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Stephen Michael Hewitt: "I would say that the “neo-speaker” phenomenon is the most serious problem facing most lesser-used languages: there appears a cohort of neo-speakers whose language is so strongly influenced by the dominant metropolitan language"

Linguist Stephen Michael Hewitt (Cambridge University, University of Wales, Paris III Sorbonne, https://cambridge.academia.edu/SteveHewitt) who could be easily called a hyperpolyglot knows many languages but perhaps the most valuable thing is that he is fluent in Breton (Brezhoneg), a unique Celtic language which has many problems in the modern world to survive. The Lithuanian version of our interview was printed out in magazine "Kultūros barai".

Mindaugas Peleckis
2021 m. Balandžio 07 d., 13:43
Skaityta: 1223 k.
Stephen Michael Hewitt. Photo from the personal archive of S. M. Hewitt.
Stephen Michael Hewitt. Photo from the personal archive of S. M. Hewitt.

First of all, I would like to ask You about Breton language which You speak fluently and wrote many articles about it. What’s the situation concerning Breton’s present and future? Is it dying? If yes, why? What are France’s language politics in general and concerning Breton in particular? What is/can be done?

The present and future of Breton are pretty bleak. There are roughly 200,000 native-speakers, with plummeting levels of active use; the vast majority of native-speakers are now 60 years or older. Thanks to traditional French policies banning the use of Breton in school, only about 0.2% - 0.3% of native-speakers have functional literacy in Breton, i.e. the ability to write a simple personal letter in Breton. Outside of activist circles (dominated by neo-speaker learners), that basically never happens. 

Only about 3% of schoolchildren get any exposure to Breton at all, variously in the private all-Breton immersion system Diwan, or in the State or State-supported Catholic bilingual streams. Even though such schools exist, it is vanishingly rare to hear children speaking Breton together outside school; and confidential internal reports suggest that the language of the playground is really French. 

Similarly, the presence of Breton on audiovisual media is woefully insignificant: less than a total of 2 hours per week on television, and maybe 15 hours per week on the State-run France-Bleu Breizh Izel radio station covering traditionally Breton-speaking Lower (Western) Brittany. There is also a linked network of private associations broadcasting partially in Breton. All Breton-language media are dominated by neo-speakers: it is “neo-speakers speaking to neo-speakers, mainly about activist matters” much more than a normal service to the community of native Breton-speakers. 

Most (95%?) of the roughly 20,000 neo-speakers – people who have deliberately learnt Breton in classroom settings – cannot communicate readily with native-speakers beyond simple, everyday greetings. Most neo-speaker activists do not care: they want Breton as a badge of Otherness, not because they want to promote the living language. Their Breton is heavily influenced by French – phonetics, prosody, phraseology, syntax; only their lexicon is deliberately purist, so much so that native-speakers find it difficult to follow, and interaction in Breton between neo-speakers and traditional native-speakers is laborious, and often unfeasible in practice. Neo-activists fight for Breton “because it exists”, but unfortunately, they don’t much like what exists. Similar observations have been made by many people since at least the 1970s, but the situation keeps getting worse and worse. So the prospects for a revival of native-like Breton are very dim. 

This seems to be the case with all regional languages in France, the only differences being roughly when natural family transmission began to stop. Alsatian, Basque and Corsican are all in a somewhat better position than Breton (Occitan is even worse than Breton), but they are all nevertheless on the way out. The only thing that can be done, I believe, is to teach learners more genuine varieties, but that is unlikely to happen in most cases because the leaders of the language movements in their vast majority simply do not know authentic varieties, and they do not want their dominance in the movements to be called into question. 

As far as I know, You are also fluent in another Celtic language, Welsh. Is its situation different than Breton’s? How? 

Completely different. Over 500,000 native-speakers, a sizeable majority of whom use Welsh regularly, both in private and in public. Fairly good levels of literacy. Taught as a first language in many Welsh schools; full radio service (18 hrs / 24) and Welsh-language television during peak hours (ca. 5 hrs / 24). Despite the considerable investment in education and media, the intensity of Welsh language usage is falling in most traditionally Welsh-dominant areas; once the percentage drops below 70% Welsh-speakers, the level of usage seems to tail off quite rapidly. And learners only manage to assimilate to the Welsh-speaking community in strongly Welsh-speaking areas; elsewhere, their Welsh remains hesitant and strongly influenced by English – native Welsh-speakers usually feel uncomfortable interacting with them in Welsh. So Welsh still has a fighting chance to survive, but the battle has not yet been won.

