Kanak languages at school in New Caledonia: a long process

Posted by Jacques Vernaudon on September 30, 2011

By Jacques Vernaudon, senior lecturer in Oceanic linguistics, University of New Caledonia.

New Caledonia / Photo : Sekundo (cc)

New Caledonia counts around thirty vernaculars, the Kanak languages, spoken by a total of some 70,000 people, according to the 2009 census (total population: 245,580). The greater ones are spoken by a few thousand people, the smaller by under a hundred.

They all belong to the Austronesian language family, one of the largest language families in the world, including 1,000 to 1,200 languages. These languages stem from one and the same Mother language believed to have been spoken over 5,500 years ago on the southern coasts of China and Taiwan. From this migration source, the first speakers first populated the Southeast Asian islands and peninsulas before continuing their expansion all the way to Madagascar in the West, and to most of the Pacific islands in the East. Nevertheless, in spite of their common origin, the Kanak languages remain very diverse in respect to either vocabulary, sound, or grammar.

Belated recognition

Long underrated, threatened with extinction when severe depopulation followed the first encounters with the Western world in the 18th century, the Kanak languages have been formally banned from the education system from the beginning of the colonization up to 1984. Not until a movement for the political emancipation of indigenous populations emerged at the end of the 20th century did they eventually fall under gradual institutional recognition.

Now recognized as “languages of education and culture” (1999 New Caledonia organic law), they entered the public primary school programs voted in 2005 by the Congress of New Caledonia.

Yet despite available resources the implementation of these courses and their supervision still suffer numerous factors of inertness, mainly due to:
- the structural complexity of the Caledonian education system,

- ideological resistance: the teaching of Kanak being opposed to a priority to teach French “first and foremost”, sometimes even English.

- repression of the Caledonian plurilingual reality, whose loose representation may explain certain attitudes, whether at family, teaching staff or authority level.

Kanak languages at pre-school

In 2010, out of the ca. 9,500 pupils attending pre-school on the archipelago, 2,000 (21%) received instruction of/in Kanak language and culture (LCK). This instruction is delivered at the rate of 5 hours per week, within school time, and effective in 14 languages, depending where the school is located.

The LCK classes are open upon parental request to all pupils regardless of their origins. Profiles of the children registered in the LCK classes vary: some, smaller in number, are native monolinguals of the taught Kanak language; others are raised in bilingual settings where the taught Kanak (or related) language is part of their daily life alongside French; and others, predominant in the urban context, only speak French (or a local variant).

So far educational authorities have yet to approve having this instruction extended beyond pre-school.

Obstacles to clear

Three parameters define the supply in LCK education:

- family demand (sociological surveys reveal it is relatively significant),

- willingness on the part of provincial political and educational authorities (New Caledonia is divided into three provinces, each with its own executive),

- the availabilities of qualified speaker-educators.

To address this last issue, a specific examination for primary school teachers, including tests in Kanak language, was created in March 2006. But the influx of successful candidates is unfortunately too weak (approximately two a year), the most selective subjects remaining math and French. Alternative devices (recruiting of external speaker-contributors, in-service training oftenured speaker-educators, etc.) have been created since to fill in the gaps.

First outcomes

Assessments carried out so far return the verdict of a positive impact on the local languages, bearing no negative effect on the command of French, and with possible positive cross-over effects towards French (Click here for further information).

Such results can only be obtained under certain conditions: the teaching of Kanak languages ought to be led in full coordination with that of French. Awareness must be raised among families and educational teams so they can approve bilingual systems. The training and support of educators, finally, is essential.

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Celtic languages – from decline to revival?

Posted by James Costa on September 23, 2011

By James Costa, Research Associate, French Institute for Education, Lyon École Nationale Supérieure.

celtic cross - Photo : Antonio Acuna (cc)

The languages known as Celtic, gathering Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton, belong to the Indo-European language family. They form their own grouping, distinct from the Romance, Germanic or Slavic languages. Only one of them is a national language (in competition with English); all of them are considered as “endangered”, particularly by Unesco. Alongside their last speakers, here is an entire group of languages that could well disappear as language of communication before the end of the century.

Origins under debate

Much has been written on the Celtic languages and it is difficult to figure out exactly where they come from.

They have fuelled the imaginations of a number of poets, novelists and linguists since 1707, when Edward Lhuyd, a Welsh naturalist with a passion for ancient history, noticed similarities between, on one side, the languages of Brittany, Wales and Cornwall – Brythonic languages – and on the other, the languages of Ireland and the Isle of Man – Gaelic languages.

