ECMI Minorities Blog. From Acquisition to Activation: How Language Planning Can Promote New Speakers’ Minority Language Use

Ruth Kircher & Mirjam Vellinga
Still of a video from the language promotion campaign; this traditional speaker says “I think it's great that you want to invest time and effort in the Frisian language and that you want to learn Frisian”

*** The blog posts are prepared by the authors in their personal capacity. The views expressed in the blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors concerned and do not necessarily reflect the view of the European Centre for Minority Issues. ***

Authors: Ruth Kircher & Mirjam Vellinga  |

 Ruth Kircher (PhD, Queen Mary University of London) is principal researcher at the ECMI. While working on the project presented in this blog post, she was a researcher at the Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning/Fryske Akademy in the Netherlands. Her research focuses on minority language communities in multilingual societies – with a particular interest in language attitudes and ideologies, language practices, and language policy and planning.

* Mirjam Vellinga (MA, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen) works at Afûk, formerly known as the Algemiene Fryske Ûnderrjocht Kommisje (General Frisian Education Commission) – the organisation that promotes Frisian language and culture in Fryslân, Netherlands. She is head of the marketing division and manager of the language promotion division. Moreover, she is in charge of Afûk’s international projects.

Around the world, minority languages face endangerment as their speakers shift to the socially, politically, and economically more powerful tongues of majority populations. It is generally acknowledged that benign neglect – doing nothing and hoping that the problem will solve itself – is effectively support for majority language groups. As Wright notes: “Laissez-faire policies mean that the languages of power and prestige will eventually take over in all situations of contact”. So, what can be done to maintain and revitalise minority languages?

From acquisition to activation

In many contexts, the focus is on acquisition planning – that is, measures to promote knowledge of minority languages, typically through the education system. Notably, one thing that almost all acquisition planning strategies have in common is the assumption that learning a minority language will somehow turn people into frequent minority language users. However, studies from various contexts demonstrate that this is not actually the case. As Baker puts it: “Potential does not necessarily lead to production”. Consequently, recent research has started paying attention to activation – that is, the process by which individuals who have learnt a minority language become active and habitual users of it. Specifically, activation research has focused on new speakers: “individuals with little or no home or community exposure to a minority language but who instead acquire it through immersion or bilingual educational programs, revitalization projects or as adult language learners”. In the past, such individuals would have commonly been labelled as non-native speakers. However, in recent years, linguists have problematised the notion of nativeness, and the term new speakers was introduced to shift away from ideologies that idealise nativeness. (In line with this, those who grew up with a minority language in the home are usually no longer referred to as native speakers but as traditional speakers.) Language planners are increasingly aware of the important role that new speakers can play in ensuring the future of minority languages. They can raise overall speaker numbers, thereby offering expanded minority language networks as well as providing more contexts for minority language use. Moreover, by contributing to a more vibrant speaker community, new speakers can boost the perceived importance of the minority language, thereby encouraging others to learn it. New speakers are thus able to make key contributions to minority language maintenance and revitalisation – if they become active and habitual minority language users. But why is this not always a straightforward process?

Intergroup relations between traditional and new speakers

Activation is “inherently social and relational in its practical realisation” – and the relationship between traditional and new speakers tends to be complex, marked by tensions and linguistic insecurity on both sides. Tensions between speaker groups are often rooted in historical intergroup relations, and especially the fact that most traditional minority language speakers have experienced marginalisation and discrimination by majority language speakers – while many new speakers were raised in dominant majority language communities. [1] Linguistic insecurity is rooted in the varieties used by the different speaker groups. Traditional speakers mostly use socially and geographically grounded minority language varieties (which constitute an important element of local ingroup membership and social identity) while new speakers are taught standardised varieties (which are commonly considered the only appropriate varieties in the education system and are therefore key to educational success). Consequently, in conversations with each other, traditional speakers are often concerned that the way they speak may not be “good enough” while new speakers worry whether the way they speak is “traditional enough”. At the same time, many traditional speakers deem standardised minority language varieties (as well as those who use them) to be inauthentic, believing that only someone who was raised with a minority language counts as a legitimate speaker. This can amplify new speakers’ linguistic insecurity and preclude them from developing a sense of belonging to the minority language community. These complex power dynamics between traditional and new speakers may intimidate the latter and even deter them from using the minority language altogether. [2] This raises an important question: how can language planners consolidate the needs of traditional and new speakers in a way that encourages new speakers’ activation – thereby promoting minority language maintenance and revitalisation?

