Classes to revive mother tongue

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
Jersey parents are to be consulted on whether their children should be taught Jerriais. Andrew Mourant reports. Jersey primary schoolchildren may learn their island's native tongue as a campaign mounts to save the 1,000-year-old language.

Jerriais - also known as Jersey French - was once considered as a peasant language, unfit to be spoken. The language is spoken mostly behind closed doors, within families. In 1989, a census recorded 5,700 Jerriais speakers, mainly elderly and living in rural parishes. But Angela Le Pavoux, a founder member of the Societe Jerriais' Norman-French section, fears the numbers may now have halved.

Mrs Le Pavoux, a physics teacher, said: "My father is fluent but my mother forbade him to speak it in front of me. I had elocution lessons from the age of seven to get rid of my strong Jersey accent."

During the Second World War, Jerriais speakers bamboozled the occupying German troops with their apparently incomprehensible language. But it was increasingly frowned on in peacetime as tourism and the finance industry made Jersey more cosmopolitan.

While Jerriais remains the first language of a few thousand people, every indigenous Jersey inhabitant speaks English. Many underwent elocution lessons in the 1960s to get rid of the accent.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, was brought up in Jersey and remembers Jerriais being considered a bit of a joke. "People who spoke it were regarded as country bumpkins," he said. "I don't feel strongly about it - we didn't speak it at home."

Although the Assembliee d'Jerriais was founded more than 40 years ago to uphold the language, interest in the island's culture and language has only swelled recently. "We saw a resurgence last year when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of liberation. We had lost our own identity, but now I think people are fairly proud of it," said Mrs Le Pavoux.

Jerriais is among the most fragile of languages - "on the bottom rung" Mrs le Pavoux says, having attended the first European conference for speakers of minority languages which drew delegates from Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Brittany, Friesland, Germany and the Basque country. There are, for example, 500,000 Welsh speakers, and more than 300,000 Dutch for whom Frisian is the mother tongue.

The campaign for Jerriais to be introduced into primary schools is being led by senator Jean le Maistre whose father, Dr Frank le Maistre, spent 25 years compiling the Dictionnaire Jerriais-Francais.

Senator le Maistre believes that Jerriais should be passed on to future generations. Yet neither his wife nor his children are speakers. "A language is either maintained or killed by the women folk, and over the years girls in particular were told not to speak it," he said.

"If you introduce children to a second language at an early age, there is great potential for introducing a third, a fourth and a fifth."

Jersey's education department is to contact parents of all primary age children asking for their views. Meanwhile, since the department reduced fees, numbers enrolling at evening class for the Jerriais beginners class have risen from nine to 36.

Few know the subtleties of Jerriais better than teacher Joan Tupley, who teaches intermediate and advanced students. "Accents used to differ throughout the island," she said. "You could tell which hamlet people came from."

In the early 1900s when Jerriais was widely spoken, there were signs of it being persecuted. When Mrs Tupley's mother, now 87, was a girl, she was under orders not to speak it within sound of the school.

Jerriais enthusiasts have drawn strength from the renaissance of Manx. When Ned Maddrell, the last surviving native Manx speaker, died in 1974 aged 97, the language was facing extinction. But thanks to devotees such as Brian Stowell, recently retired as the Isle of Man's first languages co-ordinator, 1,000 schoolchildren on the island now study Manx. Next year, a syllabus to GCSE level will be introduced.

In modern times, Jerriais has been kept alive by Eisteddfods, occasional publications and the likes of Mrs Tupley who has produced nursery rhymes in Jerriais. But the future of this ancient language may lie on the Internet, which is where it is heading shortly.

"Children will play with the computer but won't necessarily look at a book, " said Mrs Le Pavoux. "The conference at Cardiff showed us what other languages had done and how far behind we are - the Frisians have games on CD-Rom. "

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