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  • Interview with Anne Kandler, Winner of the 2009 Gabriel W. Lasker Prize
  • Franz Manni

Lasker Award, Anne Kandler, language shift, language evolution, language extinction, demography, extra-linguistic factors, creolization

An international jury composed of Mark Beaumont (United Kingdom), Lounes Chikhi (France, Portugal), Pierre Darlu (France), Mark Jobling (United Kingdom), and William Leonard (United States) has selected the article "Demography and Language Competition" (Human Biology 81:181-210 [2009]) by Anne Kandler as the best contribution to volume 81 (2009) of the journal. This review paper appeared in the special double issue "Demography and Cultural Macro-evolution," edited by guest editors James Steele (United Kingdom) and Stephen Shennan (United Kingdom).

Anne Kandler is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career postdoctoral researcher based at the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity (University College, London). She received her Ph.D. in mathematics (stochastics) in 2006 from the University of Chemnitz (Germany) and currently works on models to explain cultural change. Kandler's research interests are processes of cultural competition and selection of cultural traits, and the influences of demographic factors (such as population growth and dispersal) and social transmission biases on the outcomes of such processes. In particular, she studies models of language shift (Kandler 2009; Kandler and Steele 2008; Kandler et al. 2010); models of diffusion of innovations, such as the adoption of hybrid corn in the United States in the 20th century (Kandler and Steele 2009); and the relationship between cultural diversity, innovation rate, and transmission biases (Kandler and Laland 2009).

Franz Manni:

Dear Anne, first of all let me congratulate you for winning this award! Would you like to summarize your review paper, which also includes some original thoughts and new mathematical treatments, for those readers who did not find the occasion to go through it?

Anne Kandler:

Thank you very much. I am very honored to receive the 2009 Gabriel W. Lasker Award. [End Page 357]

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Figure 1.

Anne Kandler. Photo courtesy of Mark Earthly.

My intention in writing the paper was firstly to review and contrast existing modeling approaches on language shift, and secondly to develop my own framework to describe the dynamic of language shift and extinction. Abrams and Strogatz published in 2003 an influential brief communication in Nature on "Modeling the Dynamics of Language Death" (Abrams and Strogatz 2003). They presented a two-language competition model to explain historical data on the decline of endangered languages. The approach has been criticized for its lack of realism (cf. Fernando et al. 2010; Minett and Wang 2008; Stauffer and Schulze 2005). It is assumed that, for example, the population is highly connected with no spatial or social structure; all speakers are monolingual and the population size is constant. However, its mathematical simplicity and the convincing fitting results attracted more and more researchers to address some of these shortcomings. The aims of this field of research are to identify the most important factors governing language shift and to propose strategies for language maintenance and revitalization.

My focus in my own contribution is on analyzing the relationship between demography and language shift. My model tracks temporal changes in numbers of speakers who are monolingual in the competing languages, and in the size of the bilingual subpopulation. The extent of these changes is determined by demographic factors, such as population growth rate and spatial dispersal/interactions, [End Page 358] and by linguistic factors which define the social and economic advantages of shifting languages. The main findings are that these demographic processes and, additionally and importantly, the initial distributions of speakers of the different languages can all influence the shift dynamic significantly. In a spatially and temporally constant environment the extinction of one language (which may not be the high-status language) is inevitable. However, coexistence between languages of different status can be achieved given some measure of spatial segregation. Furthermore, I show the impact of two strategies for language maintenance: adjusting the status of the endangered language and adjusting the availability of monolingual and bilingual educational resources.


Can you summarize your research interests and explain how you became focused in this direction? By the way, I am sure that the readers may...


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