Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Defying the Odds: The Resurgence of Breton through Education and Media

by Gwendolyn Childers

In 1972, then-president of France Georges Pompidou encompassed The State’s longtime repression of regional minority languages in the following statement: “There is no room for regional languages in a France that is destined to set its seal on Europe” (ELA, 2012). Even a decade later, J.P. Chevenement, the Minister of Education under president Francois Mitterrand, said in reference to the Corsican language that “teaching the youth languages that offer them no perspective is not doing them a good service,” (Kelly-Holmes, 35). These disheartening statements about regional minority languages have been fairly de rigueur throughout France’s history. So how is Breton still surviving against all odds?

Like many severely endangered languages today, Breton has had a history ripe with repression and degradation in status. In recent years, Breton has made strides to reconstitute its status, in a similar way to Irish Gaelic and Welsh. Although the education system has likely been the main way through which use of Breton has spread, media is another important source of revival for the language (Holmes-Kelly, 35).

Breton, along with Cornish and Welsh, is a Brythonic language (Mogn, 3). Before the immense growth of Germanic and Romance languages, Breton was widely used among Western Europeans (ELA, 2012). Today it is spoken in the Brittany region of France, which makes it the only Celtic language spoken on the European mainland presently (ELA, 2012). Breton is estimated to have around 500,000 speakers currently. The number of active speakers falls far below that, in all likelihood. In 1986, it was estimated that there were 50,000- 100,000 active users of the language, a figure that has probably diminished since (ELA, 2012).

This map shows the regional dialects of Breton in the Brittany region of France. Languages used in this region are Breton, Gallo, and French. In the bottom left corner, a smaller map points out the location of Brittany in reference to the UK.
Image Source
The Breton language’s collapse in the 1960’s had its roots in years of suppression, but still surprised many French citizens. Newer generations were deprived of the language, making it impossible to be passed down (Kelly-Holmes, 35). Although such citizens were not native speakers, they still felt a sense of loss for the language that had been a part of their culture (Kelly-Holmes, 35). This was the root of the activist movement to revive Breton.

The creation of the first independent Diwan school in 1977 followed a number of protests lead by Breton language activists throughout the 1970s. The Diwan schools are primary- and secondary-level schools that offer material in Breton through the emersion method. Today, around 6,000 students attend these schools. While 6,000 is minute percentage of the total number of schoolchildren in France (Kelly-Holmes, 36), the annual growth rate in these schools is over 20 percent-- a more promising number (Kelly-Homes, 36).

The sign for a Diwan school in Brest, in the Brittany region of France. Diwan schools offer education in Breton through the emersion method.
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These steps in the revival of Breton were not universal or greeted without conflict, however. The statements of Pompidou and Chevenement, as quoted above, were made after the revival movement for Breton had begun. Still, the Diwan school system has been a major triumph for the revival of the language as the French government has increased its support for the schools in recent years (Kelly-Holmes, 35). An especially crucial step in this is the French government’s rising recognition that the Diwan bilingual schools are a public service and the government’s increasing treatment of the schools as such (Kelly-Holmes, 35).

Availability of media in a language naturally has a large impact on the daily use and maintenance of that language. For the Breton language revival, media has helped increase social recognition of the language (Kelly-Holmes, 38). Broadcast media is the most popular form of media in which Breton is used, since there are far more people who can understand Breton when spoken to than are literate in the language (Kelly-Holmes, 38).

France-Bleu Breiz-Izel is a publicly funded radio station that has two hours of daily programming in Breton (Kelly-Holmes, 38). This programming includes local news, talk, and music (Kelly-Holmes, 38). Several independent radio stations also offer programming in Breton (Kelly-Holmes, 39).

The logo for publicly-funded French radio station France-Bleu Breiz-Izel. The radio station offers two hours of daily programming in the Breton language.
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France3Ouest offers differing amounts of coverage in Breton depending on the viewer's location in Brittany (Kelly-Holmes, 39). Western Brittany has a daily news program in Breton, while Eastern and Southern Brittany receive news coverage in Breton only on select weekend time slots (Kelly-Holmes, 39).

Although print media use of Breton is less popular than broadcast use, there are several papers that print sections in Breton (Kelly-Holmes, 38). Le Telegramme is one such newspaper. Within its ‘Brittany’ section, stories detailing the use of the language within schools and the political decisions effecting Breton are highlighted. One such article showcases the appointment of a Deputy of Cultural Diversity, which oversees language policy related to visual, performing, urban and digital arts (Le Telegramme, 2013).

In a report by Olier ar Mogn at Mercator-Education in 2003 detailing the statistical success of Breton language education and the spread of understanding, it was made clear that there continues to be a great need for the continuing work on Breton language revival in the new millennium (Mogn, 25). For the continued development of Breton, efforts in media and education must be backed by the government in order to be truly successful (Mogn, 28). The likelihood of government action in favor of this, however, seems low. This is especially true following the 2002 decision by the Consiel d’Etat that implicated the emersion method of teaching as being in direct conflict with the French constitution (Mogn, 27).

Will the Breton language make gains in its revival efforts in the coming years or will it collapse again? If France ratifies the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, of which it is currently only a signatory, efforts for the former will be made. However, if the French government continues to work against Breton in its policy actions the extinction of this endangered language is a prevalent threat.

Works Cited
"Breton." Endangered Language Alliance. Endangered Language Alliance, 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <>.

Kelly-Holmes, Helen. Minority Language Broadcasting: Breton and Irish. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2001. Print.

Mogn, Olier, and Mark Struijt. Breton: The Breton Language in Education in France. Ljouwert: Mercator-Education, 1998. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

Mogn, Olier Ar. "The Breton Language in Education in France." Mercator-Education (2003): 1-45. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

"Municipales : La Gauche Bretonne S'engage Pour La Langue Regionale." Le Telegramme. Le Telegramme, 22 July 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. <>.

The author of this blog entry is Gwendolyn Childers, a sophomore in Political Science at the University of Illinois. While at the University of Illinois, Gwendolyn is planning on double-minoring in Gender and Women’s Studies and Media and Cinema Studies. She wrote this text in the seminar PS 418, Language and Minorities in Europe.


I feel successive French Governments have done their citizens a disservice. The Breton language is an essential element of French culture, as are Corsican Catalan, Occitan, Alsatian, Gallo, Norman French, Flemish etc.
Forcing Ile de Paris French on everyone is like demanding all British people speak Cockney! Dwp iawn! as one would say in Welsh, a language that it's speakers have had to fight for but has the Government support and recognition that Breton rightly deserves.

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