5. Frisian in Fryslan, The Netherlands: A different approach and another model of successful Minority Language Policy?

The Frisians and their language are an officially recognised minority in The Netherlands. The number of Frisian speakers in The Netherlands is currently estimated to be around 480,000 of which 350,000 are estimated to have learned it as their mother tongue (Mercator: Minority languages → Language Factsheets → The Netherlands, http://mercator.fryske-akademy.eu/1769/), see also The Lower Rhine And South Sleswick: Two Border Regions And Their Relation To Their Neighbours And Minorities: 10.2. Frisian (https://minoritylanguages.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/10-germanic-e28093-north-sea-germanic-e28093-low-dutch-e28093-frisian-e28093-low-saxon-e28093-low-franconian-danish.pdf ).


The Official Status Of Frisian

The position of Frisian in The Netherlands is that of an official minority language recognized in accordance with 1. Part III of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) since 1998 (http://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/treaty/148/signatures ). Previously it had already enjoyed an official status in the Province of Fryslan.

On 4th June 2013 the Dutch Parliament voted unanimously in favour of a law on the use of the Frisian language. The law confirms the status of Frisian as a second official language in the Province of Fryslan and regulates the use of the Frisian language in public administration and in the legal system.

The Province of Fryslan has a certain degree of autonomy on matters concerning the Frisian language. To obtain a clearer picture about language use in the Province it recently (source) conducted a questionnaire to all parents in the Province of Fryslan when they registered their newborn babies concerning the language they are going to use when communicating with their child. The result is as follows:

“Subsequently it appears that of all children born in 2008 and 2009 more than a quarter will be raised exclusively in Frisian and another quarter in Dutch. Almost half of the children will be raised in a combination of Frisian and Dutch. The remainder will be raised in another language or dialect (Bildts, Stellingwerfs, foreign language). The Mother tongue is hereby a key factor. In families where either parents or caregivers use Frisian as their mother tongue half of them will raise their children in Frisian. If one of the parents uses Frisian as the mother tongue, then three quarters will raise their children in a combination of Frisian and Dutch. If none of the parents uses Frisian as the mother tongue, 16% of the children will also be partly raised in Frisian. A clear majority (84%) declares that it is beneficial to the child’s development when they are raised bilingual.”

The same article also has a map displaying the percentage of formidable Frisian speakers per municipality. It appears that Frisian is maintained best in rural environments with a peak in the Dantumadiel municipality where 90% of the inhabitants declare to speak Frisian “very well” or “well”.

(Provinsje Fryslan: Informatiedossier, 2.4. Friese taal, http://informatiedossier-fryslan.nl/staat-van-fryslan/cultuur-taal-onderwijs/friese-taal/)


Frisian in Education

Since the 1955 amendment to the Dutch Education Act, Frisian can be used as a medium of instruction in grades 1-3 and be taught as a subject in grades 1-6. In 1974 it was made an obligatory subject in all primary schools in Friesland. The guarantee of educational freedom in the 1920 Dutch Education Act prevents the government from strict prescriptions of educational content and curriculum, and gives public and private education equal access to government funding. The right to teach any subject in Frisian is, however, usually employed in a subject of lesser frequency and importance like for example: biology and history. (Provinsje Fryslan: Informatiedossier, 2.5. Basisonderwijs, http://informatiedossier-fryslan.nl/staat-van-fryslan/cultuur-taal-onderwijs/basisonderwijs/ )

However, the Dutch language is the general medium in secondary education. Since 1948 secondary schools have been allowed to teach Frisian. As of 1993 Frisian must be taught as a compulsory subject in the lower level of secondary school, although the amount is not and cannot be specified. (Provinsje Fryslan: Informatiedossier, 2.6. Voortgezet onderwijs, http://informatiedossier-fryslan.nl/staat-van-fryslan/cultuur-taal-onderwijs/voorgezet-onderwijs-en-mbo/ )

An important achievement in the past 10-15 years was the establishment of trilingual schools (Frisian, Dutch and English) (Provinsje Fryslan: Informatiedossier, 2.5. Basisonderwijs, http://informatiedossier-fryslan.nl/staat-van-fryslan/cultuur-taal-onderwijs/basisonderwijs/ ).

However, the degree of using Frisian as a medium of instruction appears to vary greatly and there is not one school that uses Frisian as the general medium of instruction as e.g. is the case of Welsh in Wales, Danish in South Sleswick in Germany or Basque in the Basque Country in Spain. The Dutch government and the authorities in the province of Fryslan appear to have decided on a different approach which would not separate the medium of instruction per school but an all-inclusive approach which would enable all students to have a perfect level of Dutch and to also acquire a good if not perfect level of Frisian skills regardless of whether it is the student’s mother tongue or not.

There is no university in Friesland. There are Frisian studies programmes at the State Universities of Amsterdam, Groningen and Leiden. There is no official encouragement or support for the teaching/learning of Frisian beyond Fryslan in The Netherlands.


The Current Situation

Despite The Netherlands having signed the ECRML and the status of Frisian as the official second language, doubts about the success of the hitherto policies towards Frisian, in education, have recently arisen.