Could You overview the general situation of minority languages of Europe? There are many of them, and some seem to be in critical situation (say, Saami languages in Russia), others, like Karaim in Lithuania, have stable condition, although they have a few speakers left. 

Each situation is unique. It serves little purpose to try to generalize. Incidentally, my information about Karaim is that it is nearly moribund – very few if any younger speakers, and now a tiny community. I would hardly describe that as stable. I was in Trakai for an afternoon in 1998; I didn’t hear a single word of Karaim. 

I would say that the “neo-speaker” phenomenon is the most serious problem facing most lesser-used languages: there appears a cohort of neo-speakers whose language is so strongly influenced by the dominant metropolitan language, at all levels: phonetics, syntax, phraseology (and their lexicon is often unnaturally purist) that spontaneous communication with native-speakers of the language becomes difficult, and often unfeasible in practice. This is not reviving the native language; it means accepting and promoting a very different, hesitant, impoverished and unnaturally purist version of the language under threat, one which is strongly aligned at all levels except lexical on the dominant metropolitan language. Small wonder that most native-speakers are not impressed or attracted by such efforts. Furthermore, there is an ideological, authoritarian taboo in activist circles against any constructive criticism of the quality of the language of learners, meaning that it becomes almost impossible to address this problem seriously. 

It seems that once the vitality of traditional speech communities begins to slip, it becomes very difficult to assimilate learners as a group to it. A few individuals manage to link up with natural native-like speech, but the vast majority remain content with a very different “neo-speaker” variety, which native-speakers hardly recognize as their own language. One way to address this is through accurate learning materials which carefully present what native speech is really like. In many cases, this will mean “tweaking” the written standard so as to help learners achieve native-like fluency. 

Let’s move to Your personal story. Who are You more: academic, who wrote many articles, studied and knows many languages (could You please name the ones You know fluently and at least moderatly? How many of them would be?), or a practic, who even worked as a translator/interpreter of an official body? 

After university (languages), I worked in Brittany teaching English, studying Breton; living in a (then) strongly Breton-speaking area. I joined the United Nations in 1988 as an English translator, first in Baghdad. Then I joined UNESCO, Paris, in 1994; in addition to translation I became “Editor of Records”, responsible for organizing and editing the verbatim records of the General Conference (every two years) and the summary records of the Executive Board (every six months) in all six working languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese. I retired in 2014.

Fluent knowledge: English (mother tongue), French, Breton, Welsh, German, Swedish, Russian, Arabic.

Becoming proficient in Georgian.

Can also read: Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Serbo-Croat, Slovak, Ukrainian, Norwegian (actually started with Norwegian before moving to Swedish), Danish, Dutch, Irish, but I wouldn’t say I’m fluent in any of these, with the possible exception of Norwegian.

Are You still learning languages? If so, which ones? 

Georgian, Hebrew (Modern and Ancient), Greek (Modern and Ancient), Persian, Tibetan, Hindi, Urdu, Turkish, Indonesian. 

Also done a little Malayalam, Chinese; thinking of taking up Amharic, Ge’ez, Armenian.

This could be an annoying question, but I will try to ask it otherwise: what a person who started to study a language should do when he/she reaches a point when some understanding is unfolding? How not to stop learning, how to motivate oneself, if, say, there’s no possibility to live in country in which the language is spoken? Especially the cases when textbooks are but few. 

I don’t really understand the question. Things are much easier now with the Internet – both texts and audiovisual media are easy to find. I would say if a language does not have a significant online presence, and you have no chance of living among native-speakers, what is the point of trying to learn it? You are unlikely to make significant headway. Unfortunate, perhaps, but be realistic!

What language(s) were hardest to learn and why? What makes language learning hard / easy? Again, what were Your motivations to learn certain languages (bearing in mind, that they were many and quiet different)? 

Georgian has a pretty unusual grammar, which took me a while to crack (even though they are not related at all, it was a structural analogy with Breton that gave me the key to understanding the famously complex and disconcerting system of Georgian verbs!). 

I would say the most difficult thing is when a language has a strong degree of diglossia – a formal written language which is very different (not just “more formal”, but practically a different language) from the colloquial that people actually speak spontaneously. Arabic is one well-known example. Tibetan is another (or was – Classical Tibetan is declining in active use; but Modern Literary Tibetan, based on Lhasa speech, is not really replacing the many very divergent dialects). 

My advice with strongly diglossic languages (and I have long experience of Arabic) would be: Don’t fight it. Accept that the language situation is very different from what you may be used to. Study both varieties, formal and informal, separately; the worst thing is to try to impose your own vision on it and insist on finding a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. There just isn’t one. Accept the language on its own terms!

Thank You.

Welcome!

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