Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton March 2, 2022

Disruptions due to COVID-19: using mixed methods to identify factors influencing language maintenance and shift

  • Maya Ravindranath Abtahian ORCID logo EMAIL logo , Naomi Nagy , Katharina Pabst ORCID logo and Vidhya Elango
From the journal Linguistics Vanguard


Around the world, COVID-19 lockdowns have caused abrupt shifts in the amount of time spent at home versus out of the home for work, school, and recreation. As a result, many individuals have experienced a disruption in the frequency and type of their interactions. Given the importance of intergenerational transmission and intergenerational interaction for promoting language maintenance, and the importance of peer-to-peer interaction for promoting language shift, we ask how these abrupt changes necessitated by social distancing will affect language use and attitudes, specifically short- and long-term language maintenance or shift involving heritage languages. We examine principles of language maintenance and shift in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown for university students, people still involved in critical acts of identity creation. Here we describe a survey designed to learn how the lockdown is affecting young people’s language ecologies and attitudes. Using both quantitative and qualitative interpretive methods, we document the experiences of over 400 students, focusing on changes in their perceptions of their language use and the causes of these changes.

Corresponding author: Maya Ravindranath Abtahian, Department of Linguistics, University of Rochester, Rochester, USA, E-mail:

Funding source: SSHRC Insight Grant,"Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Award Identifier / Grant number: 425-2016-1430


The authors would like to acknowledge our participants for sharing their responses with us; Betsy Sneller, the participants in the 2021 LSA “Workshop on COVID-era Sociolinguistics”, and Nathan Sanders for comments on earlier versions of this paper; and the Heritage Language Variation and Change research assistants at the University of Toronto for recruiting participants. We would also like to gratefully acknowledge the work of University of Rochester student and research assistant Erin Toohey.

  1. Research funding: This project was partially funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant (425-2016-1430) awarded to Naomi Nagy.


Carmichael, Katie. 2017. Displacement and local linguistic practices: R-lessness in post-Katrina Greater New Orleans. Journal of Sociolinguistics 21(5). 696–719. in Google Scholar

Cheshire, Jenny. 1982. Variation in an English dialect: A sociolinguistic study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Cornish, Flora, Alex Gillespie & Tania Zittoun. 2014. Collaborative analysis of qualitative data. In Uwe Flick (ed.), The SAGE handbook of qualitative data analysis, 79–93. London: SAGE.10.4135/9781446282243.n6Search in Google Scholar

Granovetter, Mark. S. 1973. The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology 78(6). 1360–1380. in Google Scholar

Labov, William. 1973. The linguistic consequences of being a lame. Language in Society 2(1). 81–115. in Google Scholar

Milroy, James & Leslie Milroy. 1985. Linguistic change, social network, and speaker. Journal of Linguistics 21(2). 339–384. in Google Scholar

Nesbitt, Monica & Akiah Watts. 2022. The Eastern Massachusetts Life and Language Project goes virtual: Utilizing social media and videoconferencing for linguistic fieldwork. Unpublished manuscript.Search in Google Scholar

Roberts, Julie. 2016. Internal boundaries and individual differences: /aʊ/ raising in Vermont. American Speech 91(1). 34–61. in Google Scholar

Selvi, Ali Fuad. 2020. Qualitative content analysis. In Jim McKinley & Heath Rose (eds.), The Routledge handbook of research methods in applied linguistics, 440–452. London: Routledge.10.4324/9780367824471-37Search in Google Scholar

Talmy, Steven. 2010. Qualitative interviews in applied linguistics: From research instrument to social practice. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 30(1). 128–148. in Google Scholar

Valente, Thomas W. 1995. Network models of the diffusion of innovations. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.Search in Google Scholar

Wei, Li. 1994. Three generations, two languages, one family: Language choice and language shift in a Chinese community in Britain. Philadelphia, PA: Multilingual Matters.Search in Google Scholar

Włosowicz, Teresa M. 2014. Some advantages of qualitative methods in multilingualism research. In Danuta Gabryś-Barker & Adam Wojtaszek (eds.), Studying second language acquisition from a qualitative perspective, 111–125. Cham: Springer.10.1007/978-3-319-08353-7_8Search in Google Scholar

Wolfram, Walt, Jeffrey Reaser & Charlotte Vaughn. 2008. Operationalizing linguistic gratuity: From principle to practice. Language and Linguistics Compass 2(6). 1109–1134. in Google Scholar

Zentella, Ana Celia. 1997. Growing up bilingual: Puerto Rican children in New York. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Search in Google Scholar

Received: 2021-04-02
Accepted: 2021-09-17
Published Online: 2022-03-02

© 2022 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 28.2.2024 from
Scroll to top button