Since the 20th century

In Wales

* In Wales, ...

At the beginning of the 20th century, Ambrose Jones contributed towards the revival of the Welsh literature by emphasising the existence of Welsh high quality prose since centuries. He was one of the founders of the Welsh nationalism and recognized the language as an important part of the mentality of people.

After the First World War, people gave up Welsh language in the familial circle, and some children, whose parents spoke Welsh, were educated in English. An explanation was the assimilation of the Welsh with an inferior society. To escape this label, some people wanted to “become English“.

In 1925, the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, was founded by John Saunders Lewis. The party fought for the recognition by the English parties that Wales has its own problems and needs which are not always the ones of England . It also worked to improve the condition of Welsh language in the country.

In 1942, the Welsh Court Act allowed Welsh to be used in court. Before that, only English could be used. However the Welsh language had deteriorated and the number of people able to speak it had decreased, especially in industrial areas and near the English border. It was then necessary to act to reintroduce Welsh in schools. Two years later, the Education Act permitted local authorities to open Welsh-medium schools.

In 1947, under the pressure of parents, the first Welsh-medium school opened in Llanelli and in 1957 a first bilingual secondary school opened in Rhyl. In 1988, the Welsh language had to be taught in all the schools of Wales.

In 1962, the Welsh Language Society, “Cymdeithas Yr laith Gymraeg” was founded. It is one of the many strong movements fighting for the rights of the Welsh language. Its actions especially led to the Welsh Language Act in 1967 which was modified in 1993. This Act declares that public bodies have to treat Welsh and English equally when they provide services for the public. It gave the Welsh speaker the right to use Welsh in court. And finally, it established a Welsh Language Board which has to ensure that public bodies keep within the law and it promotes and facilitates the use of Welsh.

In 1975, the television channel “S4C” (Sianel 4 Cymru) was created. It offers programmes in Welsh for children, young people and adults.

In 1999, another big step was taken for Wales with the election of a 60-member National Assembly.

Who speaks Welsh?

In 1891, 54% of the population was Welsh-speaking. In 1911, nearly a million people said they were able to speak Welsh. But since this census, the number of Welsh-speakers gradually decreased until 2001, for different reasons: movements of population from rural to industrial areas, the use of English through media and leisure, a decline of people going to chapel, which was a centre of many traditional Welsh-medium activities.

In 1991, however, more than 500,000 people (18.7% of the population) were Welsh-speakers and the number and percentage of young people had increased. For example, in 1981, 17.8% of 5 to 9 year old children spoke Welsh wheras in 1991 the figure was 24.7% . The same increase was seen with adolescents. (sources :

This increase can be explained by the choice of many parents (Welsh-speakers or not) to send their children to a Welsh-medium school which made them totally bilingual.

During the school year 2000-2001, more than 25% of schoolchildren went to one of the 440 Welsh-medium schools, most of them coming from non-Welsh-speaking families. Out of 229 secondary schools in Wales , 72 teach Welsh as a first or second language while the other 157 teach it as a second language.

Economically, many businesses realised that bilingualism is useful and used it to increase the quality of their customers’ services, attract new customers and have an advantage over their non-bilingual competitors for some markets. Some companies, like Cwmni Iaith Cyf, can advise them how to use Welsh in marketing and they also offer translation services.

In Brittany

* In Brittany...

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Breton language was again in fashion in cultural, political and philosophical fields, and people tried to separated it from the Church. However, schools, the army and the movement of population to industrial areas did not help and French was more and more used. In 1923, every language but French was forbidden on the radio. In 1925, Anatole de Monzic, the minister of public instruction said that for the Unity of France, the Breton language had to disappear.

Some Breton political parties became more radical and used violence to make their claims heard. The collaboration of a tiny part of the Breton movement with the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War was used to discredit all the political and cultural patriotic movements until the sixties.

Some Breton intellectuals, like Roparz Hémon (1900-1978) published high quality magazines. Unfortunately, the Bretons found it more and more difficult to read and write the language and literary Breton discourage others. In every day life, it became a handicap not to be able to speak French. Feelings of shame and inferiority developed. Some parents decided then to educate their children in French (this tendency grew after the Second World War) and the Breton was again in decline.

