Manx: A Language Reborn?

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At its peak, the Manx language was spoken all across the Isle of Mann. However, by the 19th century, it was disappearing. Parents stopped speaking it to their children, believing that their offspring would have more opportunities if they spoke English. In fact, the island’s inhabitants began to view the language as backward, better off forgotten.

As 78-year old native Brian Stowell recalled to the BBC:

“If you spoke Manx in a pub on the island in the 1960s, it was considered provocative and you were likely to find yourself in a brawl…In the 1860s there were thousands of Manx people who couldn’t speak English. But barely a century later it was considered to be so backwards to speak the language that there were stories of Manx speakers getting stones thrown at them in the towns.”

The last native Manx speaker, Ned Maddrell, died in 1974, leading UNESCO to declare the language extinct in the 1990’s. For most languages, the death of the last native speaker is indeed the end of the road- but not so for Manx. While it’s still listed by UNESCO as “critically endangered,” about 100 adults speak it fluently. More importantly, it’s being taught to children in schools. In fact, there is one primary school on the island where children are taught exclusively in Manx.

But is this good for the children involved? Or were the parents of the 19th century right to teach their kids only English?

While there may not be much of a market for Manx language skills off the island, we now know a lot more about how children acquire languages than we did then. Studies have shown that being bilingual gives both children and adults certain cognitive advantages, and there’s some evidence that it makes learning additional foreign languages easier, as well.

Those advantages have not been lost on the parents who choose to send their children to the Manx primary school. One mother, Donna Long, told the BBC:

“The best thing is that it will hopefully unlock their brain to learn other languages easily too. They were all completely bilingual in Manx and English by the age of six.”

Sounds like a win-win situation!