Minority languages fight for survival in the digital age

Language is about much more than just about talking to each other; it’s one of the bases of identity and culture. But as the world becomes increasingly globalised and reliant on technology, English has been reinforced once again as the lingua franca.

The technological infrastructure that now dominates our working and private lives is overwhelmingly in English, which means minority languages are under threat more than ever.

But it might also be true that technology could help us bring minority languages to a wider audience. If we work out how to play the game right, we could use it to help bolster linguistic diversity rather than damage it.

As more public services go online, the language in which those services are presented is all important. At the European level, around 55 million speak languages other than one of the EU’s official languages. In the UK, the total speakers of Welsh, Cornish, Scottish Gaelic and Irish number hundreds of thousands.

Language technology advances mean it will be possible for people to communicate with each other and do business with each other, even if they don’t speak the same language.

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Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!

Finland celebrates its independence (from Russia) on 6 December. As a Finn living in Belgium, I will celebrate it today by reflecting for a moment on the language situation in Finland and what it has meant to me.

I grew up in Finland, a Nordic country with nearly 5.4 million inhabitants. Our national languages are Finnish and Swedish. Other language groups recognised in the constitution are three Sami languages, Finnish Romani and the Finnish sign language. At the end of 2010, 4 857 903 (90.4%) people had Finnish as mother tongue, 291 153 (5.4 %) Swedish and 1 832 (0.03 %) Sami (there are three Sami languages spoken in Finland) (Statistics Finland, 18.3.2011). In addition to these, there are of course other foreign language groups, out of which Russian is the largest. In Finnish comprehensive school, pupils learn at least Finnish, Swedish and English. Därför pratar ja också svenska. I don’t, however, get to practise my Swedish very much in Finland because the Swedish speaking Finns, finlandssvenskorna, are a small minority and as a rule speak very good Finnish. In spite of the fact that Swedish is an official language in Finland, most people speak much better English than Swedish. My first foreign language was English, too, which I started learning at the age of nine. Swedish and German came only later.

While Swedish language is only spoken by a small minority, it has retained its historically strong position. In comparison, the situation of the Sami has been far from ideal. As the coordinator of pre-school education of Sami language in Utsjoki community in Northern Finland puts it: “In the past it was forbidden to speak Sami at school. To make up for past suppression, the authorities of Norway, Sweden and Finland now make an effort to build up Sami cultural institutions and promote Sami culture and language. Still, the work has only just started.” (The Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity website). Luckily, several projects, such as the one in Utsjoki, are now running to enhance the language learning of the Sami such as this minority language pre-school education project.

I feel that as a Finn, I’ve been privileged with regard to access to education. The quality of the Finnish education has also been noted abroad, even more so after the good results in the PISA research. I will not analyse the reasons behind this in depth, but I think that at least the small group sizes, individual coaching and a freedom of choice, even at reasonably young age must all contribute to a good quality of education. At university level, if you want to, you can even choose minor subjects that have nothing or very little to do with your main subject (at least at first glance). That gives a very broad look on things.

Now, living in Belgium, I have also learned Dutch (or Flemish, as some might say). Here the language question is still very actual and even problematic. Belgium has now finally, after 541 days of negotiations, appointed the next Prime Minister, the French-speaking Elio Di Rupo, who will take the oath of office today (that’s the latest news anyway!). And, to end on a lighter note, today we also celebrate Sinterklaas in Belgium. Multiple languages, multiple reasons to celebrate!

Edwin Morgan – Poetry’s Ambassador for Multilingualism

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the death of Edwin Morgan, one of Scotland’s greatest poets. Born in 1920 in Glasgow, Morgan was Professor of English at Glasgow University until 1980 and went on to serve as Glasgow’s first Poet Laureate until 2002. In 2004 he was appointed the first ‘Scots Makar’, a position created to recognise Scotland’s rich history of poets (makar is a Scots word for poet).

Edwin Morgan loved language and languages, playing with how words sound and, through his concrete poetry, how they look on the page. In his poems he gives voices to unexpected objects including computers and an apple, and gives language to Mercurians and the Loch Ness Monster. He also translated poems from a number of languages including German, Hungarian, French, Spanish, Latin, Italian and English (into Scots) and published a book of Collected Translations in 1996.

One of my favourite poems by Edwin Morgan is the science-fiction poem ‘The First Men on Mercury’, which sees humans and Mercurians swap languages. Here is an excerpt, but you can, and should, read the poem in full on the Scottish Poetry Library’s website.

– We come in peace from the third planet.
Would you take us to your leader?
– Bawr stretter! Bawr. Bawr. Stretterhawl?
– This is a little plastic model
of the solar system, with working parts.
You are here and we are there and we
are now here with you, is this clear?
– Gawl horrop. Bawr Abawrhannahanna!
– Where we come from is blue and white
with brown, you see we call the brown
here ‘land, the blue is ‘sea’, and the white
is ‘clouds’ over land and sea, we live
on the surface of the brown land,
all round is sea and clouds. We are ‘men’.
Men come –
– Glawp men! Gawrbenner menko. Menhawl?

The Scottish Poetry Library is home to the Edwin Morgan archive, and yesterday the Director, Robyn Marsack posted a tribute to the poet on their blog Our sweet old etcetera…

Interview: Speaking Welsh, Living in Brussels

Stefanie Poulton moved to Brussels from North Wales in 2009. Today she works in British Council Brussels as PA to Regional Director EU. She shares her views about multilingualism and having become “Welsh Stef” in Brussels for our blog. Interview with Canan Marasligil.