A case study: Frisian in Fryslân

Together with our colleague Ethan Kutlu, we investigated this in a recent study focusing on West Frisian – a minority language spoken almost exclusively in the province of Fryslân, in the north of the Netherlands. [3] West Frisian is related to North and East Frisian, both of which are spoken in Germany; however, here we focus solely on West Frisian, which we will henceforth simply refer to as Frisian. The number of Frisian speakers in Fryslân is estimated to be 420,000; practically all of them are Frisian-Dutch bilinguals, and UNESCO has classified Frisian as “vulnerable”. As a result of acquisition planning, the minority language is promoted in schools and higher education institutions, and it can also be learnt at Afûk – the organisation that promotes Frisian language and culture in Fryslân (formerly known as the Algemiene Fryske Ûnderrjocht Kommisje, the General Frisian Education Commission).

For our study, we employed the Language Activation of New Speakers (LANS) questionnaire (which we developed specifically for this project) to collect quantitative and qualitative data from 264 adult new speakers of Frisian who were enrolled in Afûk courses. All were over the age of 18 and lived in Fryslân; aside from that, the participant sample was rather diverse in terms of their socio-demographic characteristics.

Notably, another component of our project revealed that our participants’ primary motivation for learning Frisian was their desire for a sense of belonging to traditional Frisian speaker communities.  In a further project component, we found that many participants were keen to learn the socially and geographically grounded Frisian varieties that are commonly used by traditional speakers – most likely to facilitate their desired ingroup membership in traditional speaker communities. The participants were thus certainly inclined to become active and habitual Frisian speakers. But how often and with whom did they actually use the minority language?

Our study focused on one specific aspect of activation: namely how new speakers’ use of the minority language was affected by traditional speakers’ behaviours. Specifically, we set out to answer three questions.

(1) What are the language use patterns of new speakers of Frisian?

The quantitative data showed that new speakers’ language use patterns included very little Frisian. Regardless of how proficient they were in the minority language, participants used it less than 20% of the time during a typical week, and the only context in which (at least some) new speakers used Frisian more than Dutch was in the Afûk classroom. Minority language interactions outside the classroom, with traditional speakers, consisted merely of a few tokenistic words or phrases. The qualitative data revealed linguistic insecurity as a reason for this, as exemplified by the following comment: “Ik heb het Fries geleerd om het te kunnen spreken, maar ik doe het nooit want ik durf het niet” (I learnt Frisian to be able to speak it, but I never do, because I do not dare to speak it). The findings thus demonstrate that knowledge of Frisian does not automatically entail its use – thereby highlighting the necessity for language planning to promote the activation of new speakers.

(2) What behaviour by traditional speakers discourages new speakers from using Frisian?

To answer this question, we investigated the effect of four potentially discouraging behaviours, all of which had been reported as frequent reactions to new speakers’ minority language use in other contexts. These behaviours were: traditional speakers refusing to engage with new speakers in the minority language, switching to the majority language during conversations, correcting new speakers’ mistakes without having been asked to do so, and laughing at new speakers. Our quantitative data revealed that participants found all four of these behaviours discouraging – but the correction of mistakes significantly less so than the others. A possible explanation for this is that the correction of mistakes is the only behaviour that could be construed as constructive – that is, as a genuine attempt to help new speakers improve their language skills. The qualitative data showed that traditional speakers’ discouraging behaviours deterred new speakers from using Frisian, and in fact, in some cases the mere prospect of a negative reaction was enough to put them off. For instance, one participant wrote: “dus als ik iets in het Fries tegen mijn schoonmoeder zou zeggen, dan zou ze denk ik negatief reageren dus dat durf ik ook al niet” (If I were to speak Frisian to my mother-in-law, I think she would react negatively, so I don’t dare to). The findings thus highlight that the complex dynamics between traditional and new speakers in Fryslân are hindering new speakers’ activation.

(3) What behaviour by traditional speakers encourages new speakers to use Frisian?

