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A Televised Singing Competition With A Mission
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A Televised Singing Competition With A Mission

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A Televised Singing Competition With A Mission
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Auditions are now under way for next May's Eurovision Song Contest. Performers representing dozens of countries rely on outlandish costumes, crazy dance moves and silly gimmicks to grab attention. That's because viewers can't always understand what they're singing.


Well, language is at the heart of another Eurovision-sponsored song contest this weekend in Italy. It's called Liet International. And as Nik Martin reports, the contest is a very serious attempt to keep some of the continent's neglected languages alive.

NIK MARTIN, BYLINE: Aiofe Scott is from Dublin where most people speak English, but she sings in Irish.


AIOFE SCOTT: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Irish is a form of Gaelic and is one of Ireland's two official languages. It's taught in schools, but it's more widely spoken in rural and coastal areas. Mostly, it's seen as a bit pointless by many young people growing up with instant connectivity to the rest of the world in English. Even Scott admits that she only began to appreciate the language once she'd left school.

SCOTT: When I reached 18 or 19, I realized that I was really lucky to be able to speak it. My parents have given me the opportunity to learn it. And I just realized that if I don't keep going with using the language and singing in the language and working through the language, that you'd miss something out of your life. You'd really miss it.

MARTIN: This year, she gets to sing in Irish as one of 12 finalists in the Liet song contest.


SCOTT: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Another finalist is the six-piece band Macanta from Scotland.


DOL EOIN: (Singing in foreign language)

MARTIN: Frontman Dol Eoin writes and sings in Scottish Gaelic.


EOIN: (Singing in foreign language)

Not many people in Scotland do. They would have at one point, hundreds of years ago, but it became relatively confined to the highlands and islands. And I grew up in an island.

MARTIN: Less than 1 percent of Scottish schoolchildren learn Gaelic, which is different from Irish Gaelic. Dol Eoin was born on Lewis, one of the islands that make up the Outer Hebrides.

EOIN: My early, early years, between the ages of, you know, zero to 5, Gaelic was certainly a language that I was immersed in. My grandparents spoke Gaelic, who lived in the other end of the house. My parents spoke Gaelic to each other and originally to us. But as the years went by, they started to speak English predominantly.

MARTIN: That kind of shift is true through much of Europe. In Udine, Italy, where this year's minority language contest is taking place, there are 800,000 residents who speak Friulan, but most of them are also fluent in Italian. Among the other languages featured this year: Asturian, spoken by about a quarter of a million residents of northern Spain; Vepsian, with about 6,000 native speakers in Russia's Karelia region; and West Frisian, spoken by about half a million people in the north of the Netherlands.

In Europe alone, around 40 million people speak a minority language. UNESCO estimates that more than 2,500 languages around the world are endangered. More than 200 became extinct over the last three generations. Australian linguist Chris Moseley drew up an atlas of those most at risk. He says the onus is on young people to reject homogenization.

CHRIS MOSELEY: You might say it's an uphill struggle or doomed to failure because, just as in nature, the laws of natural selection apply in culture too. You know, the economically powerful languages are always the ones that win. But human beings do have the opportunity to change that if they wish.

MARTIN: It's more than just a noble cause. Aiofe Scott says Irish is becoming cool.

SCOTT: They've been releasing albums with well-known performers in Ireland who usually sing in English, and they've translated their songs into the Irish language, and those albums have been massively successful. You have teenagers and kids who are learning Irish in school, singing songs that are originally written in English back in Irish because it's now becoming kind of trendy.

MARTIN: In Scotland, the BBC finally launched a Gaelic language TV channel in 2008. For some people, minority languages are part of their identity, something they eventually return to. Dol Eoin spent two years writing his latest album in Gaelic, and he's picked one of those songs for the Liet song contest.

EOIN: The reason its important for me to sing in Gaelic is because I had a very personal dream in Gaelic about two years ago, and it was the first dream I've ever had in Gaelic. And my response to that was to start writing in Gaelic and to start singing in Gaelic. Before that, I'd gone for over a decade not speaking Gaelic as an everyday language and certainly not writing in it. And after that, having written an album in Gaelic over these two years, I can't believe that it took a dream to sort of wake me up, if you like.

MARTIN: Organizers, too, hope this year's minority language contest can shake the rest of us out of our linguistic slumber. For NPR News, I'm Nik Martin in London.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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