Bringing Breton 'into the streets'

When Elen Le Gars blows her bombarde, an earsplitting, oboe-like instrument essential to native music along the rocky coastline of Brittany in northwestern France, its wail can be heard right across Europe.

Fourteen-year-old Elen doesn't just play Celtic tunes in a Breton band; she attends school in the Breton language, lives her home life in Breton, and says she feels more Breton than French.

And as she digs down to her regional cultural roots, she is not alone.

From the snowy wastes of northern Finland, where young Sami herders are busy learning to speak Lapp, to the drowsy vineyards of Portugal, where old people are once more telling folk tales in Mirandese, Europe's little-known languages and the cultures that live by them are enjoying a remarkable revival. In a world with fewer and fewer national boundaries, long-neglected regional cultures are regaining ground.

"The more everything goes global, the more people will hang on to what is local," says Bernard Poignant, mayor of this small town near the Atlantic coast. "It's an animal reflex, to seek out what is closest to you and most stable."

That reflex is strong in Brittany, a rugged region edged with tall cliffs, famed for its sailors and a fierce sense of independence. Nowhere else in Europe has a new generation fought so hard to try to revive its ancestral language.

It was that fight that led Andre Le Gars and his wife Marivonig to decide they would bring their children up in Breton, and speak only that ancient Celtic language - once spoken by Druids - at home. Fifteen years ago, that decision made them a very odd family. "My mother used to speak to Elen in Breton in the street and it attracted a lot of attention," Mrs. Le Gars recalls. "Elen didn't like that at all."

But Elen's granny herself stood out by speaking Breton to younger people. Almost everyone else of her generation simply stopped passing the language on. "Practically no one of my generation learned Breton as a child," says Anne Gouerou, a 30-something enthusiast for all things Breton who runs a cultural center in Quimper. "Back in the 50s, French was the future, and people who spoke Breton were ashamed of it."

That left two generations without their local language. Today, only 240,000 Bretons, 20 percent of the population, speak Breton. In recent years, more and more young people have felt, like Ms. Gouerou, that "something profound was missing in me, I needed to fill an emptiness in order to be whole." So they took Breton classes at evening school, or at university.

The fight to save Breton from extinction began more than 20 years ago with diwans, private schools at which children begin to learn French only when they have mastered the basics of Breton. Now, there are 28 diwans around Brittany, offering Breton-language education all the way up to high school graduation.

They have grown in the face of grave suspicions on the part of the national Education Ministry, which long refused to fund any teaching not done in French, and volunteers have done most of the work. Not only did they have to change the language - Breton linguists had to coin 5,000 new words as they developed a secondary-school curriculum - they had to change local minds as well.

"Parents said you couldn't talk about math and philosophy in Breton, only about how to cook potatoes and stuff like that," says Marivon Le Berre, headmistress of a diwan on the outskirts of Quimper. "That was the image people had of the language - pretty negative."

Still, only 2 percent of Breton children attend diwans or Breton-language classes in public schools, even if classes are growing by 20 percent a year.

That has led activists to concentrate on "getting Breton out of schools and into the streets, into people's lives," says Olier ar Mogn, head of the Breton Language Office, an agency that promotes the use of Breton.

Today, you can find road signs in Breton as well as in French throughout Brittany, a proliferation of Breton-language Web sites through (software engineers even developed a Breton version of the Linux operating system). And Breton music is everywhere in the region.

Record sales are booming, and many hundreds of professional musicians play at festnoz, celebrations of traditional dance that attract thousands of people of all ages week after week.

Brittany is fortunate in having an ancient and strong regional cultural identity. "That helps build the language," says Glenn Jegou, a young promoter of cultural events. "And if people are growing more interested in their culture, it's often because they started out by liking the music."

At the same time, Breton language skills are called for in a growing number of professions in Brittany, from teaching through publishing to radio and television, where appetite is about to leap with the launch in August of a Breton-language commercial TV channel, funded by investments from such global media giants as Rupert Murdoch and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.

But Breton is by no means official. Paris, resting on its long history of centralized state power, is extremely wary of giving local languages any status whatsoever. In 1992, parliament even passed a constitutional amendment to make it perfectly clear that "the language of the Republic is French." It was this stipulation that last year prevented France from ratifying a European charter on regional and minority languages - a treaty that would have guaranteed minorities the right to schooling in their own tongues. That prospect sparked a furious debate, in which Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement warned that teaching regional languages risked "Balkanizing" the country.

In the rest of Europe, such outbursts seem excessive. Spain's autonomous provinces encourage local languages; indeed, more people in Europe speak Catalan than speak Danish or Finnish. Welsh is obligatory in all schools in Wales. And other European Union countries have taken steps to foster the 30-plus minority tongues that are spoken on their territories.

Not that the picture is entirely rosy. "The general mood in Europe is growing more tolerant of minority languages," says Tom Moring, who runs the Brussels-based European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages. "But the languages themselves are fighting under ever more-difficult circumstances, because of media encroachment and the way the speaking populations are aging."

In Brittany, for example, worries Mr. ar Mogn, "Fifteen-thousand Breton speakers die each year, but only about 1,500 people at school or in evening classes become fluent."

Nor does positive sentiment translate into cash to train teachers and invest in bilingualism, complains Mr. Moring. The EU spends about $3.8 million a year to foster minority languages, a fraction of the amount it spends on translating documents and interpreting meetings to and from the 11 official EU languages.

Still, says ar Mogn, things are looking up for Breton. "Our grandparents had a complex about it, our parents were indifferent to it, but my generation is winning back something it feels it is missing.

"More and more I am getting the feeling that things are becoming possible, that even if the state puts obstacles in our way, the future of our language and of our culture is in our hands."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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