4. Are there examples of successful language saving policies or even revivals? Faeroese on The Faeroes

Are there examples of successful language saving policies or even revivals? Yes there are, one of most exceptional language revivals is the case of Hebrew in Israel which has become the first language of Israel in a matter of 70 years after it effectively had ceased to be an everyday spoken language somewhere between the first and fourth centuries CE and survived medieval times and the renaissance only as the language of Jewish liturgy and rabbinic literature. Then, in the 19th century, it was revived as a spoken and literary language and is now spoken by about 5 million people in Israel as the first language.

There are other examples that even languages with a relatively small number of speakers can be saved and maintained into the modern world if the right steps are taken. Most striking are the cases of Faeroese (native language of the Faeroes, an island group out in the Northern Atlantic which belongs to the Danish Kingdom but has home rule granted by Danish law) which constitutes only about 50,000 speakers and Romansh in the South-Eastern Swiss canton of Grisons maintained by an equal limited number of speakers. Other examples are Catalan in the Catalan region of Spain, Greenlandic (Kalaallisut) in Greenland or, as already discussed above, Welsh in the UK. But in general, these are exceptions and the rule is the opposite.


4.1. Education on the Faeroes

The Faeroes, an island group in the Northern Atlantic and self-governing part of the Danish Kingdom (Home Rule), maintain an education system fully based on the native Faeroese language as medium of instruction although the population is only about 50,000. In that sense, it is quite unique since the spread and use of the Faeroese language is solely confined to the islands. Nevertheless, there are currently no intentions in discontinuing to use Faeroese as medium of instruction on the Faeroes. A general overview about the Faeroese education system is given on the official government page of the Faeroes “Faroeislands.fo”, here is a little extract from the overview:

Free Education and Personal Development

In the Faroe Islands, education is of highest priority, enjoying an absolute consensus regarding the aim to provide every individual with the opportunity to explore their own unique potential. The foundation of the education system in the Faroe Islands rests on the belief that education is a universal right. Hence, schooling on all levels, from primary school to higher education, for every Faroese citizen, is free of charge.

The education system of the Faroe Islands consists of three main levels: primary and secondary education, upper secondary education, and higher education. Children normally start school the year they turn 7 years old, and school attendance is mandatory until ninth grade is completed. Thereafter, students have the option to enrol in upper secondary school, which normally takes three years to complete, and with an upper secondary school diploma, a student is qualified to access higher educational institutions in the Faroe Islands as well as abroad. In addition to the traditional upper secondary school, a number of alternative schools offer education and training in various more specified fields, such as fishery, business, technology, healthcare, and more.

Diversity and personal development

The main task of the school is to help students acquire knowledge, capacities, working methods and to assist them in their language formation. This is done in a way that enables diversity and supports each student’s personal development.

Faroese is the official language of the ‘fólkaskúli’, and it is the first language that students are taught. Students then begin to learn Danish in third grade and English in fourth grade. In eighth and ninth grade, the curriculum consists of a number of compulsory subjects, which prepare the students for upper secondary school, and a range of optional subjects, from which the students can choose. At the end of ninth grade, students need to pass an exam that gives them entry to upper secondary schools.

(Source: http://www.faroeislands.fo/people-society/education-research/ http://www.faroeislands.fo/people-society/education-research/education/ )

Thus, the whole education system from primary to higher education is conducted in Faeroese. The system was developed with the financial support of the Danish state but also through their own tax revenue. Financing the education is regulated in the Home Rule act of 1948. It also has to be noted that, although the standard of living appears to be very high, that was not always the case, lack of modern communication and infrastructure made it much harder to implement the education system when it was started in 1870. Education was first conducted in Danish but after petitions were raised Faeroese was permitted as assisting language in education until 1938 when Faeroese became the medium of instruction in all sectors of education.

(Source: https://da.wikipedia.org/wiki/F%C3%A6r%C3%B8ernes_historie#Skolev.C3.A6senet_opbygges)

However, as mentioned above, many Faroese people move abroad to pursue higher education because not all aspects of higher education can be offered by the Faeroese university and this, in turn can shed some light on the effects of using a small native language as medium of instruction when students are required to use a different language to pursue higher education.

Most of the Faeroese students are choosing to study in Denmark if their subject is not available on the Faeroese university (although some may choose going abroad as a means to widen their horizon despite their subject being available at the Faeroese university). Since the Faeroes are a constituent part of the Danish Kingdom the links to Denmark have always been strong and Danish is thoroughly taught at Faeroese schools ever since general schooling was introduced. But since it is being taught as a “foreign language” attending a Danish university exposes the students to education in a “foreign language”. The following research shows how this is perceived by the students:


4.2. Research at a public discussion about promoting Faeroese students to return to the Faeroes after finishing their studies (Vi velja Føroyar) at the Føroyahúsið in Copenhagen on 15th May 2015, 19.00.

Attendance: appr. 50-60 persons, including representatives from the Faeroese government

Questionnaire introduction text:

Dear student!

I am currently working on a project about minority languages and the role of languages as a medium of instruction. I became alarmed when my wife returned from a recent visit to Ladakh in the Indian Himalayan region of Kashmir & Ladakh and told me that Tibetan-Bhoti (nor any other native Indian language) is not used as the language of instruction at the schools there, instead the language of instruction is English. From other sources, I got to know that it is common practice in many countries in Africa, Latin America or Asia to use the former colonial languages such as English, Spanish or French as sole medium of instruction and thus declare more or less consciously the indigenous local or regional languages as unfit for educational purposes.

