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‘When a language disappears, we lose something’

03 March 2020

He signs his email with ‘mei freonlike groetnis' and he’s even taken an online course in Frisian. American Matt Coler is well aware of his new working environment. As a linguist, he knows better than anyone that language and community are inextricably linked.

Language as a tool for social cohesion

On behalf of the University of Groningen/Campus Fryslân, Coler is project leader at CoLing, an EU project that seeks to protect and support minority languages. ‘Our focus is not so much on scientific research, but on teaching and learning,’ says Coler. For him and others involved in CoLing, one thing is crystal clear: language is a tool for social cohesion, it connects a community with its culture and past. Or as an old Italian Greko-speaker once said: ‘We need this language for love, the love of words that reveal our own world to us.’

As one of CoLing’s coordinators, Coler is a spider in the web; he manages the finances, arranges facilities for researchers, reports to the subsidy provider (the EU) and organizes researcher exchanges to other countries. He introduces researchers who come here to the Fryske Akademy and the Mercator Knowledge Centre, two key players in this project. ‘They co-organized a kick-off meeting, and they host international researchers. It is the place to find information about Frisian as well as documentation on minority languages in Europe.’

‘Knowledge increases chance of survival’

Establishing contacts and sharing experiences is a key aspect of CoLing. ‘We have to learn from each other,’ says Coler, as he explains the approach. ‘The project in itself won’t save languages, but it gives communities the skills and tools to ensure that their languages survive. The more we know and have, the greater the chance of survival.’ But CoLing is about more than just talking. For example, in other languages a board game for children has been developed and there is also an app that you can use to read an old hieroglyphic language.

Friesland is a shining example for many minorities. They are impressed by the level of government support for the Frisian language, says Coler.

Nevertheless, according to him, measures imposed from above are not the be-all and end-all. They are necessary, of course, but the government shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility. The effort has to come from the bottom up, from the grass-roots, as he calls it. ‘In Friesland there is political support and good infrastructure for the language. This kind of thing just wouldn't work in many other countries, for example because there are so many minority languages. It is precisely for this reason that CoLing focuses its efforts on community initiatives. And that’s what we’ve seen happen in Friesland: the inhabitants themselves have secured the current status of the Frisian language.’

Language and prestige

What can we learn from CoLing? ‘Pride and prestige. That’s what it’s all about. Many young people in minority-language areas are no longer proud of their language. When I ask them why they don’t speak it, many of them say that they think it’s too provincial. But they do speak English. Fine, you need to be able to speak English these days. But why not both? This is something we want to address in our project. We organized a film festival in Warsaw, In our own words, featuring films in minority languages. The impact was huge! That really created a lot of self-awareness.’

Coler ends with a thought-provoking message. ‘There’s less diversity in the world today than at any other time in history. But it’s vital that our human culture doesn’t descend into boring uniformity. We must protect linguistic and cultural diversity. Not out of scientific interest, but because of the important role it plays in society. If a language disappears, we as human beings lose something.’

Matt Coler works at the University of Groningen/Campus Fryslân, among other things as ‘work package leader’ for the CoLing project. CoLing is funded by the EU and focuses on protecting and supporting minority languages.

Last modified:09 March 2020 3.46 p.m.
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