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Language barriers; boundaries in space and time.

I remember how I used to get happy-birthday-cards from my grandpa, written in completely grammatically correct Maastrichtian dialect (Mestreechs). A piece of linguistic art. It’s just not modern art, more a remnant of a different, older world, like Greek statues or the frontages of the buildings in the city centre. Don’t get me wrong, those frontages, like our local language, are still as beautiful as ever. But those frontages are being carefully maintained, by skilled workers who’ve elevated their craft into an artform of their own. Our language, on the other hand, isn’t being maintained that carefully.

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Ryan Wilmes

I can also vividly remember how we used to spend evenings looking through my grandpa’s pictures of their trips to France and the Ardennes. He travelled abroad quite a bit, but those usually weren’t far trips to the other side of the world. Flying by aeroplane wasn’t broadly commercialised yet. He mainly travelled by car and caravan to a different country in Europe, which meant that he’d end up in a Dutch, French or German speaking area quite quickly. English was hardly spoken there. My grandpa spoke those languages fairly well, not perfectly, but good enough. This is the case for a large part of the Maastrichtian population who grew up in an era before the rise of the internet. It’s namely globalisation and America’s strong financial and cultural position in the world, that solidified English as the language.

One of Volt’s primary challenges, as a pan-European party, are language barriers. Europe recognizes 24 official languages. But lots more unofficial languages are spoken across Europe, like the few hundred variations to the Limburgish dialect. Every 5 kilometres here in Limburg, a different dialect is spoken, which is a challenge for an internationally oriented movement. In Maastricht it even matters on which side of the river you were born. There are subtle differences in dialect. But then you’ll still understand one another. But to truly understand each other is a different challenge entirely. 

What I’ve noticed with Volt is that we have two very different audiences. One group are youths, mostly international students. The other is a slightly older group, roughly 50 and older, who have become, through experience, painfully aware of the hindrances of country borders and the limitations of what I like to call classic politics. You might think Volt consists mainly of the younger group, but the older group is a significant portion of our following.

The challenges that that brings became mostly apparent during our first Public Council Meeting, a council meeting in Café Forum, which was open to everyone who fancied stopping by and chatting about current issues in the municipal political landscape. To keep this council meeting open and accessible to everyone, visitors were not required to sign up. But beforehand we had a discussion amongst our council members; in what language should we do this meeting? We chose to do this meeting in English, since it’s such a prevalent language in our modern communication. But afterwards we received some criticism about the fact that English isn’t as accessible for everyone as we thought, and we understand that. We received these comments mainly from the older members, who hadn’t had the privilege of growing up being so exposed to English as the younger group had. Instead, they understand German and French a lot better, languages that actually are more relevant to our Euregion. The younger generation is a lot less competent at those languages; the understanding of, for instance, the French language is almost non-existent. 

That is a challenge we are facing right now; the languages people speak. Which is not a case of people not wanting or being able to to learn, but which is a remnant of a different era. A language barrier that has little to do with country borders, but that arose with time. A border that we’d like to cross as well. In our policies that means that we’re flexible with what language we speak during meetings. If English is difficult for some members of the audience, there is always someone there who’s able to translate Dutch, French or German. This is not a very elegant solution, but we’re constantly trying new things. If anyone has the key to solving this problem, please let us know. Until then, we’ll try our best. We’ll strive to bring accessible language education to all of Maastricht’s citizens, including language courses in the Limburgian dialect, which still plays a very prominent role in our local culture. Not only in the Netherlands, but in regions of Belgium and Germany as well.

The world is more connected now than ever and the list of languages being spoken in Maastricht continues to grow. Therefore it’s important that we keep expanding our boundaries, so that we may truly understand each other in a diversifying Maastricht.