Speaking Limburgish in preschool

Speaking Limburgish in preschool

The societal impact of UM research

29-05-2024 · Science

In today’s world, the societal impact of research findings seems more important than getting published in an academic journal like Nature or The Lancet. What impact has research conducted at UM had in recent years? This week: a study that persuaded childcare centres in South Limburg to speak Limburgish with children.

Speaking Limburgish is cool and trendy. In a 2022 survey conducted among over a thousand people by the regional dialect association Veldeke, half of all young people under the age of 35 said they text each other in the local dialect. There’s even a Limburgish keyboard you can download on your mobile phone, and a free digital dictionary containing 135,000 dialect words from places like Maastricht, Sittard and Venlo.

But at the same time, the number of Limburgish speakers is declining, notes Leonie Cornips, professor of Language Culture in Limburg at Maastricht University. For years, she has been advocating for the use of Limburgish in preschool and primary education. According to Cornips, it’s high time to dispense with the long-standing belief that speaking a local dialect interferes with learning the standard language.


Cornips debunked this belief in one of her earliest studies, in which she investigated whether children raised with Limburgish as their first language have smaller vocabularies in standard Dutch. She showed pictures of animals and everyday objects to 128 children aged between six and eight. Their vocabularies turned out to be just as extensive as those of their Dutch-speaking peers. In fact, they were slightly larger than the national average, although not in a statistically significant way.

In 2022, researchers definitively did away with the idea that speaking Limburgish interferes with learning standard Dutch. A study by Cornips, Trudie Schils and others showed that Limburgish-speaking children in their fourth year of primary school outperformed their Dutch-speaking peers on reading comprehension and spelling tests. This was the first time that hard data was collected from a large sample of nine hundred children.

It’s not about the specific dialect, but multilingualism in general, explains Cornips. “Speaking one language makes it easier to learn another, especially if they’re similar. That’s why Limburgish-speaking children have an easier time learning to read and write in Dutch. Growing up speaking more than one language enhances children’s cognitive development and linguistic intuition.”


In addition to primary education, Cornips also looked at preschools. Why is it that so many children enter preschool speaking Limburgish but leave speaking only Dutch? What happens during these years?

Zuyd University of Applied Sciences co-conducted a survey among almost five hundred childcare workers. Two-thirds of them said they often speak to the children in Limburgish. “But only in informal moments – at mealtimes, during unstructured play or while consoling an upset child. They use Dutch during circle time and read-alouds. This subconsciously teaches children that Limburgish is inferior to Dutch. We must change that.”


Rather than gathering dust in a drawer, Cornips’s studies attracted the attention of MIK & PIW Groep, a group of six childcare and social work foundations in South Limburg. Three preschools embraced the message and are currently experimenting with using Limburgish as their primary language. “They speak it all day long – not just while consoling children, but in all situations, including circle time. The experiment will be evaluated based on childcare workers’ experiences, as unfortunately there’s no funding available for academic research. But I believe we should take their experiences and expertise seriously. If the results are positive and children continue to speak Limburgish, other MIK & PIW Groep preschools will follow suit.”

The experiment was based on results achieved in Friesland, where they’ve used the local language in childcare centres since the 1980s. “Each group always has two childcare workers, one speaking Frisian and the other Dutch. This teaches children that both languages are equal. Crucially, parents and the regional government are closely involved. Certificates are awarded to preschools providing their staff with additional training on multilingualism in children. We should do the same in Limburg.”


As mentioned earlier, the UM professor is passionate about dispelling the myth that children raised speaking a local dialect have a harder time learning Dutch. “Doing away with that idea will pave the way for other innovations, increasing the presence of other languages in the classroom. Children might sing Arabic birthday songs for classmates with a Moroccan background, or learn to count in Ukrainian. It doesn’t confuse them – it benefits them.”

Photo: Ellen Oosterhof

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: leonie cornips,dialect,limburgish,preschool

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