Mesdames, mesd’mouaiselles, mêssieux, bouônjour. Man nom est Touènne et j’sis ichîn pouor vos prêchi un mio entouor l’Jèrriais et comme tchi qu’j’sommes à tâchi dé l’garder en vie et dé l’présérver pouor l’av’nîn.
Ladies and gentlemen, I thought that I should start by using a language that is not normally heard in England!
I am here to tell you something about Jèrriais and how we are working with the technology at our disposal to keep it alive.
Firstly I should declare that I am a practitioner in the maintenance of one specific language which is severely endangered, rather than an academic. I’d like to thank Mari for encouraging me to present a paper and for saying that I probably wouldn’t be eaten by this audience! I hope that what I have to offer in this short presentation may give you some insights that will be useful.
I’ve already mentioned the name of the language, Jèrriais, but I had better locate it on the map. I recently hosted a researcher from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City who told me that when she explained to fellow students that she was studying Jèrriais, the language of Jersey, they wanted to know what the differences were between it and the language spoken in neighbouring New York. She was forced to explain that she was talking about Jersey, and not New Jersey!
My Island which gave its name to the eastern seaboard state is located in the Bay of St. Malo, around 85 miles south of the South Coast of England but only 14 miles from the French coast – in fact, from my house on any reasonably clear night, I can see the lights of the Normandy town of Agon-Coutainville. As well as the island of Jersey, the bailiwick includes two groups of small islands that are not permanently inhabited, and other rocks and reefs. The Island is about nine miles (15 kilometres) long and 5 miles (8 kilometres) wide. The population in 2009 stood at 97,857. Jersey is a self-governing parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch, and has its own financial, legal and judicial systems. The main industries are as British comedian Jimmy Carr can testify, finance, and a long way behind, tourism and agriculture.
Although they are often referred to collectively as ‘the Channel Islands’, the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey are not a constitutional or political unit. Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands, and has a separate relationship to the British Crown from the other Crown Dependencies of Guernsey and the Isle of Man. It is not part of the United Kingdom, but the UK is constitutionally responsible for the defence of Jersey. Despite the title on our passports, we are not a part of the European Union but we have a special relationship with it.
The geographical location of the island and the intertwined histories of Britain and France gives us hints as to the linguistic history of the Island.
Jersey and the other islands were absorbed into Normandy in 933AD, and there may well have been a rapid change from Celtic to Romance speaking at this time.
In 1066 Duke William the Bastard led his aristocracy from all over the duchy in the greatest military operation of the era – and Jerseymen therefore claim to have been on the winning side at Hastings, so England belongs to us and not the other way round! And of course our duke, William the Bastard is now better known as the English king William the Conqueror.
Normandy was conquered by the increasingly-powerful French around 1204 but the islands remained faithful to the crown and became frontier outposts for Britain, gaining special privileges in return.
For the next few hundred years, Jersey was bilingually stable, with its geographical isolation from England and regular contact with Normandy, despite the restrictions which the authorities tried to place on it. Jèrriais, the language of home and hearth, farming and fishing, and French for law, church and chapel were the dominant languages in use, with English being a much more rarely used medium.
Following Napoleon’s defeat in the early nineteenth century, a large body of British immigrants arrived – attracted by both the climate and the low cost of living, the reverse of the present day. Local people who had dealings with them were expected to use English as the sons of the British Empire were certainly not going to learn the local tongue and from this time the English influence on Jèrriais also increased.
In the twentieth century, change continued apace. Children were actively discouraged from speaking their own language and punishments were administered for those caught doing so. Under increasing social pressure, family and place names were anglicised. English swept aside both Jèrriais and French from their traditional domains.
The biggest blow to the survival of the language was the evacuation of 30% of the population – including more than 1000 of the island’s schoolchildren ahead of the German occupation of Jersey in 1940. Jèrriais was used by some of those who remained behind as a secret language, incomprehensible to the invaders. The German military even brought in interpreters from Paris, who were equally unable to understand the spoken language.