To find out about this, we investigated the effect of four behaviours by traditional speakers that could be deemed encouraging: speaking slowly, using easy words, checking in regularly to ensure new speakers’ understanding, and explicitly encouraging new speakers to keep using Frisian. The quantitative data revealed that participants found all four of these behaviours very heartening – and explicit encouragement significantly more so than the others. This is likely to be the case because, unlike the other behaviours we examined, explicit encouragement cannot be interpreted as merely an attempt to facilitate conversation. Instead, it is a sign that traditional speakers actually want new speakers to use the minority language, and in fact, it could even be seen to suggest that they welcome new speakers into the minority language community. As noted above, the other project components demonstrated that this is something the participants wished for. New speakers’ desire to be accepted as members of the minority language community also emerged clearly from the qualitative data in this study, which is exemplified by one participant stating that they would like traditional speakers to “het gevoel geven dat je er echt bij hoort door Fries te spreken” (make you feel that you really belong by speaking Frisian). The findings thus indicate that encouraging reactions by traditional speakers could play an important role in promoting new speakers’ activation. So, what implications does this have for language planning that aims to foster minority language maintenance and revitalisation?

Language planning to improve intergroup relations and promote new speakers’ activation

While it remains to be ascertained whether the findings of this study generalise to other minority language communities, they do provide a starting point for language planning in Fryslân. Specifically, the results show that acquisition planning alone is not sufficient to ensure new speakers’ use of Frisian because the complex intergroup dynamics between traditional and new speakers are hindering new speakers’ activation. This indicates the necessity of prestige planning – that is, measures relating to the “psychological background” of speaker groups. Prestige planning includes planning efforts regarding language attitudes, ideologies, social identities, and intergroup relations. The latter aspect is of particular importance in Fryslân.

Improving intergroup relations can be a lengthy endeavour – especially in a context where the speaker groups’ histories and their current power dynamics have caused linguistic insecurity on both sides. As a first step, we designed the Praat mar Frysk – ek mei nije Fryskpraters (Let’s speak Frisian – also with new speakers) campaign. In the first instance, this campaign raised awareness of new speakers’ experiences and perspectives amongst traditional speakers. Based on the results of our study, thecampaign then inspired traditional speakers to explicitly encourage new speakers’ Frisian use: both through videos (which were shared widely on social media and received very positive feedback) and through postcards with complimentary messages sent to individual new speakers via the campaign website (with an even higher uptake for this method of encouragement).

As intergroup relations are a two-way street, we also deemed it crucial to make new speakers aware of traditional speakers’ experiences and perspectives. As a second step to improving intergroup relations in Fryslân, we therefore designed teaching materials that explain why traditional speakers might display the discouraging behaviours that were attested in our research project – namely due to their experiences of discrimination and marginalisation, their linguistic socialisation, and/or their own linguistic insecurity. This knowledge can mitigate new speakers’ discouragement when they encounter the aforementioned behaviours by traditional speakers. Moreover, the materials provide new speakers with advice on how to persevere in their use of Frisian with traditional speakers. Since September 2023, these materials are being used in Afûk classes, and eventually they will also be integrated into Afûk’s textbooks.

Both the materials and the campaign are effectively instances of prestige planning: they constitute research-informed efforts to ameliorate intergroup relations between traditional and new speakers in Fryslân, with the aim of promoting new speakers’ activation – and thereby supporting minority language maintenance and revitalisation. Additionally, we provided actionable science communication for policy makers and language planners at Provinsje Fryslân, the provincial government: we wrote a research report that not only presents the main findings from all three components of our new speakers project but also makes suggestions for future research and includes further prestige planning recommendations. We conclude the report’s recommendations section with a point that is worth repeating here: in Fryslân and beyond, language planning regarding new speakers should never be seen as a replacement of support for traditional speakers. Instead, the former should always complement the latter – because a truly inclusive approach to minority language maintenance and revitalisation must recognise the different needs of these speaker groups, and strive to consolidate them!




[1] In many contexts, the marginalisation and discrimination of minority language communities stems from and/or is perpetuated by measures and structures implemented by the nation state, which favour the dominant majority language community.

[2] In parallel, increasing attention has been paid to new signers, who face many of the same challenges as new speakers. However, there are differences to certain dynamics in signing communities. Since it goes beyond the scope of this blog post to address these, the focus here is exclusively on new speakers.

[3] This study is part of a larger project, for which we received a research grant (01774045) from Provinsje Fryslân. The project also examined new speakers’ motivations for language learning (a publication about this is in preparation; preliminary results can be found here) as well as new speakers’ evaluative reactions towards the Frisian language as such and towards specific varieties of Frisian (a publication about this can be found here). All project components were preregistered; the preregistrations, research materials, R analysis codes, and further information can be found on the project’s Open Science Framework page. You are welcome to adapt and use these materials for research in Fryslân and/or other minority language contexts, and we would be keen to hear from you if you are planning to do this!


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