A survey carried out in France by Insee on behalf of the EU back in 2007 found that French was the mother tongue of 87.2 percent of the population – or just shy of 56 million people at the time. It was followed by Arabic (3.6 percent of the population of France, or 2.3 million people), Portuguese (1.5 percent, 960,000), Spanish (1.2 percent, 770,000) and Italian (1 percent, 640,000). Households with English as a mother tongue made up 0.4 percent.
The study did not take in dozens of regional French languages, including Breton – with its Celtic links – as well as Basque, Corsican, Alsatian, and Occitan – perhaps because most people who speak them also speak French.
Three years ago, the number of people speaking Occitan rose by one, as the youngest of our three children moved to an Occitan primary school in southwest France – one of the schools of the Calendreta association, dedicated to keeping the language and the history that goes with it alive.
Nearly a decade earlier, in 2009, three of us had moved from England to France – I headed out first, followed a month later by my wife and our daughter. I was pretty good at French at school – German, too – but had forgotten most of it in the intervening years. My wife’s French was – and is – better than mine: she studied it at university. And our daughter, then three, was effectively thrown into school with no French whatsoever.
It was actually fascinating to witness our daughter’s brain reboot. She reverted briefly to babble – but it was increasingly French babble as opposed to English babble. Within weeks, her sponge brain was starting to deal in two languages. Today, when a phrase or an accent catches either of us out – even after 12 years living here, we get caught out from time to time – she’s our go-to French-to-English translation chip. At lycée, for her friends, she works the other way around.
We’ve also added two boys to our Anglo-French household since moving here. The oldest headed off to collège for the first time this week, while our youngest, who is autistic, went into the CE2 class at his small Occitan school, having moved from the school his big sister and brother had attended at the very end of his Grand Section year.
He has always had plenty to say for himself, our fizzing, overcharged battery of a youngest boy. He babbled away to anyone who cared to listen as a baby, and – when in company – has scarcely shut up since. Spending any length of time with him is to enter a non-stop whirl of breathless consciousness.
He’s quick, too. Having learned to read in French, with the help of his crèche and then his first school, he pretty much taught himself to read in English, too.
His first couple of years in maternelle were relatively unremarkable, but midway through his Grand Section year, we realised the school that had served his older siblings so well wasn’t working for him. In the end, it was a comment from his teacher about running out of books for him to read that sealed it.
So, we decided to switch schools. Administratively, that’s not hard to do in France. But we agonised over it, because we worried it would be an emotional wrench for a boy who thrives on routine. That said, we believed he would benefit from a less rigid typically French system than the one he knew, not to mention get his teeth into learning something new.
And, at first, it was difficult. He missed his classmates. But his new teacher was a marvel and he has integrated well.
He already spoke with that easy, natural mix of two languages that children in immigrant households do. And he has picked up Occitan quickly and, apparently, effortlessly. After just one year he was one of a few to speak Occitan all the time in class.
Variations of the language exist across the whole of the south of France, into Spain’s Catalonia, Monaco and northern Italy – not to mention Calabria, in southern Italy. In our neck of the linguistic woods, the regional variation is languedocien, often the basis for Standard Occitan. There are so many different versions of Occitan that it’s easy – and wrong – to think in terms of patois.
But there is more to Occitan than a melodic romance language and a whimsical nod to the region’s past on road signs. Thar’s historic gold in them thar words. It’s a language that carries with it centuries of history, which its adherents are keen to protect.
Many dialects in the vast region covered by Occitan speakers gave rise to the misconception that ‘Occitanophones’ don’t share a common culture, unlike Basques or Bretons, for example, and into the easy and pejorative categorisation of Occitan as ‘patois’.
The government, at least, is talking the talk. The Ministry of Culture website has pages dedicated to the preservation of regional languages in metropolitan France and overseas. But the question remains – the one that those who want to protect and nurture regional languages find hard to believe – is whether it is walking the walk.
A few Occitan words and phrases
Adiu (pronounced ad-ee-you) – Hello (in French bonjour)
Adissiatz (pronounced adissiass) – Goodbye (au revoir)
Òc (pronounced o) – Yes (oui)
Noun (pronounced non) – No (non)
Mercés (pronounced Mersess) – Thank you (merci)
Va plan ? (pronounced ba pla) – How are you (ça va?)
Ont vas ? (pronounced oontey bass) – Where are you going (où vas-tu?)
A tot ara (pronounced a toot aro) – See you later (à tout a l’heure)