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The Walloon Preservation Project - Brussels, Wisconsin

Story published in May 2017  | Interview conducted in August 2016

Did you know that Walloon is spoken in Wisconsin? Find out how the Walloon language arrived in the United States! There are only a handful of speakers left and the community is fighting to preserve their language. Professor Kelly Biers and Professor Ellen Osterhaus (from University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire) talk about the tools and strategies available to save not only the Wisconsin Walloon Dialect but all endangered and indigenous languages! This is the first installment on our series "Wisconsin Walloons".


This interview is available with French and Dutch Caption thanks to our volunteer translators! We can’t thank them enough!

English captions by Severine Dehon.

French captions by Anne Mouyart-Krebs.

Dutch captions by Rose Cnudde, Christine Skinners and Monicque Quintens.

The following interview is part of of a documentary series on the Belgian Heritage Foundation located in Brussels, Wisconsin. The foundation's goal is to promote the Walloon language and culture through their programming and interactive exhibit. Recently, the Belgian Heritage Foundation partnered with the University of Wisconsin to record their dying language and pass it on to younger generations. In this interview, you will meet Professors Kelly Biers and Ellen Osterhaus who launched the Wisconsin Walloon Preservation Project.

Can you introduce yourself?

Kelly: "I am Kelly Biers. I am a Professor of French at the University of Wisconsin - Eau claire. I am trained in linguistics."


Ellen: "I am Ellen Osterhaus. I also work at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire in the English Department. My background is in linguistics and sociolinguistics."

How did your passion for Lingustics start?

Kelly: "I always found languages interesting. In High School, I took French and German. My sister had studied abroad in Japan, and I always wanted to do everything that she did. So I decided to study French in France. I never thought that I liked science. But there is something about a systematic study of language that really made sense to me."


Ellen: "What Kelly just said resonates with me. I always did well in English, so I stuck with English as an undergraduate. But when I started looking to graduate schools, I found out that linguistics was a thing! When I took my introductory classes, it just fell really feel together for me..."


Dr Ellen Osterhaus and Dr Kelly Biers sign my car in Green Bay, WI on August 22nd, 2016!

When did you first hear about the Walloons in Wisconsin?

Kelly: "Really just by chance and the magic of the internet! I was preparing a class on regional languages in and around France. So I was just looking for information on Belgium. But Google is so smart now that it knows that I was looking for Walloon and that I live in Wisconsin. Therefore one of the first hits was this Wisconsin Walloon Heritage Foundation. And I thought "There is no way there are Walloon speakers in Wisconsin!" But sure, enough... Since this community is such a unique part of Wisconsin, its culture and history, the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire encouraged me right away to find out more this community. So in Fall 2014, I started making trips over with some students and meeting the community members."


Ellen: "I found out about the Wisconsin Walloon dialect through Kelly who is a colleague at UWC. Recently I was applying to attend a summer program at Collaborative Institute For Language Research (CoLang) in Alaska. It has to do with documenting endangered/indigenous languages and revitalization projects, which is has always been something I am interested in, but haven't had much a chance to pursue. Getting involved with the Wisconsin Walloon Preservation Project was a great way to connect a couple of facets of my life. Kelly and I were both able to participate in this workshop at CoLang. It provided us with a lot of researches and ideas on how to help out communities like this one.

Kelly and Ellen working with the Wisconsin Walloon Community at the Belgian Heritage Foundation on August 20th, 2016.

What is the Walloon Preservation Project?

Kelly: "Our goal is to document and preserve to the extent possible  the language that is still spoken in Wisconsin today. We are also working with the Belgian Heritage Foundation on their professionally curated exhibit. We are recording people speaking Walloon so vistors can get a feel for the language. We are also creating a "primer". In Linguistics, a primer is a very simple booklet that provides some basic vocab and grammar. It will explain what the language is, how it got over here in Wisconsin and give an idea of what the language sounded like. The idea is to have a written record of the language, that could be passed down from generation to generation."

What is your biggest challenge with this project?

