures, dying out quickly. Proponents believe that it will allow Romansh to survive longer and prevent it from becoming a language only spoken by the elderly, though their justification for this is unclear. Standardization of a language may increase critical mass for statistical purposes and cut down on translation costs, but it does not prevent language death.

Even if Romansh Grischun becomes the native language of future generations (which is rather unlikely), the current dialects and cultures of the Romansh community will have died in the meantime. This unified Romansh language of the future would not be the same as the Romansh language of today (i.e. the collection of dialects with similar yet distinct properties), so could it really be considered as saved? Or should it be considered revitalized in another form? And what happens when variation inevitably starts to occur in the future Romansh?