WP247 Semilingualism: The life and afterlife of a sociolinguistic idea

Salö & Karlander
Collection: Key word


For half a century or more, semilingualism has been a controversial ? much debated and much derided ? idea. The present paper engages with some facets of this history. It traces the formation and early circulation in its context of origin: Sweden’s nascent fields of bilingualism research and minority education. The paper analyzes semilingualism as a ‘traveling idea’, which has moved through networks of actors over an extended period of time. In Sweden from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, semilingualism was a key theme a range of discursive exchanges. It circulated in scholarly discussions about bilingualism and linguistic competence, and surged as a central theme in political debates on minority education, immigration and language policy. It likewise recurred in the media, and in various articulations of public opinion. In the course these travels, the idea of semilingualism became more and more implicated in the processes of revising Sweden’s policies on linguistic minorities. By the 1970s, as the paper argues, the idea had begun to function as a ‘policy-driver’, which aided the 1977 nationwide introduction of the school subject of mother tongue instruction (MTI) for minority students. While most linguists have come to dismiss semilingualism as a scientifically flawed concept, the idea of semilingualism, as the paper shows, had nevertheless a decisive impact in policy making. This impact is still visible the inclusion of MTI in Sweden’s national curriculum. This societal impact of this sociolinguistic idea, as well as the lasting consequences thereof, points to the importance of a reflexive sociolinguistics, which takes interest in the life and afterlife of the ideas it produces. The paper contributes to this endeavor.