However, in 1945 the returning evacuees, having experienced five years of British education, with many younger children now speaking with Yorkshire or Scottish accents, saw little need to keep the language alive. There was a feeling that it was best to use English, the language of Liberation – and that Jèrriais was just for peasants.
When I was in France a couple of weeks ago, a fairly elderly Frenchman approached me as he was interested in the sticker in the rear window of my car – “Jé l’fais mus en Jèrriais” (I do it better in Jèrriais – I won’t say what IT is). He told me that when he was at school, his teacher organised a group visit to Jersey, and that they had stayed on a farm where they slept in the barn. Almost everyone in the countryside spoke Jèrriais, but townspeople mostly spoke English. I had to tell him that if he re-visited the Island today, he would find a very different picture.
According to the 1989 census, the first to ask questions on language, 5720 people out of a population of 82,000 spoke Jèrriais. By 2001 this had dropped to just over 2,700 or 3.18%.. Even more worrying is the fact that the number of regular speakers had crashed to just 113. The good news was that the proportion of young speakers had risen significantly as a result of a teaching programme which we introduced in 1999. It seems that the population of speakers is now so low that we don’t even register on the new Google Endangered Languages List! Though, annoyingly, the language of our sister island, Dgèrnésiais, which has perhaps 500 speakers now does make the list…
Sadly the 2011 census did not include any language questions, but there will be a more detailed survey for Jèrriais undertaken this year, when Jersey’s annual social survey takes place, asking a representative sample much more detailed questions. The Jersey Statistics Unit currently estimate that we still have 2000 native speakers but they are unable to estimate how many of those who have been through the various teaching programmes would also include themselves as Jèrriais speakers of varying standards.
The decline in the use of Jèrriais had been noted for many years. In 1943, Arthur Balleine, who had made his money in the petro-chemical industry, died in Jersey, leaving a legacy for the promotion and preservation of his native tongue – this became known as Le Don Balleine, the Balleine Gift. The first object of the administrators was the publication of a massive Dictionnaire Jersiais Français in 1965. It was followed by a steady stream of other books and also recordings by some of the best speakers of Jèrriais. In more recent times, Le Don Balleine has been jointly responsible for the teaching of Jèrriais.
It was also evident that transmission within the family was declining; the 2001 census showed that the biggest group of speakers ranked by age was that between 70 and 74 years old – so there’s not much hope of regeneration there!
The language had been taught to adults at evening classes since the 1960s. I myself, a bouistre d’Angliais (which I will translate as “an English person!”) had been an evening class student from the mid 1980s, but it was recognised that these classes could not maintain the dwindling number of speakers.
It was in part the fact that I worked as a presenter for Channel Television, which had only the second internet connection in the Island, that led to the establishment of the teaching of Jèrriais. During my training on this new medium, I trawled minority language websites as this was a topic that interested me. I came across one that showed what was happening in the Isle of Man, and brought the revival programme for Manx to the attention of a senior politician, Senator Jean Le Maistre. He persuaded the President of the Education Committee to survey of parents of primary-school children to find out what the likely demand for Jèrriais lessons might be. They were amazed by the response – 780 families wanting their children to have the chance to learn the language. As a result, our government, the States of Jersey, funded a two-year trial, for which I was fortunate to be appointed co-ordinator.
Following on from the success of the trial, we were voted increased funding, which enabled us to move the programme forward and to follow the children who had already started learning Jèrriais into secondary schools.
Like other minority languages, we are faced with producing almost everything that we need for teaching in-house. We now have textbooks, workbooks, CD-Roms, which we produced in conjunction with Eurotalk, and a phrasebook, as well Jèrriais-English and English-Jèrriais dictionaries. We also produce a quarterly literary magazine entirely in Jèrriais, which is aimed at native-speakers and academics, but which includes content that we hope will draw our students in. We have co-operated with other organisations to produce Les Preunmié Mille Mots using the familiar First Thousand Words template and a Learn Verbs booklet. On the literary side, we have an anthology of Norman literature from the Channel Islands entitled the Toad and the Donkey – the nicknames for the inhabitants of each of the main Channel Islands and my colleague Geraint Jennings has very recently had published his translations of Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass, which are available to order on Amazon.
