I don’t know if it’s that I have a habit of living in and traveling to places where there is an autochthonous cultural and linguistic people who struggle against the powers that be, or if it’s just that I’m drawn to their struggles, but here I am, once again faced with the same, or similar issues.
Here in Brittany, arm-in-arm with the political (and military, but apparently it’s illegal here to even discuss that so I won’t go there in this post) struggle, is the linguistic one. The knowledge and use of the Breton language, or “brezhoneg,” is in decline, and there are valiant and very interesting efforts to preserve it, through bilingual French-Breton classes in the public schools (first one opened in 1983), in “Diwan” or immersion schools (first opened in 1977), and in private Catholic schools (first opened in 1980).
Whereas the government still clutches in its hand the Constitution of the 5th Republic which states that French, and only French is the language of the Republic (sound familiar?), and the subsequent Toubon Law determines that French is the language of public education (thus no government funding for Breton-language schools), the Bretons are using creative ways to get around that in order to ensure that their language survives.
Breton is an indo-European language, which has been spoken for the last 1500 years. The first written texts in Breton date from the 9th century and, interestingly enough, predate by 50 years those written in French. Declared as a language in danger of extinction by UNESCO, Breton speakers are in decline: from over one million at the beginning of the 20th century, to 270,000 one hundred years later. According to the website ouiaubreton.com, at least 10,000 Breton speakers are lost each year, which translates into 28 a day and 1 each hour…an illustrative way of viewing this linguistic decline, no?
This past Fall 11,000 students attended bilingual Breton-French schools, which is an increase of 6.6% over last year, and approximately 2000 attended Diwan schools (unable to be more precise because for some mysterious reason¬---call me a conspiracy theorist---the diwan website is down). The Diwan (Diwan is Breton for “sprout”) immersion schools were created in 1977, modeling themselves after other immersion schools in Western Europe such as the Basque “iskastolas,” the Occitane “calandretas” and the Catalan “bressola.” Most diwans are in Brittany, but not all: the “Skoazell Diwan Paris” was opened in 2004, representing a symbolic coup by establishing a diwan in zee most French of all French cities, Paris.
There are clear parallels here to the Tamazight movement in Algeria and its struggles to establish itself within an Arabist educational system. Based on web searches I didn’t find any evidence of collaboration between the Algerians and the Bretons, but it seems that the experience of the Bretons might be very helpful to those who believe in the preservation and revitalization of the Berber language.
*Without the Breton language there is no Brittany.