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New speakers of West Frisian:

Promoting language learning and use to foster revitalisation

West Frisian, the second official language in the Netherlands, is a minority language that is classified by UNESCO as being in danger of becoming extinct. It is primarily protected and promoted by means of provincial language policy and planning in the province of Fryslân. So far, the main focus of such policy and planning has been on ‘traditional’ speakers. Additional measures to promote language learning and use amongst ‘new’ speakers could constitute an important contribution to the revitalisation of West Frisian. New speakers of a minority language are people who had little to no home or community exposure to this language when they were growing up, but who are instead learning it later on in life. If new speakers become active minority language users, they can play a key role in minority language revitalisation: they can increase the overall number of minority language users – and they can even promote language use amongst traditional speakers, by expanding the social networks of minority-language-speaking adults and by bolstering the communities in which minority-language-speaking children are raised. Notably, language policy and planning with regard to new speakers should not be seen as a replacement of support for traditional speakers. Instead, the former should complement the latter: a truly inclusive approach to minority language revitalisation must recognise the different needs of the two speaker groups and strive to consolidate them.

This project focuses on new speakers of West Frisian in the province of Fryslân, in the north of the Netherlands. The participants are 264 adults who are/were enrolled in Frisian language courses at the Algemiene Fryske Ûnderrjocht Kommisje – the General Frisian Education Commission, typically abbreviated as ‘Afûk’. A questionnaire was used to gather quantitative as well as qualitative data regarding these new speakers’ motivations for learning West Frisian, their attitudes towards the language, their ideological evaluations of its different varieties, and their language use patterns. The project findings are written up in three academic articles, all of which discuss the implications of the findings for potential language planning measures to encourage the learning and/or use of West Frisian amongst new speakers. Moreover, the project outputs include research-informed teaching materials for Afûk educators, a research report for the government of the Province of Fryslân, and a research-informed language promotion campaign.

The questionnaire, the R code used for data analysis, and further details are freely accessible via the project’s page on the Open Science Framework.

Mirjam Vellinga (left) and Ruth Kircher (right) - photo: Hindrik Sijens
Mirjam Vellinga (left) and Ruth Kircher (right) - photo: Hindrik Sijens

Research theme: Multilingualism and Language learning
Duration: 11/06/2020 - present
Mercator Staff: Ruth Kircher (principal investigator)
Collaboration with: Mirjam Vellinga / Algemiene Fryske Ûnderrjocht Kommisje, Afûk (NL) (co-investigator), Ethan Kutlu / University of Iowa (USA) (collaborator)
Funding: This project is a collaboration between Mercator/ Fryske Akademy and Afûk. It was funded by a research grant from the government of the Province of Fryslân (grant number 01774057) to Ruth Kircher and Mirjam Vellinga.


Project outputs

Article 1 – Evaluative reactions to minority languages and their varieties: Evidence from new speakers of West Frisian.

Little is known about the connection between individuals’ evaluative reactions to (1) minority languages as such and (2) specific varieties of these minority languages. This study investigated such evaluative reactions amongst new speakers of Frisian in the Netherlands (n=264). A questionnaire was used to elicit participants’ attitudes towards the Frisian language and their evaluations of the specific variety of Frisian they were taught. The results revealed a significant correlation between participants’ status-related attitudes towards Frisian and their anonymity-related evaluations of the variety they were taught – as well as between participants’ solidarity-related attitudes towards Frisian and their authenticity-related evaluations of the variety they were taught. The former were close to neutral; the latter were mildly positive. The paper discusses how these results not only advance our general understanding of language in society, but also facilitate the development of more comprehensive science communication to inform revitalisation strategies in minority contexts.

The article can be found here.


Article 2 – Promoting minority language use to foster revitalization: Insights from new speakers of West Frisian.

The findings presented in this article show that new speakers’ knowledge of West Frisian does not automatically entail their use of it. The participants in the study use West Frisian only very rarely – and when they do use it, it is mainly in the classroom. Minority language interactions outside the classroom, with traditional speakers, consist mostly of a few tokenistic words or phrases. The participants feel less comfortable when conversing in Frisian with traditional speakers than with fellow new speakers, and many participants do not feel accepted as authentic members of the minority language community. New speakers consider several common behaviours by traditional speakers to be discouraging: namely refusing to speak Frisian from the outset of a conversation, switching to Dutch during the conversation, making fun of new speakers’ way of speaking Frisian, and unpromptedly correcting new speakers’ mistakes. These findings are interpreted in light of the complex relationship between traditional and new speakers, in which questions of legitimacy and linguistic insecurity (amongst both groups) are highly pertinent. Yet, the findings also show that there are behaviours by traditional speakers that would encourage new speakers’ use of Frisian – namely using easy words, checking in regularly to ensure understanding, speaking slowly, and above all: explicitly encouraging new speakers to keep using Frisian. The article discusses the implications of these findings for the promotion of new speakers’ activation, that is, the process by which new speakers become active and habitual users of the minority languages they have learnt.

The article can be found here.


Article 3 – New speakers’ motivations for learning West Frisian: Lessons for language planning.

More information about this article will be made available soon.

Teaching materials

A key finding from the research project is that certain behaviours by traditional Frisian speakers discourage new speakers from using the language. It is important for new speakers to be aware of traditional speakers’ backgrounds and situations – because this knowledge can mitigate their discouragement. Thus, the teaching materials explain to new speakers that these behaviours are (usually) a consequence of traditional speakers’ own linguistic insecurity, their experiences of discrimination as minority language speakers, and/or their linguistic socialisation. The materials also contain tips for new speakers to persevere in their use of Frisian with traditional speakers.

The Frisian version of the materials can be found here, the English version can be found here.


Research report

The research report presents the main outcomes and outputs of the project, and it provides research-based recommendations regarding language policy and planning measures as well as future research. The report can be found here.


Language promotion campaign

A key finding from the research project is that new speakers – who are very hesitant to use Frisian with traditional speakers – said that they would be more likely to use the language if traditional speakers explicitly encouraged them to do so. Thus, the campaign Praat mar Frysk – ek mei nije Fryskpraters (Let’s speak Frisian – also with new speakers) aimed to provide new speakers with explicit encouragement. In the first phase of the campaign, awareness of new speakers’ desire for encouragement was raised via social and traditional media. Videos of explicit encouragement from both traditional and new speakers were shared widely. In the second phase of the campaign, traditional speakers were given the opportunity to submit complimentary messages for specific new speakers via the campaign website. These messages were then sent to the new speakers on postcards. It is hoped that, for the new speakers who received them, these messages served as an incentive to keep speaking Frisian &/ speak Frisian more often.

The Praat mar Frysk – ek mei nije Fryskpraters campaign page can be found here.


The researchers

Ruth Kircher (PhD, Queen Mary University of London)  was, for the duration of this project, a researcher at the Mercator European Research Centre/ Fryske Akademy. Kircher is now principal researcher at the European Centre for Minority Issues.

Mirjam Vellinga (MA, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen) is the head of the marketing division and manager of the language promotion division at the Afûk. 

Ethan Kutlu (PhD, University of Florida) is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Linguistics and Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa.