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Netherlands: Can Frisian make a comeback?

Just half-a-million people in the north of the Netherlands speak Frisian, or Fryslan, but its future looks bright.

About half the province’s population of 600,000 speaks Frisian as their first language, said Riemersma, mostly in the rural areas. Three-quarters of Frieslanders can speak it and 94 percent understand it.

The distinct, but related languages of North Frisian and Saterlandic are spoken by about 12,000 people in parts of northern Germany.

Frisian is an official second language in the Netherlands, after Dutch. The language is taught in schools at all levels in Friesland (Fryslan in Frisian), there are Frisian radio stations, TV broadcasts, regular theater performances and about 100 books published every year.

Nevertheless, Riemersma said Frisian is in danger, with much of the threat coming from its cousin across the North Sea.

“It is in decline, because of the pressure from both Dutch and English,” he explained.

“People who have a simplistic view of what’s needed for their children to climb the economic ladder tend to say ‘you don’t need any Frisian for your career, you do need English, so please forget about your own language.’”

He said the number of Frisian speakers drops by about 8 percent every generation.

Rather than trying to fight the tide of English, the Fryske Akademy is seeking to promote trilingual education at an early age with the aim of producing Friesians fully equipped to work in the increasingly universal English without abandoning the language of their forefathers.

“The discussion is never against English. English is almost the third community language of the Netherlands,” said Riemersma. “The strategy is to embrace all three, to bring the children to the same level of language command by the time they end secondary schooling.”

One positive sign he sees is that the number of pre-schools working in Frisian has grown from seven to 70 over the past 20 years.

Frisian’s closeness to English dates back to the Dark Ages when the Saxons and other German tribes moved westward into what is now Friesland before crossing the North Sea to invade Britain. The two languages drifted apart after William the Conqueror and his French-speaking knights wrestled control of England from the Saxon kings in 1066.

Some think the growing prevalence of English around the world may actually be encouraging the survival of lesser-used languages.

“The fact that English is becoming so strong, in some ways is an advantage. As it becomes the global language, people will still want to use their local language as well,” said Prys Jones, the Welshman who also serves as chairman of the Europe-wide Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity.

“There’s a feeling that we can be global, but we can also be local. It helps express a feeling of belonging,” he said in a telephone interview from Cardiff.