Lhuyd also linked these languages to Welsh and identified them as “Celtic”, after the Greek name given to the different peoples who had dominated Europe centuries prior.

Ancient authors are the first to mention the presence of the Celts (keltoï in Greek) over a large portion of Ancient Europe, though they do not specify where they originally came from.

Archaeologists lead further back in time, retracing the sources and migrations of the Celts from Central Europe as early as the 7th century B.C. (the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures).

However, this hypothesis is now being challenged by recent studies combining archaeology, linguistics, and genetics, which suggest origins located in today’s Portugal, as well as a conquest of Europe by the Atlantic coast.

At this point in research, therefore, no one can declare for certain which was or were the original sources of modern Celtic languages.

Yielding before Rome in the South, the Germanic in the East and North

Nevertheless, these languages, testified by countless toponyms in a large part of Western Europe, were gradually replaced by varieties of Latin in Gaul, Iberia and northern Italy, and by Germanic idioms in Germany, Switzerland and even the Isle of Brittany (today’s Great Britain), where the use of English kept increasing throughout the Middle Ages.

Thus the variety of Breton spoken in the Kingdom of Strathclyde (South of today’s Scotland) yielded before English around the 12th century. In the Southwest of today’s Great Britain, the latest speaker of Cornish is known to have lived in the 18th century.

Left unconquered by Rome, Ireland remained a monolingual Celtic speaker up to the first Norman forays of the 13th century, even though the monks did speak Latin.

Ireland was also the starting point of a gaelicization movement across Scotland in the 3rd and 4th centuries, which led to the local extinction of Pictish, permanently replaced by Gaelic in the 12th century.

The Welsh exception

Languages of the farmers and fishermen, and later that of miners in Wales, the “Celtic” languages have been constantly ostracised over the centuries: according to the conceptions of economically dominant groups in Western Europe, the Celtic languages were associated with poverty and a lifestyle deemed as outdated.

The case of Welsh is the only exception in such a context: the year of 1588 witnessed the publication of Bible translated into Welsh – a Bible that still happens to be in use today in various chapels across Wales. If Welsh was the language of God, it could also be the language of Man!

motif celtique - Photo : Bert23 (cc)

From 19th century Celtomania to the 1960s revival

By the end of the 19th century, from Brittany to Scotland, the emergence of an indigenous cultural elite generated movements of cultural demand centred on the very use of these languages. These demands usually encountered the requirements of the growing modern Nation States, originally designed to be monolingual.

The 1960s carried a revival of local cultures worldwide, and various linguistic movements struggled to raise awareness towards the global span of these cultures, and the dignity of these languages.


Now at the dawn of the 21st century, Breton is spoken by fewer than 200,000 people. A census led in the Republic of Ireland reports that about 1,5 million people are believed to speak Irish, although in fact, the language could be spoken by less than 10,000 people. Scottish Gaelic is used by some 55,000 people.

The status of Cornish and Manx is unusual:

- the use of Cornish came to an end in the 18th century, although nowadays about 2,200 people speak a variant of Cornish that was reconstructed from medieval texts during the 20th century;

- Manx has been recorded with its last “traditional” speakers: it is now back in use on the Isle of Man, and considered official by the local government.

There again, Welsh seems the only one to be avoiding the momentum of decline: for the first time in a hundred years, the number of people who declared speaking Welsh in a 2001 census was on the increase, and exceeded 600,000 people. A turnaround due to the very strong pressure upheld by activists in the course of the past decades, thanks to which Welsh is now widely present in all sectors of public life; in the media and school as in administration.

Although maybe not as prominently, the revival is also discernible in other Celtic countries and beyond, in North America and Australia. Celtic languages, for the most, are no longer mere languages of common communication outside home – they now have other grounds to express themselves on, identity is one of them.

Further into the subject

Abalain, H. (1989). Destin des langues celtiques. Gap: Ophrys.

Crystal, D. (2005). Revitalizing the Celtic Languages. Paper presented at the XI Annual Conference of the North American Association for Celtic Language Teachers. Retrieved from http://www.davidcrystal.com/DC_articles/Langdeath2.pdf

Dorian, N. C. (1981). Language Death : the Life Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Filippula, M., Klemola, J., & Paulasto, H. (2008). English and Celtic in Contact. New York & Abingdon: Routledge.

McLeod, W. (Ed.). (2006). Revitalising Gaelic in Scotland. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press.

On the origins of the Celtic languages

Cunliffe, B, & Koch, J. (2010) Celtic from the West. Oxford: Oxbow.

Learning Celtic languages

Costa-Lynch, J. (2005). Le gallois de poche. Paris: Assimil.

