Harmony in the Lesser-Used Tower of Babel: Forget English, French and German, Frisian is hip, writes Sarah Lambert

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The Independent Online
AUKE VAN DER GOOT, who manages the Brussels office of the Dublin- based European Bureau for Lesser- Used Languages, is a man well ahead of his time. His mother tongue is Frisian which, in one of its nine dialect forms, is spoken in northern Netherlands and Germany and understood in parts of Denmark. And although he is happiest speaking Frisian, he is just at home in Dutch, or German, or English.

'Coming from a little country, we are all used to the idea that Dutch alone won't do. We all learn other languages: to speak Frisian as well is not really unusual. I think in the future language will be more important as a form of communication and less as a national badge,' he says.

His office, funded by the European Community, the governments of Ireland and Luxembourg, the provincial government of Friesland and the German-speaking Community of Belgium, is living proof of the notion that monolingualism has no place in the Europe of the future. As a first language the team of four can claim Frisian, Flemish, German and Walser, so they work in French - for fun. The bureau acts primarily as an information exchange.

'It is very efficient working in French,' says Mr van der Goot in his accentless English. 'It means everyone is forced to express themselves clearly and simply. No one is able to make literary allusions, much as I would like to - we have a great poet, Gysbert Japiks, from whom I can quote freely . . .'

The EC has nine official languages but some 35 unofficial ones. Italians speak German, Albanian, Catalan, Cimbre (a Bavarian dialect), Croat, Ladin, Franco-provencal, Friulan, Greek, Mocheno, Occitan, Sard, Slovenian and Walser. In Spain, Catalan is an official language for the region, taught in schools, used in government, in the media and on the street everywhere; as many people speak it as speak Danish in Denmark.

It would be wrong to think that they speak only French in France; in the east the lingua franca is Alsacien; in the south, they speak Basque and Catalan, Corsicans speak Corse, towns and villages across a swathe of land in the north-west converse in langues d'Oil; across the border from Belgium is a small but determined band of Flemish speakers.

Yet an amendment to the French constitution rules that French is the only official language of France. The rationale for this decision was the need to ensure that French remains a majority language of Europe, with English and German, but for many it runs counter to a commitment to the cultural diversity of Europe.

It seems that as Europe pulls together politically and economically, and the nation-state is challenged by federal and regional movements, there has been a huge revival in the use of minority languages. Those living in the extreme north of Germany, through language and culture, may have more in common with a Frieslander or a Dane than a Bavarian. Breton is a Celtic language like Welsh or Cornish, and an annual festival draws Celtic cultures together; many of the folk-songs have common roots.

As a Corsican, Max Simeoni, an MEP who sits on an all-party committee dedicated to the promotion of minority languages, hopes that the new forces shaping Europe will make monolingualism archaic and break the link in the Basque country, Corsica, Belgium, Wales and elsewhere between language and a particular, often separatist, political ideology.

'There is nothing inherently political about a language, but if you ban it, restrict it to the ghetto, then it can quickly acquire such a status,' he says. This view lies behind the Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, adopted last year to 'protect and promote regional or minority languages as a threatened aspect of Europe's cultural heritage'.

Mr Simeoni envisages a Europe where everybody will speak at least three languages, a minority 'local' language at home, a 'national' language at work and an 'international' language - French, English, German or Russian - in the wider community. He says: 'Public reaction has shown there is great resentment of the idea of a Europe run by the big countries. Use of local language is one of the ways the smaller countries and regions can find a voice.'