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French Academy resists local language recognition

Article published on the 2008-06-18 Latest update 2008-06-19 08:09 TU

L'Académie Française, an institution which is seen as the custodian of the French language, fiercely opposes any recognition of regional languages in the constitution. While many European countries are trying to keep regional languages from dying out, the French academy sees them as a threat to national unity.

On Wednesday the French senate rejected plans to include recognition of regional languages in the constitution. The amendment was included in a law initially passed by the lower house of the French parliament.

France has a rich panorama of regional languages: 75 in total, from Breton in the Atlantic Northwest, to Occitan in the South, and Alsatian in areas which have been at times part of France or Germany.

Some of these languages live on in territories as far away as South America and the Indian Ocean. While they are seen by some as a proud cultural heritage, France's centralised institutions are sometimes at odds with champions of the country's many and varied regions.

The French parliament looks to be coming down on the side of regional champions, by deciding to take the historic step of recognising regional languages in the constitution.

But on Monday, the Académie Française issued a warning that this would be "an attack on French national identity". In turn, the venerable institution stands accused of being old-fashioned and nationalist by those seeking to protect regional tongues.

Up until 1930, one in four French people spoke a regional language with their parents, but this number has dropped dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, 5.5 million French people say that their parents communicate with them in a regional tongue.

On Tuesday, almost 6,000 students took regional language options for their Baccalauréat, France's final secondary school exam. Associations for the protection of Basque, Breton, Créole or Catalan have warned the Education Ministry that this part of the Bac is untouchable.

While there has been no official response from the ministry, the step of constitutional recognition is seen by these associations as a step in the right direction.

Minority languages have no legal status. Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, claims that they are dying out. While governments in countries like Ireland and Britain are giving incentives too keep these languages alive, some in France see them as a factor of social and cultural fracture.

Lobby groups have sprung up to counter this view, and now the proponents of Alsatian, Occitan and Breton, or even lesser-used languages such as Picard and Béarnaise, are singing the praises of their regional tongues. And it seems that their voices are being heard.