Press, I., & Le Bihan, H. (2003). Colloquial Breton. London & New York: Routledge.

Taylor, I., & Robertson, B. (2003). Teach Yourself Gaelic. London: Teach Yourself.

Le Bihan, H., Denis, G., & Ménard, M. (2009). Le breton pour les nuls. Paris: First.

Ó Sé, D. & Sheils, D. Teach Yourself Irish. London: Teach Yourself.

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Finding a place for Occitan in the French Republic

Posted by Marie Jeanne Verny on September 15, 2011

By Marie Jeanne Verny, lecturer at the University of Paul Valéry, in Montpellier, France, and FELCO secretary (Fédération des Enseignants de la Langue et Culture d’Oc – “Federation of the educators of Oc language and culture”).

Carte linguistique de l'occitan

What is Occitan?

Occitan, also known as langue d’Oc, is spoken over eight regions of southern France (one third of the country), as well as in 12 valleys of the Italian Alps and in the Val d’Aran, Spain.
The number of speakers is usually estimated between 1 and 2 million, although many more actually understand Occitan.
The language has different variations, which do not prevent communication or the sharing of cultural creation.

French vs. Occitan

Occitan was attested in the 10th century, and rapidly became the language of literary creation and that of administration.

But the langue d’Oc soon had to face French, a langue d’Oïl in the northern part of the country: a mere symbol of royal power at first, French eventually became the official language, that of the elite, in the course of the 16th century.

Massive schooling at the end of the 19th century imposed French as a language of communication and led to cut off the transmission of the langue d’Oc within the family circle. While the language did remain the main language of daily communication for the working classes until the dawn of the 20th century, it appeared quite normal, then, including to those concerned, that social promotion implied school, French, and thus, the repression of a dialect associated to working-class origins.

This context of massive conversion to French in the Occitan population lasted throughout the entire 20th century. Some deemed this conversion to be mechanically and ideally deliberate, yet in fact it sheltered a complex phenomenon of social self-depreciation.

Early stages of a formal recognition within the education system

Since the 1950s, Occitan is beginning to receive some degree of public recognition, particularly in the education spheres.
The Deixonne law of 1951 gingerly opened the way for Occitan to enter education, and the way gradually became larger: optional introduction classes, bilingual classes on a parity basis with public education, private associative schools – known as calandretas. First steps in the training of teachers at university, a secondary school teaching qualification in Occitan, and a specific examination for school teachers have also been established since. Occitan is now studied by tens of thousands of students from nursery school to university. And the number of job offers requiring a decent command of the language currently exceeds the number of graduates!

A change in mentality

Since the end of World War II, as the transmission within families gradually faded, major changes have occurred in the representations of the language – linguistic surveys show that a small yet sizeable proportion of the population remains faithful to Occitan.

The term Patois [used as “lingo”], while still employed to refer to the language, is slowly being given up in favour of the very term Occitan, or more limited yet underogatory geographical terms (Béarnese or Provençal for instance, which are variants of the langue d’Oc).

Likewise, the gradual diffusion of a graphic system common to all the geographical varieties contributed to support and strengthen the idea that Occitan, in its diversity, could stand as a language “like any other”.

Sustaining revival

In the wake of this change of mindset, new conducts have appeared and keep developing, such as bilingual signalling systems or the use of Occitan in public events, formal or unformal.

The emergence of an original form of literature is also being observed, in which the age-old tradition of poetry finds itself carried by a wealth of published prose (Max Rouquette, Bernard Manciet, Marcelle Delpastre, etc.). The same goes for a modernising musical creation: 70s and 80s “nouvelle chanson”, recent bands such as Massilia or Fabulous Troubadors…

Even more recently, Occitan has forcefully entered the Internet with an abundance of specialized websites, blogs, and message boards where users, young ones for the most, use Occitan as a language of expression.

Nevertheless, such demonstrations of a favourable feeling, active or passive, towards the Occitan language and culture, should not hide the remaining obstacles: the standstill in family transmission, the absence of social visibility, the absence of formal recognition, and the lack of pro-active policies in favour of the language make it difficult to envision an genuine trend reversal.

There is no denying that despite significant legal provision (UNESCO convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions, EU resolution in favour of regional languages, article no. 75-1 of the French constitution, etc.), France still has a hard time measuring the effective cultural wealth of its plurilingualism and that of its creative potential. Thus are the other languages of the country thought of and pointed out, at best, as a merely emotional extra touch of soul, at worst, as an impediment to national unity and/or republican construction. Hence the emergency to adapt legislation by drafting a law, that has been promised on several occasions.

