Symposium successful kick-off new academic year

The language of a country may impact its fertility rates. A question asked in the European parliament in English, might be replied to in French, and commented on in German. These are just two snippets of information from yesterday’s symposium ‘Minorities around the world’, held in Tresoar, Leeuwarden.

We kicked off the academic year in a packed Gysbert Japicxroom, where BA and MA students, and other interested parties witnessed two presentations; by Hugo Keizer, EU language officer, and Hendrik van der Pol, recently retired director of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

Hugo Keizer brought insight into the linguistic workings of the European Commission. The EC is truly a multilingual institute, where each member is required to have at least a good command of English, German and French, and translators and interpreters work around the clock to ensure all documentation can be read and understood by all relevant parties. Beside all national languages of the European member states, (translation) services are installed for a number of minority languages, such as Welsh and Catalan. Most language combinations can be translated one-to-one, but sometimes, as in the case with Catalan, an extra step is needed (Catalan-Spanish-German, for example). Interpreting is such a cognitively demanding job that the commission’s meetings are scheduled around the working hours of the interpreters. In fact, breaks need to be scheduled every two hours, ‘to allow the interpreters to put their heads in a bucket of ice-water’.

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics” is what Hendrik van der Pol reminded his audience of at the start of his lecture. Statistics can be very informative, as Van der Pol showed in a stimulating presentation on how demographics can explain changes in minority and identity status, and even what influence a language may have on fertility rates within a country. A short survey among the audience to determine their in- and exclusion into the Frisian population (based on language, place of birth, and place of residency) demonstrated the care with which researchers need to define the population they want to study, and which factors may influence change in this population (birth-death, immigration-emigration, for example). The message that sounded in our ears was to always think carefully about numbers and the context in which they are stated.