Kelly: "The biggest challenge we face immediately is finding a way to write down the language. There wasn't a written version of Walloon  until 1900. But most of the immigration happened in the 1850s. People came over here without a way to write down Walloon. It was just a spoken language. And the writing systems that exist in Belgium are based on French. It just looks so foreign to an native English speaker. It creates an obstacle for people here who want to read or learn Walloon. So we're trying to come up with a system that makes sense for a native English speaker. And we're working together with the community now to come up with that system. Time isn't on our side on this project. A lot of the speakers are in their 80s/90s. This project takes time but we can't afford to take the time, unfortunately. "

Dr Kelly Biers explains the Walloon Preservation Project to the members of the community. They are trying to come up with a writing system that makes sense for a native English Speakers. In this video, the participants say basic vocabulary in Walloon and decide how they want to write it.

Ellen: "We have this situation going on right now where the native speakers are kind of realizing that they are not going to pass it along for much longer. Their children don't speak it. But a lot of that generation of younger children have started to feel - I think - a sense of regret that they didn't speak it more growing up. Projects like these often create an internal emphasis with the community. That is really what we'd like to do: raising awareness. It is one thing for us as outsiders to say "Oh, this is cool!". It is something different to help people see the resources they already have available. Walloon isn't dead yet. There are multiple roads ahead of us.


Why is it important to save endangered languages?

Kelly: "Native speakers of English or French, or any major world languages, sometimes take for granted how intrinsic language is to everything that we do. Whereas speakers of some of these smaller languages are really faced with a situation where this part of their history and culture is on the brink of dying out. There is so much history that is embedded within a language and culture. Imagine a tower, a circular tower that has windows on each floor all around the tower. Each window would represent a language and looking through that window you would see the world in a different way and have a different way of describing the world that is out there. Losing a language is like closing one of those windows. You have one fewer way at looking at the world and describing the world around you."


Ellen: "When we were at this workshop at CoLang, we met members of communities whose language is endangered and does not have a lot of support. And in the class we were speaking of how English speakers often tend to view their language as kind of a tool. And we talk about it in terms of utility and functionality. English is useful, it is a resource. And one of the speakers of the smaller language said "Wait the metaphor you would use for your language is like a spoon that you use to stir stew?!" It broke her heart that it was our metaphor for what English can do. I think that you only realize the link between your language and identity when you have that restricted community of speakers. You are going to see how valuable your language is in situations where it is under pressure."

Many houses in Brown and Door County have Walloon flags. People are very proud of their heritage.

How is your project welcomed by the younger generation?

Kelly: "There is kind of a sense of this language is going to die and there is nothing that can be done about it. So what we are trying to do is to show people that there are things that we can do to keep the language around in some way. The premier is one way of doing that. We are trying to dream big at the same time and think about the long term. Could it be possible to revitalize this language? Can we partner with the Belgian Heritage Center and local schools to get the kids to visit this exhibit? Can we interest the kids in this part of their heritage? If yes, can we create an education programs? Maybe start with a small summer camp where high schoolers would be doing an intensive language learning program. These are hypothetical. We want to let the community know that these are possibilities. We don't necessarily have to think of Wisconsin Walloon as a language that will die. That sort of models and tools have worked well in other communities. We do not have any reason to think it wouldn't work here."

Where can we follow your project? Do you need help with the Wisconsin Walloon Preservation Project?

Kelly: "They can email us at We need help with translations. We are amassing audio and video of people speaking Walloon. We are going to need help translating all of that. We could use help from anyone, anywhere, even if they are Belgian Walloon speakers because they can understand each other pretty well. The Walloon speakers here in Wisconsin will occasionally travel to Belgium and meet some of their long lost cousins and second cousins. They can converse with them in Walloon and understand each other just fine."

Kelly reviewing some the suggestion to spell Walloon word with a Walloon Speaker.

Did I forget to ask you something important?

Kelly: "In all the work that we are doing, we are trying to make sure that everything we do is supported by the community. We really want the book project and the creation of the written language to involve the community. Because it is their language, it is not our language and it is not our heritage. We do not want to be imposing anything. We want to make sure that everything feels like it is theirs at the end."

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