Is it worthwhile to save regional languages? part II
Should Breton, Cornish, Hakka and other "regional" languages be saved? I believe that that question can only be answered by its speakers. If a collective group is willing to be persistent in speaking its language, while making it suitable for the times, then it will survive and should survive.However, this tells us what will happen, not what should.
I think there's a strong analogy between cultures maintaining their own distinct language and children growing up bilingual. In the past, in the U.S., both educators and parents discouraged immigrant children from speaking their old language, encouraging them to instead learn the dominant English. Most of them did. Today, many parents and educators consider it a positive for children to grow up bilingual, and some of them do. But a lot of them don't. It's the same with minority languages: Whether you're talking about a person or a culture, maintaining a separate language from the one in common use is a lot of effort. Government policies and adult pressure are sufficient to stifle the maintaining of multiple languages because it's just one more element to discourage a child or a people from doing something that can be intrinsically difficult. However, encouragements don't remove the inherent difficulties of maintaining two languages; at most they smooth the path for something that is still going to require some serious work. If the child of immigrant parents discovers they know English well enough that he doesn't have to use the home language to communicate with them anymore, the odds of his remaining bilingual plummet. The child was maintaining the language before because it was necessary to maintain a link to family. Things change when that necessity is gone. It is the same, I suspect, with minority languages: Not only must the culture be of sufficient value for people to maintain their ties to it, but the situation must be such that you can only truly be a part of that minority culture if you speak the language.
If you ask me if it is worthwhile to learn Breton, I would have to answer yes and no. Yes, because I am learning it - which means I must see some value in the effort - and no, because I am not learning it with the urgency of say, a Mandarin learner who knows he's going to Beijing next month. Breton connects me to a place that I adored when I lived there and gives me another point of access to Celtic and Arthurian lore of which I've already read in Middle English and Old French. These are motivations for one person to fuss around with something in his free time. They are not sufficient to sustain a civilization.
Is it worth it for a child to learn Breton if his schooling is in French, the shopkeepers in his town speak French, his television programs are in French and his parents, though native speakers of Breton, have learned enough French to go out into the larger world in their region? It's not a decision to be made by government ministers and sociology professors. The decision will be made by little boys and girls whose first thoughts are of who will get to the swing sets first at recess and whether there will be galettes for dinner tonight.
There are things that governments and sociology professors can do to make it easier for children to grow up in a Breton speaking world and to not leave. But these are limited. They can open up Breton schools, subsidize Breton movies, music and television programs and even give tax rebates to stores that conduct their business in Breton. But they cannot undo the effects of government efforts to destroy Breton in the past. Unless the Breton people can recreate a culture - now almost lost - that is vibrant and attractive enough for people to cleave to and for which the Breton language is the main access point, the odds for the language aren't good, fair or unfair though this might be.
I spent the first part of the week out east in meetings for the organization I work for. In one seminar, the speaker made the point that people don't buy products and services, they buy solutions. In my business, that means that people may show up with the perception they're buying language lessons. But what they're really looking for is the solution to the problem that they're going someplace where they don't know how to talk to anybody. When it comes to minority languages, the question is: What problems do they solve? What do they provide to their speakers that would otherwise be lost? If the speakers of Breton, or Welsh or Irish or any other minority language can find enough value in the extra bond that provides to a unique and special culture, the language has a chance at survival. But if efforts are made to maintain a language simply for the sake of maintaining it, or because outsiders are trying to make up for earlier actions that eroded the value of maintaining it for too long, that language's prospects are pretty dim.