In 2009, a partnership agreement was signed by the Président of Le Don Balleine, our employers, and Jersey’s Education Minister which clarified the remit of L’Office du Jèrriais to promote the language as well as teach it. This was really a formality, as we had maintained since starting out that there was a need to increase the visibility of the language in order to make Jèrriais lessons for children more relevant. There is a good deal of signage around the Island that is clearly not English, but a lesser amount that is explicitly Jèrriais – for example, many road names are written in a French form, though often the word-order is not French, because what has happened is that a Jèrriais name has been “Frenchified” as French was the language of the law. By working with various authorities and using technology, we were able to make progress with promoting Jèrriais in some unexpected ways.
A few months after I had started the teaching programme, Geraint Jennings joined me for four days a week as Offici Assistant, later joined by Colin Ireson as Maître du Jèrriais. The whole team therefore consists of two point eight full-time workers, and I also have six native-speakers who teach between one and three lessons per week. Geraint is maître-pêtre or webmaster of the website Les Pages Jèrriaises, which provides us with an archive of material in Jèrriais – this has now grown to over 4,000 pages of articles, poems, hymns, advertisements, songs, prayers – in fact, anything written in Jèrriais. Running in conjunction with this is a bi-lingual resource of material referring to the language which is run by members of the Section d’la Langue Jèrriaise of the island’s learned society, the Société Jersiaise. Also here you can download a Jèrriais spell-checker.
More recently we saw a need for a specific website of our own and began the development of jerriais.org.je which outlines the work we undertake at L’Office du Jèrriais. Getting the website running was a step forward, as it also enabled us to develop our blog – we felt that this was a valuable addition as it enables us to post news, photos and information on a frequent basis – the website itself is more static and requires rather more technical knowledge to update, so blogging is more immediate. For even more immediacy we have our Twitter feed – which gets a few additions most days and has the advantage of being up-datable even from a smart-phone. We probably could make even more use of the blog and Twitter if we had more staff.
Remaining in cyberspace, I had an interesting experience not long ago. I had been on BBC Radio Jersey one Monday evening for the regular 15-minute slot in which we attempt to teach the presenter to speak Jèrriais, but before embarking on the phrases for the week Simon asked me what had been happening language-wise in the past few days. Amongst other important things, I made the throwaway remark that we had been doing some translation work for an interface for Facebook. The following morning the news carried a story that Jèrriais was moving with the times and that a Jèrriais Facebook would soon be available which could save the language! Later that morning BBC Channel Islands TV news phoned to do an interview, followed by Channel Television, then could I do a radio piece for the local independent radio station Channel 103? With all this interest it was clear that we needed to get the translation completed fast, so we found some time to do it before sending it to Kevin Scannell, an Irish-American Professor from Saint Louis University’s Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. Kevin had earlier written a computer program to cross-reference Twitter messages with statistical data for minority languages. We had first contacted each other when he set up indigenoustweets.com in 2011 and I wanted Jèrriais included. We had translated the Twitter interface, and then he offered us the chance to use a programme designed by a native North-American tribe for their language – a style-sheet which overlays the standard Facebook frontpage with the target language. We had a beta version a few days later and put the finalised programme onto our blog three days later – as of Tuesday there had been 167 downloads, and it’s available for anyone who fancies it… Kevin also told me that he would like to find more translators for other endangered languages.
We also have a presence on the Education Department’s Virtual Learning Environment, where we are slowly building up resources for teachers and students. In some – unfortunately not all – cases students are able to access the Jèrriais VLE in their school’s computer suite, so it’s an ideal place to upload texts and materials, audio files which can be used for practising for presentations at our Eisteddfod and even entire workbooks so that in the not unusual event of a book being lost, students can print out their own replacement copies. However we are not really able to add video on the VLE, and so to get round that difficulty we set up our own YouTube channel. We use a digital video-camera which is optimised for use on YouTube and which can in theory upload direct to the internet – however we prefer to edit our videos beforehand. We have recorded events such as the recent launch of Jersey’s £100 note and £10 holographic stamp, both celebrating the diamond jubilee of La Reine, Not’ Duc, where a group from one of the Jèrriais classes performed a poem to celebrate the jubilee in front of a distinguished audience, including the Lieutenant-Governor, Bailiff of Jersey, Chief Minister and other government Ministers.