The Council of Europe recently assessed the situation of Frisian education as follows: “However, most of the primary and secondary schools only offer Frisian for about one hour per week and, in secondary education, only during the first year. This is not sufficient for the development of an adequate level of literacy. [Now the Province is also allowed to grant partial exemptions. As a result, different profiles have been developed for the schools in Fryslân. The process of implementing these provisions has only just begun. It is expected that the first exemptions will come into force in the 2017-2018 school year. The Committee of Experts notes, however, that most profiles are focused on oral use and developing a positive attitude towards Frisian. This might not be in line with the … the Charter (ECRML).” (https://sistsiis2016.wordpress.com/ )

In this context one should keep in mind that one of the obligations when signing the ECRML is the following:

Minority protection as part of human rights in general ensures the following fundamental rights to the autochthonous, national minorities/ethnic groups:

  1. The right to education/the right to schools and the right to classes given in the mother tongue.

Thus, it appears that “teaching Frisian lessons in schools in Fryslan: In 2016 that means a maximum of one hour per week. Schools increasingly request an exemption from the obligation to teach Frisian due to lack of time and means”. (“…De Friese taal leren op school. Het is anno 2016 hooguit een uurtje per week. Scholen vragen steeds vaker ontheffing aan van de verplichting om Friese les te geven, omdat het hen ontbreekt aan tijd en middelen.”) (http://gptv.nl/demonstratie-voor-beter-fries/).

Further, the lessons provided and exemptions do not take into account the individual Frisian skills the students have which can vary to a great extend depending on whether Frisian is the student’s mother tongue or not. There are several levels of exemptions available ranging from non (A) to complete (G). The level E, for example, limits Frisian lessons to listening skills without any teaching in how to speak and write Frisian. This again conflicts with the Dutch government’s ambition to deliver education tailored to the needs of the students and with its official statement in reference to the European Charter that “in the context of increasing competition with other languages, teaching how to read and write Frisian will be essential for the continued existence of Frisian as a language”.

This attitude towards Frisian contrasts greatly with the attitude towards English where there is often a similar situation concerning the level of English among the students but no exemptions are made for English lessons. Considering the provincial’s government’s aim to treat Frisian as an equal medium of instruction one can argue that there obviously exist two different standards when it comes to Frisian and English.

Another aspect of criticism towards the practice of Frisian education is a legal obligation to check whether there is “enough support for Frisian education” at the individual schools which is to be judged by the school’s administration itself and not by any public body. This may lead to the school’s staff actually measuring the support of Frisian among themselves and not among the students and the public, which in turn can lead to discrimination of Frisian. According to the activists of “Sis Tsiis” this article should be abolished as soon as possible.


Reasons for the Decline

One can conclude that the situation of Frisian has in fact not improved in recent years and if any education in it and support for it has declined. What are the reasons?

In 2013 the researchers Nanna Haug Hilton and Charlotte Gooskens investigated the “Language Policies and Attitudes Towards Frisian in The Netherlands” and concluded:

“The lack of positive attitudes by the Dutch speakers in Fryslân can only be viewed as disappointing for language policy makers and educators in the province. The position that the minority language has been given in education, judicial and political life could have had a negative influence on attitudes with the groups who do not master the minority language, rather than a positive. What can be noted here, however, are that the negative attitudes of Dutch speakers towards Frisian are not new. Gorter & Jonkman (1995) also reported these in their investigation conducted nearly 20 years ago. Further research must be conducted to investigate what the reasons are for the negative attitudes that Dutch speakers hold towards Frisian.”

(Nanna Haug Hilton & Charlotte Gooskens: Language policies and attitudes towards Frisian in the Netherlands, http://www.let.rug.nl/gooskens/pdf/publ_peterlang_2013d, page 155/156)

Besides the logistical issues concerning teaching materials and lack of qualified teachers, “the lack of positive attitudes” may have an impact on decision making towards language policies in Fryslan. Since it can be expected that a significant number of political decision makers in Fryslan are not native Frisian speakers themselves, they may therefore feel obliged to concede towards or represent the groups who do not master the minority language and thus take over their attitudes.

Taking the assessment of the Council of Europe and Nanna Haug Hilton & Charlotte Gooskens into account it appears that current policies towards Frisian have at best only partially achieved what the ECRML is aiming at and, contrary to its intentions, may have resulted in an increase of negative attitudes of the non-Frisian speaking population in Fryslan and provoked subsequently a retreat from the Frisian lesson obligations. However, with this retreat the province of Fryslan and with it The Netherlands may no longer fulfil the obligations of the ECRML and the dissatisfaction with this was recently(source) expressed during a pro-Frisian demonstration in Leeuwarden.


What Can Be done?

Due to these issues the civil rights group “Sis Tsiis” was established and on 12 May 2017 it handed over a petition to the Provincial Government of Fryslan in protest to the non-compliance concerning the use of Frisian in all forms of education in the Province of Fryslan and to the Exemption Rule for primary and secondary education concerning the subject Frisian according to the publication in the Provincial Guidelines effective from 26 June 2015.

Thus, the petition is not as such necessarily aiming at changing the current education format but to make it compliant to the legally binding rules and laws concerning the promotion of minority languages at a national and European level. Subsequently the petition does not attempt to promote the alternative format currently used in the State South Sleswick in Germany, Wales and the Basque Country in Spain: Dedicated schools which offer all education with Frisian as the medium of instruction.

But whether the current format is adequate to comply with those rules and regulations has certainly become increasingly debatable.


© Helge Tietz 2017