In 1941, the government of Vichy removed the department of Loire-Atlantique from Brittany . At the same time, it promoted the Breton culture by encouraging regionalism, without supplying the resources needed. The same year, a common “unified” spelling was established. This can be used by the four dialects of the Breton language (Cornouaille, Tregor , Leon and Vannetais) because it considers the most important characteristics of each dialect.

In 1951, the Dexionne law allowed Breton to be taught in schools if the children and the teacher are volunteers. But the Breton language had deteriorated through lack of teaching over a number of years and it was necessary to enrich the language to avoid the use of French words. It was necessary to turn again to other Celtic languages, to look for old words and to create new words.

In 1977, the first primary Breton-medium school, organised by Diwan (the germ) was opened in Plourin-Ploudalmezeau. Three years later, thirteen of these schools existed. In 1981, the president of the French Republic , François Mitterrand, allowed the creation of a Breton licence in Rennes and Brest universities. But it was only in 1985, that CAPES in Breton (teacher training) was established. In 1983, bilingual schools were opened. The teaching of Breton in schools made necessary the creation and publication of books. Breton also began to appear on road signs.

In 1992, the Council of Europe adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The same year, a new article 2 was added to the French Constitution stating that the language of the Republic was French. On 24 September 1996 , the State Council declared that the recognition of the regional languages was unconstitutional.

In 1999 a Breton language office (Ofis Ar Brezhoneg) was created to adapt the language to the actual world, study its evolution and try to unify it.

Who speaks Breton today?

We call Basse-Bretagne, the west part of Brittany , the original Breton speaking area. About 1.5 million people live there. At the end of the 20th century, in Basse-Bretagne, an estimate based on a poll shows:

  • There were 240 000 Breton-speakers over 15 years old (16% of the people).
  • Less than 120 000 people used it regularly.
  • Less than 70 000 people used it every day.
  • 20 000 people declared that they were able to easily read and write in Breton.
  • The number of Breton-speakers under 20 was still insignificant.
  • 2/3 of Breton-speakers were over 60.

(Source: poll of the “TMO-Régions” institute in 1997)

In 1863, 86% of the people were monoglot Breton speakers. This number was of 60% in 1902. In 1952, 67% of people are bilingual. In 1997, 84% of people can only speak French. (Source: catalogue of the touring exhibition “Parlons du Breton” (Speak about Breton)

Whilst the majority of people understood only Breton in the middle of the 19th century, they do not understand it at all at the end of the 20th century. In less than 150 years, the tendency has been totally reversed.

Today most people are not born Breton-speaking, but they can learn the language. The lack of a support structure favoured the abandonment of Breton in the family circle during the last century. The grand-parents spoke Breton, the grandchildren speak French. However, the Breton culture is still inside them and more and more want to retrieve the roots which have been taken from them and regain the right to their and their ancestors’ culture. There is not the same interest in the Gallo, which has been the language of Haute-Bretagne for centuries.

During the school year 1999-2000, in total 20245 children studied Breton in Brittany, ranging from initiation (one hour a week) to total immersion in the language. The Diwan schools are 100% Breton-medium schools. A few state schools and private Roman-Catholic schools offer bilingual classes - half Breton, half French. "Div Yezh" and "Dihun" are societies raised up by parents of respectively bilingual state classes and bilingual private Roman-Catholic classes.

As the number of children going to bilingual or Diwan schools grows, the global number of children studying Breton decreases, especially in initiation classes. Some schools are even deciding to close this option.

The schools teaching Breton (like those teaching other regional languages) are confronted by a lack of bilingual teachers and too often have to use supply teachers. It is necessary to have more posts in the CAPES and in the concurs recruiting teachers for private schools.

It is sometimes difficult to establish classes in Breton due to various reasons like lack of students, lack of teachers or the refusal of permission to open classes and the National Education system plays a weak role in the encouragement of bilingualism. This task is essentially left to societies, which do not have the resources of the National Education system. Positive support and promotion of its benefits would alert new parents to the importance of regional languages.

It is vital to return Breton to everyday life, allowing those who speak it and are learning it to practice and hear it. Bilingual road signs are now developed, some banks offer cheques in Breton and some Breton programmes are heard on the radio and television but unfortunately they are very few compared to those in French. Involved societies, although very active, can not cover all fields and the State has to play a part, starting by the recognition of the regional languages and the ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

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