Social Media in Bilingual Environments: Online Practices of Frisian Teenagers

This post was originally published on the blog Indigenous Tweets. Lysbeth Jongbloed is a researcher at the Fryske Akademy, specializing in the use of the Frisian language in social media.

Probably most of you know the Netherlands: from tulips, clogs, or Amsterdam. Most people in the Netherlands speak Dutch, a West Germanic language. However, in the north of the Netherlands, in the province of Fryslân, we speak a different language: Frisian. Frisian is, besides Dutch, the second officially recognised language in the Netherlands. In Fryslân, the legal status of Frisian and Dutch are equal, however, in practice, in many domains Dutch is the dominant language and also in many schools, education in Frisian is rather limited. It is estimated that Frisian is the mother tongue for around half of the Frisian population, roughly some 350,000 people. Frisian is mainly a spoken language: while 85% of the population can speak the language, only 12% indicate that they can write the language well (De Fryske Taalatlas, 2011).

Research in Fryslân

In Fryslân, the Mercator Research Centre and the Fryske Akademy carry out fundamental and applied research in the fields of the Frisian language, culture, history and society. One of the current projects studies language use on social media. The expectation is that social media offer chances for minority languages to increase their vitality.

In 2013 and early 2014 the Mercator Research Centre received financial support from the Province of Fryslân and the municipality of Leeuwarden (capital of Fryslân) to research the language use of Frisian teenagers between 14 and 18 on social media. The outcomes of this research will be discussed below. Are you also studying the use of your minority language on the internet? We are interested in setting up an international network so we can compare results and initiate European funded projects in the future. Read more about these plans at the end of this blog.

 #frysk was the #1 trending topic in the Netherlands for 7 hours on April 17th

WhatsApp most popular social media platform

Twenty Frisian schools for secondary general and vocational education participated in the research. As a result, over 2,000 Frisian teenagers filled in an extensive questionnaire. Almost all Frisian teenagers (98%) use social media. 95% of the teenagers use WhatsApp (a cross-platform mobile messaging app), 86% use Facebook and 76% use Twitter. Of the three, WhatsApp is used most: 47% chose the answer ‘only when I am asleep, I do not check WhatsApp'.

Oral rather than written language

In general it can be concluded that Frisian still is rather an oral than a written language. For Frisian teenagers the Dutch language is the dominant language used in writing. On average, the more formal the medium, the less often Frisian is used. For instance, for text messages and WhatsApp approximately half of the Frisian-speaking teenagers use Frisian. On Facebook and Twitter that proportion decreases to around 30%, and in emails it is 15%. In personal messages Frisian is used more than in public or group messages.

Phonetic writing

Frisian is often written phonetically. Most teenagers are aware of that but do not mind: ‘People will understand what I mean anyway.’ Some think it is too much work to add all diacritics, others are not sure when to use them. Furthermore, the influence of Dutch is clearly visible in the teenagers’ written language, and so is the use of dialect and abbreviations that are typical of social media. It also often happens that different languages are mixed intentionally.

Teenagers from the ‘Walden’ region use Frisian most on social media

Regional differences

In the province of Fryslân, big differences have been found regarding Frisian language use. In general, Frisian is hardly used in the big cities while it is much more common to use Frisian on social media in smaller towns and in the north-east of Fryslân.

Determining factors

The language one prefers to speak is the main factor determining one's language use on social media. Other factors affecting language choice are one's attitude towards Frisian, one’s writing skills in Frisian, and the general attitude towards Frisian at one's school.

Approximately one fifth of the Frisian-speaking teenagers never uses Frisian on social media. The main reason is that they find it difficult to write Frisian, but it also has to do with their surroundings not being Frisian and their own attitude towards Frisian.

Qualitative Twitter research

Besides mapping language use of Frisian teenagers by means of a questionnaire, I also studied tweets of 50 Frisian teenagers. The 50 teenagers for the Twitter research were selected from the participants of the second ‘Fryske Twitterdei’ (Frisian Twitter day), which was organised on April 18th 2013 by the organisation ‘Praat mar Frysk’ (Do speak Frisian). During this day people were encouraged to send Frisian tweets in combination with the hashtag Frysk. The whole day #Frysk was a trending topic in the Netherlands, and almost 10,000 tweets were sent with the hashtag Frysk. Per participant, their last 50 tweets before the Twitter day, their tweets on the Twitter day, and their first 50 tweets after the Twitter day were analysed: in total over 6,000 tweets. 

Share of Frisian tweets

The analysis shows that on regular days, just over 10% of the tweets were in Frisian and 65% were in Dutch. On the Frisian Twitter day 53% was in Frisian and 29% in Dutch. Although the Twitter day has a strong upwards effect on the use of Frisian in tweets, the effect is not long-lasting. 

Variables of influence on language choice

Variables of influence on language choice are the type of tweet and gender. The proportion of Frisian is highest in messages addressed to a particular person. On regular days 25% of those tweets are in Frisian. On the Twitter day the proportion doubles to almost half. The use of Frisian in other type of messages rises from under 10% to over 50%. In the analysed sample, the male teenagers tweet much more in Frisian than their female counterparts.

Frisian Twitter day 2014

Last week, on April 17th, the third Frisian Twitter day was organised: again the Twitter day was a big success: during the whole day it was a trending topic in the Netherlands and during seven hours it even was the number one trending topic. Over 6 million people saw the #Frysk or #frysketwitterdei on their timeline, tweets came from over 25 countries.

Further research

The Province of Fryslân has granted a new subsidy to the Mercator Research Centre of the Fryske Akademy to carry out further research into Frisian language use on social media in 2014 and 2015; in particular, the question will be addressed what dynamics in a multilingual society lead to the use or non-use of a minority language on social media. To answer this question, we are also looking for partners in other minority language regions with whom we can compare research outcomes. Consequently we would like to build up an expert network to initiate European funded projects in the future. Please contact @lysbeth2_0 if you are interested to participate. For more information about the Frisian Twitter day, you can contact @praatmarfrysk.

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