I currently live in the Netherlands but I am a native Low Saxon speaker from the Northern German state of Sleswick-Holsten, close to the border of Denmark. I have seen the demise of our native languages (Low Saxon, Frisian and Southern Jutish) at the expense of (standard) German to the degree that today they are only maintained by a handful of enthusiasts and the denial of use for education in our native languages played a crucial role in this.

However, there are several examples in Europe where a language with a relative small number of speakers is used as the language of instruction. Most striking, in my opinion, is the case of Faeroese which, as you may know, constitutes only about 50,000 speakers. But in order to attest which effect the use of a small language as medium of instruction has I would like to know more about your experiences when attending higher education abroad in a language other than Faeroese. Therefore, I would very much appreciate if you could answer the following questions:

Questionnaire: 25 replies

Questions and replies in detail:

  1. Have you been educated on the Faeroes with Faeroese as the language of instruction in all subjects (apart from foreign language lessons)?

Yes: 19

No: 3

Partly: 2


  1. From which age did you receive Danish lessons and for how long?

From 8 years old: 8

From 9 years old: 13

From 10 years old: 1

DK educated: 1


  1. Which other languages have you been taught in and for how long?

English: 23, of these 10y.: 4; 9y: 5; 8y: 7; 7y: 2; 6y: 1; 4y: 1

German: 22, of these 8y: 1; 6y: 1; 5y: 6; 4y: 7; 3y: 2; 2y: 3

Spanish: 13, of these 3y: 6; 2y: 6; 1y: 1

Latin:  11 for 1 year

French: 3, of these 3y: 1; 2y: 2


  1. Are you a student at a Danish university?

Yes: 22

No: 1

Have been in the past: 2


  1. If yes, which is the language of instruction at the university?

Danish: 11

Danish & English: 6

English: 1


  1. Did you find it difficult to get used to have this language as the medium of instruction?

No: 15

Yes: 1

Yes, in the beginning: 2


7. Did you feel that you had a serious disadvantage in comparison to the native speakers of the language of instruction? Yes / no

Yes: 3

Yes – but got used to it / only in the beginning / did not affect performance: 5

No: 10


8. Why?

  • Sometimes difficulties to speak and express yourself in discussions: 5
  • Sometimes a disadvantage but not a serious one: 3
  • Had to focus on understanding the material more than native Danes: 1
  • Only in the beginning: 1


9. Would you agree to the following statement: “depriving students at primary and secondary school from Danish as language of instruction will hinder the educational and career prospects for the Faeroese students” or would you recommend other countries to also use a small language such as Faeroese as a medium of instruction at schools and instead teach languages knowledge which may be required for higher education as separate foreign language subjects?

Recommend to use small languages such as Faeroese as medium of instruction: 10

Yes: 2

No: 3

Question Mark (?): 2

Difficult to categorize the “Yes” and “No” statements because it appears that the informer did not comprehend or misunderstood the question as a whole just like the two question marks as answers indicate that as well. However, all of them replied to 9. with a “Yes”.


10. Do you think it is important to keep the heritage of smaller languages such as Faeroese and if yes, why?

Yes: 24


Reference to culture: 13

Reference to identity: 10

Reference to “because it is special”: 6

Reference to heritage: 5

Reference to “language dying out”: 2

Reference to social factor: 2

Reference “to teach my children”: 1

Reference to “express myself best in it”: 1


11. Additional comments:

  • Various email addresses and tow comments encouraging the research and its importance.



24 out of 25 participants agreed to the statement “Do you think it is important to keep the heritage of smaller languages such as Faeroese?” (with one simply not filling in the answer) and ten out of them also agreed to the statement “would you recommend other countries to also use a small language such as Faeroese as a medium of instruction at schools and instead teach languages knowledge which may be required for higher education as separate foreign language subjects?”. However, it appears that quite a few participants did not comprehend the whole of question 8, while others did not answer at all (some of them have obviously totally overlooked the questions on page 2 of the questionnaire) so agreement to the statement is somewhat more ambiguous. Nevertheless, since there is no one pointing out her/his support for the first statement or disagreement to the second statement of question 8. It can be concluded that the participants overall fully agree to have Faeroese as a medium of instruction and would also agree to have it continued on the Faeroes with some of them also recommending that other linguistic minorities should adopt the Faeroese practice.

The cultural importance of the Faeroese language and the identity are given as the main reasons for support of question 10 by the students. Some mentioned also “that it is special” to have Faeroese as the first language and have been raised and taught in it showing clearly that the uniqueness is an important factor for their identity, something which might even become more apparent and important in an increasingly globalized world and its pressure for conformity. Social factors, maintaining the heritage for their children and the fact that it is their mother tongue have also been named as reasons. The answers also show that they are aware that there might be little use for Faeroese outside their community or when following a career outside the Faeroes. The figures returned of the languages learned at school also show that there is an emphasis on learning languages in order to be able to communicate with the outside world, almost all students had, beside Danish, substantial English lessons, some German and to a lesser degree Spanish and French. The fact that all the questionnaires were returned in good English shows awareness for the need to learn languages other than Faeroese.

Another interesting aspect are the answers to questions 6. and 7. Most of the participants replied that there was no problem to adapt to Danish as medium of instruction at university, however three did mention that it was difficult in the beginning. They also remarked that there was too much focus on reading and writing during Danish lessons at primary and secondary schools on the Faeroes while speaking and freely expressing in Danish was somewhat neglected although that would have been very useful once they started studying at a Danish university.

Finally, the author was surprised by the enthusiasm of the students to participate in this research which shows that their language and unique culture is of great importance to them and they appear committed to maintain the heritage of it because it obviously really defines their identity.


©Helge Tietz 2016