 

Are you originally from Wales?
I was born in Chester, England and have two English Parents; my Mother is from Sheffield and my Father from Manchester. They moved to Wales the day before I was born…

The actual day before you were born?
Yes!

Are they still in Wales?
Yes, they’re still living there today.

Did you learn Welsh at school?
I attended the local primary school where we were taught Welsh from very early on. During my secondary education the Welsh Assembly Government amended the curriculum, making Welsh a compulsory subject to be sat at GCSE level, when prior to this pupils had the option to discontinue it as a subject if desired at 14. I therefore studied it until I was 16.

Did you like studying Welsh?
At the time it wasn’t something I had wanted to necessarily study, as I felt learning another, more widely spoken language such as French or Spanish would be more beneficial. In hindsight, having grown up in Wales I now recognise the importance of language learning in relation to the shaping of identity and culture and although my Welsh is pretty basic and something which I am unlikely to use again, I think learning it and growing up in Wales has impacted on me in more ways than I thought; Now in Brussels I am referred to as ‘Welsh Stef’ – something I don’t necessarily consider myself to be!

How did learning Welsh affect who your cultural identity?
While I was growing up, learning Welsh always felt a bit alien to me.  I knew that because I lived in Wales, in school we were expected to learn it.  However with it being a language you would rarely hear being spoken and not coming from a Welsh background and mixing with friends who were in a similar position to me, it often led to some confusion and perhaps some resentment to it.  The year I was choosing my options for my GCSE’s is when the Welsh Assembly Government made learning Welsh compulsory across the curriculum until the age of 16.  I don’t think this contributed to myself having any feelings of being Welsh, but perhaps the opposite!  I suppose it began to change when I left Wales for University and then moving to Belgium. As soon as you mention where you come from people are very interested in whether you can speak Welsh or not, it is usually one of the first questions! And then I feel quite proud to answer that I learnt it at school and am able to explain a bit about the language, its uses in Wales – how and where it is spoken and its history and origin, which people do seem interested in, given its reputation of a ‘dying’ language.

What place does Welsh have in your personal and professional lives today? Today, apart from the name I have inherited, Welsh plays little part in personal and professional life.  Most of my friends, even if they were from Welsh speaking families have left Wales and when I return it is to visit my Parents.  I have definitely noticed an increase in the about of Welsh visible when I go back, on sign posts, in shops and on literature in my Parents house which get’s posted through the door and do feel proud that I can understand it where as perhaps the previous generation to me would not!

Do you think Welsh helps you learning other languages or opening up to other languages?
I’m not sure if learning Welsh made me want to learn other languages.  I think at the time because it felt forced upon me and because I struggled to contextualise it, it made language learning feel like a chore and therefore I didn’t appreciate its importance.  However today, this has of course changed and living in Brussels where there are so many languages and dialects being spoken around you, I feel pleased to have studied one other than my mother tongue, even if it can’t be used!

 

BIO
Stefanie Poulton works in the Brussels office as PA to Regional Director EU; Rosemary Hilhorst OBE. Stefanie moved to Brussels in 2009 from North Wales to work at the European Parliament as Parliamentary Assistant to a British MEP. Although a varied role, Stefanie particularly enjoyed the PA element to the position and was keen to further her career working in an international environment in this area. Having gained a Master’s Degree in Creative and Cultural Management from the University of Chester before moving to Belgium, the work of the British Council complements her personal interest in intercultural dialogue and cultural management.

 

Some 50 million EU citizens, 10% of the EU population, speak a regional or minority language

Some of my recent posts (Reindeer racing in Sápmi, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Duit, etc.) have been triggered by news items I’ve spotted in the Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity’s  website. The NPLD is a pan-European network which covers regional, minority, indigenous, cross-border and smaller national languages to promote linguistic diversity in the context of a multilingualEurope.  Some 50 million EU citizens, 10% of the EU population, speak a regional or minority language.

The network currently includes representatives from the following languages: Finnish, Basque, Catalan, Breton, Occitan, Cornish, Welsh, Swedish, Lithuanian, Irish Gaelic, Frisian, Estonian, Sami, Corsican, Galician, Meänkieli and Karelian.

Their aim is to facilitate the sharing of existing best practice and the development of new and innovative ideas across the field of language planning in education, the home, the workplace, legislation and the media in the contexts of constitutional, regional and smaller state languages.

NPLD website

According to the network: “as language planners we are aware that many of the issues facing these linguistic communities will be very similar and that sharing good practice is a must if these languages are to survive and flourish.” 

Further information can be found on the NPLD website (www.npld.eu) which includes news stories concerning the network and European multilingualism, which brings me back to where I started.

Shakespeare in different languages during the Olympics

It has long been recognised that Shakespeare, as well as a great playwright, has become an international language. We want to celebrate this international affection by welcoming Shakespeare enthusiasts – producers, performers and audiences – to experience his work in their own languages and dialects.

says Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s artistic director, as it is reported the BBC News website

And it is exactly what the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre will do during the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, giving the opportunity to the international audiences to experience Shakespeare in their own language(s), inside the Globe Theatre. Companies from around the world will participate in this special season, starting on 23 April and lasting 6 weeks.

Audiences will see The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu, The Tempest in Arabic, Julius Caesar in Italian, or Troilus and Cressida in Maori. Other languages will also include Lithuanian, Greek, Spanish, Turkish, …

A celebration of multilingualism, this project is also a very good way to open up to more international collaborations.

There is no information yet on the Globe’s public website, but you can read the press release with a list of the languages and plays to be performed.