Jersey’s Treasury Minister – equivalent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer – has been very supportive towards our language (as long as the cost is minimal or less!) When we heard some years ago that Jersey was preparing a new set of banknotes, I wrote to him to say that a perfect way to promote our language would be to include some Jèrriais on them. He agreed and took the decision to show the values in Jèrriais – so that now, no-one living in Jersey can say that they have never had any contact with the language. Following his decision, Jersey Post, which had previously always refused our suggestion that they should utilise the language came to ask us if we could provide translations to appear in the Presentation Packs sold to collectors around the world, and more recently we have had two sets of stamps issued that include Jèrriais on them – albeit in microscopic text, but it is there!
Jersey’s government is slowly also increasing interest in using Jèrriais. We have had a token piece on the States website home-page as well as a page about Jèrriais in the section on culture. However more recently we have convinced some key individuals within departments to make more use of the language – the result is that when the Environment Department was working on a new grading system, a senior officers asked us to provide terminology in Jèrriais for the different kinds of buildings and places which have historical importance. Another example was the States Veterinary Assistant who contacted me to ask if we were able to provide a translation of information for people travelling with their pets – they already had it in English, French, Portuguese and Polish (we have large immigrant populations from Madeira and Poland) and he felt that it was important that it should also be available in our own language. The Connétabl’ye and parish officials of St. Helier, the Island’s capital, have agreed to bilingual English/Jèrriais signs where existing ones need replacing and are committed to increasing the usage of the language.
We have also had a degree of success with the private sector, with the Jersey Dairy having been convinced of the commercial value of branding some of their products in Jèrriais, particularly the cheese Lé Fronmage which was destined for the export market.
Coming back to education, from September this year we are changing the way that we deliver Jèrriais in primary schools. For several years, the number of students we teach has remained broadly unchanged, and so we discussed ways to build the total up. We also spend more time as peripatetic teachers in transit than in the classroom. After presenting ideas to the headteachers, it has been agreed that we will start the autumn term with a six-week course entitled “Jersey Studies” which will take place in Year 4 at all schools. Each lesson is based around a song – and we have commissioned a local singer-songwriter to produce pop-folk versions of six traditional songs. The band he has formed, Badlabecques or Chatterboxes is very excited about the idea and is intending to release an album in September – they had great success at their launch event, last weekend’s Jersey Folklore festival. Once the “Jersey Studies” course is completed, we move into four Pallions or Jèrriais centres, where simultaneous lessons can take place at different levels. As children will be brought to the the Pallion from other schools, we are also intending to provide parents with free lessons over a cup of coffee. Until the system is running, we won’t know what the uptake will be, but we have the potential to offer lessons to every primary-school child in Jersey, instead of the current situation which only allows for about a third of pupils to be given the possibility of learning the language and only one-in-five of those taking up the offer. If a fifth of all current schoolchildren elect to take up the offer, we will be overwhelmed – and overjoyed!
I am fortunate in having two dedicated colleagues at L’Office du Jèrriais who constantly come up with ideas for promoting the language. We try to pick-up on what our target audience, young people, find interesting and to use suitable technology to reach them. It’s not always as simple as one might expect – for example, you would think that Facebook would be of huge importance, but in fact only a few of those under thirteen in my classes admit to using it. Facebook is considering dropping their age-limit but no final decision has been made, so the work put into the interface I mentioned a while ago isn’t really impacting on the youth audience yet even if the adults are grabbing it.
Of course, in many cases the technology used in education lags behind that in the outside world, particularly in this era of strained budgets where today’s must-have can quickly end up as tomorrow’s has-been – remember Betamax videos, the Sony Walkman and the Palm Pilot? (apologies to any of you still making use of these!) So we are faced with keeping one eye on the present and one on the future – a guaranteed way to acquire a headache.
What lies around the corner is still unknown, but whatever it is will be put to use to help us in our core objective, the promotion and preservation of what we consider to be our precious language, lé Jèrriais.