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Social media in bilingual environments: online practices of Frisian teenagers
Researcher: Lysbeth Jongbloed-Faber
Most people in the Netherlands speak Dutch, a West Germanic language. However, in the north of the Netherlands, in the province of Fryslân, we speak a different language: Frisian. Frisian is, besides Dutch, the second officially recognised language in the Netherlands. In Fryslân, the legal status of Frisian and Dutch are equal, however, in practice, in many domains Dutch is the dominant language and also on many schools, education in Frisian is rather limited. It is estimated that Frisian is the mother tongue for around half of the Frisian population, roughly some 350,000 people. Frisian is mainly a spoken language: while 85% of the population can speak the language, only 12% indicate that they can write the language well (De Fryske Taalatlas, 2011).
In Fryslân, the Mercator Research Centre and the Fryske Akademy carry out fundamental and applied research in the fields of the Frisian language, culture, history and society. One of the current projects studies language use on social media. The expectation is that social media offer chances for minority languages to increase their vitality.
From 2013 untill 2015 the Mercator Research Centre received financial support from the Province of Fryslân and the municipality of Leeuwarden to research the language use on social media. The outcomes of this research, which were published in two separate reports, will be discussed below.
The original reports, written in Frisian language, are available as downloads (PDF) on this page.
Are you also studying the use of your minority language on the internet? We are interested to set up an international network so we can compare results and initiate European funded projects in the future. Please contact Lysbeth for more information.
Twenty Frisian schools for secondary general and vocational education participated in the research we set out in 2013 and 2014. As a result, over 2,000 Frisian teenagers filled in an extensive questionnaire. Almost all Frisian teenagers (98%) use social media. 95% of the teenagers use WhatsApp (a cross-platform mobile messaging app), 86% use Facebook and 76% use Twitter. Of the three, WhatsApp is used most: 47% chose the answer 'only when I am asleep, I do not check WhatsApp'.
In general it can be concluded that Frisian still is rather an oral than a written language. For Frisian teenagers the Dutch language is the dominant language used in writing. On average, the more formal the medium, the less often Frisian is used. For instance, for text messages and WhatsApp approximately half of the Frisian-speaking teenagers use Frisian. On Facebook and Twitter that proportion decreases to around 30%, and in emails it is 15%. In personal messages Frisian is used more than in public or group messages. Frisian is often written phonetically. Most teenagers are aware of that but do not mind: 'People will understand what I mean anyway.'
The language one speaks with friends is the main factor determining one's language use on social media. Other factors affecting language choice are one's attitude towards Frisian, one’s writing skills in Frisian, and the general attitude towards Frisian at one's school. Approximately one fifth of the Frisian-speaking teenagers never uses Frisian on social media. The main reason is that they find it difficult to write Frisian, but it also has to do with their surroundings not being Frisian and their own attitude towards Frisian.
Besides mapping language use of Frisian teenagers by means of a questionnaire, I also studied tweets of 50 Frisian teenagers. The 50 teenagers for the Twitter research were selected from the participants of the second ‘Fryske Twitterdei’ (Frisian Twitter day), which was organised on April 18th 2013 by the organisation ‘Praat mar Frysk’ (Do speak Frisian). During this day people were encouraged to send Frisian tweets in combination with the hashtag Frysk. The whole day #Frysk was a trending topic in the Netherlands, and almost 10,000 tweets were sent with the hashtag Frysk. Per participant, their last 50 tweets before the Twitter day, their tweets on the Twitter day, and their first 50 tweets after the Twitter day were analysed: in total over 6,000 tweets. The analysis shows that on regular days, just over 10% of the tweets were in Frisian and 65% were in Dutch. On the Frisian Twitter day 53% was in Frisian and 29% in Dutch. Although the Twitter day has a strong upwards effect on the use of Frisian in tweets, the effect is not long-lasting.
Focus group discussions
In 2015, six focus group discussions were held with teenagers from four different schools. The teenagers all deal very differently with Frisian on social media. Some use it all the time and others hardly ever use it. Some are very consistent in their language choices while others are not: one day they will use Frisian on WhatsApp, another day Netherlands. For some Frisian teenagers their limited writing skills form a barrier to use Frisian while others do not really care about how they write it. From the focus group discussions we learned that it is not just the attitude towards Frisian that influences the language choices of the teenagers, but also the attitude towards Dutch. If teenagers like both languages equally, they will hardly use Frisian. Language choices of parents do not seem to influence the language use of the teenagers.
In 2014, over 1,200 Frisians (aged 15 – 94 years old) participated in an online survey about language use on social media. As we asked people to participate through social and traditional media, the data are a snowball sample and are not representative. Also the Frisian-speaking adults use Frisian most on WhatsApp: 78% use Frisian often or all the time in private apps. In group messages on WhatsApp the share is a little lower (69%). On Facebook, in status updates 44% of the respondents use often or all the time Frisian, and in chat messages on Facebook the proportion is 62%. On Twitter, Frisian is used the least: one third of the participants use Frisian often or all the time.
For adults, the most important barrier to use Frisian is limited writing proficiency. This is both the outcome of statistical analysis as well as the focus group discussions. In addition, audience and attitude play a role in language choice as well. On WhatsApp, 69% of the respondents indicate that the majority of their contacts (their audience) is Frisian-speaking, on Facebook this is 52% and on Twitter 26%. This affects the extent to which Frisian is used.
In 2015, we also studied the impact of Frisian tweets of famous Frisians. It appears that a Frisian tweet of a Frisian rolemodel motivates people to respond in Frisian. However, the effect is not longlasting. It can thus be compared to the effect of the Frisian Twitter day: an effective though short-term means to increase the use of Frisian on Twitter.
From 1 November, researcher Lysbeth Jongbloed-Faber has been appointed as PhD Candidate at the Fryske Akademy and Maastricht University to study the linguistic practices on social media in Fryslân. Please contact her for more information about the above-mentioned studies or if you are interested in setting up comparative international research.
Download (PDF) the Frisian-language report on language use among Frisian teenagers on social media: Taalgebrűk fan Fryske jongerein op sosjale media (April 2014).
Download (PDF) the Frisian-language report on language use among Frisians of all ages on social media: Friezen op sosjale media (Novimber 2015).