Once, the Breton language had the most speakers of any Celtic language. Now, however, UNESCO classifies it as “severely endangered,” even while other Celtic languages have begun to recover.
Historically, Breton was spoken throughout the region of Brittany in northwest France. It is most closely related to Cornish. Although it was replaced by French as the language of business and government in the 12th century, commoners continued to speak it as a first language for centuries more.
However, after the French Revolution, policies were put in place to discourage the use of Breton and other regional languages. The aim was noble: to create a united nation with an informed citizenry. But you know what they say about good intentions…the result was decades upon decades of abuse for students who dared speak Breton in schools, and a steady decline in the number of speakers. In 1950, approximately one million people spoke Breton. Now, according to Omniglot, despite preservation efforts like immersion schools and only around 365,000 people speak Breton. Approximately 200-250,000 of those speak it fluently, and 190,000 of fluent speakers are over the age of 60.
Some estimates show that the language loses speakers at a rate of about 10,000 each year.
Now, the fight to preserve Breton is getting help from an unlikely corner. An ocean away, Harvard University has announced that its Celtic Languages Department will offer courses in the language, in collaboration with Brittany’s Rennes 2 University. According to Yann Bevant of the Centre of Breton and Celtic Research, the courses will consist of “regular seminars in Breton studies organised by Rennes 2…In concrete terms, Breton will be taught at Harvard in ‘crash course’ sessions” and “exchanges between students and professors will be organised.”
There’s no way for classes taught at a foreign university to replace language preservation efforts on the home front, but increased awareness of the language and its plight can only be a good thing.