Photo : Georges Souche (http://georges-souche.com/)

Photo : Georges Souche (http://georges-souche.com/)

Learn more about Occitan on our website.

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From West Africa to the Antilles, dynamic Portuguese Creoles

Posted by Nicolas Quint on September 8, 2011

Nicolas Quint is a Research Director in African linguistic at the CNRS (LLACAN lab – Speech, Languages and Cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa, INALCO/CNRS). He has been working on Afro-Portuguese Creoles (Cape Verdean, Casamance Creole and Papiamento) since 1995, and has produced dozens of publications on the subject.

Nicolas Quint

From one side of the Atlantic to the other, lay a group of Portuguese-based Creoles that are present in three countries of West Africa (Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Senegal) and in the Netherlands Antilles. These Creoles are genetically related, in spite of the geographic distance, and they are known together as the UGC (Upper Guinea Creoles).

Which are these Creoles?

The UGC gather into three main groups:

Cape Verdean Creole, spoken as a mother tongue by about a million people across the planet, 500,000 of which in Cape Verde, and the rest of them in the diaspora. Cape Verdean itself divides into two dialectal groups: the Barlavento Creoles, spoken in the North islands of the Cape Verde archipelago, and the Sotavento Creoles, spoken in the South.

The Afro-Portuguese Creoles known as “continental”, that is:

- Guinea-Bissau Creole, main trade language of Guinea Bissau, with over a million speakers including at least 500,000 native speakers,

- Casamance Creole, spoken in the region of Ziguinchor, Senegal, by dozens of thousands of people,

- the Creole local dialects of the Petite Côte, in Senegal – Joal, Saly-Portudal, and Rufisque – nowadays all extinct.

Papiamento, an Afro-Iberian Creole spoken by some 300,000 people in the Netherlands Antilles (ABC Islands = Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao).


From western Africa to the Antilles, related Creoles

The linguistic proximity between Cape Verdean and the continental Creoles is so strong that mutual understanding remains essentially effective, especially between Cape Verdean of the South and Guinea-Bissau Creole.

As for contemporary Papiamento, although it involves now dominant Spanish elements, recent comparative studies have shown similarities with Cape Verdean and the continental Creoles that are so numerous and specific that there is no reasonable way of considering them to be coincidental.

Thus in all likelihood, these Creole do have a common origin, a Mother-language (West Africa Proto-Creole) which probably developed in the course of the 15th century in West Africa, with the first contacts between the Portuguese navigators and the African populations. The existence of this Mother-language is the only way of explaining the numerous points the UGC have in common, whether they be spoken in West Africa or in the Antilles.

Hence the word for dark/darkness is sukuru in Cape Verdean as well as in the continental Creoles, and sukú in Papiamento. These three forms are most likely to be explained by the existence of one and the same original form, SUKURU (at the West Africa Proto-Creole stage), deriving itself from Renaissance Portuguese escuro, dark.

What does the future hold for these Creoles?

Most of the UGC are fine nowadays:

- Cape Verdean and Papiamento are being massively handed down to the children of the areas they are spoken in. In both linguistic areas, Creole is the language of the street, bars, parties, it is the language which local music bands usually sing in – they do not seem endangered for the time being.

- Guinea Bissau Creole is expanding significantly, at the expense of the Atlantic and Mandaic African languages spoken over the country.

Casamance Creole faces a more alarming situation, however. It is still alive yet greatly rivalled by Wolof, Mandinka, and French.

Whatever their current situations are, all the UGC are under threat on the long term: outside Papiamento, widely used in the daily local press, these languages remain scarcely used in writing.

They’re also widely absent of education systems in the relevant areas, using other languages in education: Portuguese in Cape Verde, French in Senegal, and Dutch in the Netherlands Antilles.

In Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, where Portuguese is the official language, we’ve observed a growing incorporation of Portuguese elements into the local Creoles, which could eventually lead to a gradual takeover of these Creoles by the Portuguese language.

However, local authorities of the different countries tend to be ever-more openly taking the cultural reality of Creole into account: in Cape Verde, a formal spelling system was recently voted in Parliament, and the first master’s degree in Cape Verdean language was launched by the University of Cape Verde in the fall of 2010. On the Antillean side, in 2003, the government of Aruba granted Papiamento with an official status, on par with English and Dutch.

So many encouraging signs that herald a promising future for the Afro-Portuguese Creoles of West Africa…

Learn more about Portuguese-based Creole  languages on our website.

Read Bart Jacobs’ article “Papiamentu, healthy Creole”.

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