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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

France’s regional languages: How Occitan made our French household trilingual

One of the biggest hurdles any anglophone faces on moving to France is the language - but while French is the official, and by far the most widely spoken language here, it’s far from the only one. As well as languages imported by immigrants, there are dozens of living, breathing, regional languages that add so much to the country’s culture, as James Harrington has found out.

France's regional languages: How Occitan made our French household trilingual
Photo: Pascal Guyot / AFP

A survey carried out in France by Insee on behalf of the EU back in 2007 found that French was the mother tongue of 87.2 percent of the population – or just shy of 56 million people at the time. It was followed by Arabic (3.6 percent of the population of France, or 2.3 million people), Portuguese (1.5 percent, 960,000), Spanish (1.2 percent, 770,000) and Italian (1 percent, 640,000). Households with English as a mother tongue made up 0.4 percent.

The study did not take in dozens of regional French languages, including Breton – with its Celtic links – as well as Basque, Corsican, Alsatian, and Occitan – perhaps because most people who speak them also speak French.

Three years ago, the number of people speaking Occitan rose by one, as the youngest of our three children moved to an Occitan primary school in southwest France – one of the schools of the Calendreta association, dedicated to keeping the language and the history that goes with it alive.

Nearly a decade earlier, in 2009, three of us had moved from England to France – I headed out first, followed a month later by my wife and our daughter. I was pretty good at French at school – German, too – but had forgotten most of it in the intervening years. My wife’s French was – and is – better than mine: she studied it at university. And our daughter, then three, was effectively thrown into school with no French whatsoever.

It was actually fascinating to witness our daughter’s brain reboot. She reverted briefly to babble – but it was increasingly French babble as opposed to English babble. Within weeks, her sponge brain was starting to deal in two languages. Today, when a phrase or an accent catches either of us out – even after 12 years living here, we get caught out from time to time – she’s our go-to French-to-English translation chip. At lycée, for her friends, she works the other way around.

We’ve also added two boys to our Anglo-French household since moving here. The oldest headed off to collège for the first time this week, while our youngest, who is autistic, went into the CE2 class at his small Occitan school, having moved from the school his big sister and brother had attended at the very end of his Grand Section year.

He has always had plenty to say for himself, our fizzing, overcharged battery of a youngest boy. He babbled away to anyone who cared to listen as a baby, and – when in company – has scarcely shut up since. Spending any length of time with him is to enter a non-stop whirl of breathless consciousness. 

He’s quick, too. Having learned to read in French, with the help of his crèche and then his first school, he pretty much taught himself to read in English, too. 

His first couple of years in maternelle were relatively unremarkable, but midway through his Grand Section year, we realised the school that had served his older siblings so well wasn’t working for him. In the end, it was a comment from his teacher about running out of books for him to read that sealed it.

So, we decided to switch schools. Administratively, that’s not hard to do in France. But we agonised over it, because we worried it would be an emotional wrench for a boy who thrives on routine. That said, we believed he would benefit from a less rigid typically French system than the one he knew, not to mention get his teeth into learning something new. 

And, at first, it was difficult. He missed his classmates. But his new teacher was a marvel and he has integrated well. 

He already spoke with that easy, natural mix of two languages that children in immigrant households do. And he has picked up Occitan quickly and, apparently, effortlessly. After just one year he was one of a few to speak Occitan all the time in class. 

Variations of the language exist across the whole of the south of France, into Spain’s Catalonia, Monaco and northern Italy – not to mention Calabria, in southern Italy. In our neck of the linguistic woods, the regional variation is languedocien, often the basis for Standard Occitan. There are so many different versions of Occitan that it’s easy – and wrong – to think in terms of patois.

But there is more to Occitan than a melodic romance language and a whimsical nod to the region’s past on road signs. Thar’s historic gold in them thar words. It’s a language that carries with it centuries of history, which its adherents are keen to protect. 

Many dialects in the vast region covered by Occitan speakers gave rise to the misconception that ‘Occitanophones’ don’t share a common culture, unlike Basques or Bretons, for example, and into the easy and pejorative categorisation of Occitan as ‘patois’.

The government, at least, is talking the talk. The Ministry of Culture website has pages dedicated to the preservation of regional languages in metropolitan France and overseas. But the question remains – the one that those who want to protect and nurture regional languages find hard to believe – is whether it is walking the walk.

A few Occitan words and phrases

Adiu (pronounced ad-ee-you) – Hello (in French bonjour)

Adissiatz (pronounced adissiass) – Goodbye (au revoir)

Òc (pronounced o) – Yes (oui)

Noun (pronounced non) – No (non)

Mercés (pronounced Mersess) – Thank you (merci)

Va plan ? (pronounced ba pla) – How are you (ça va?)

Ont vas ? (pronounced oontey bass) – Where are you going (où vas-tu?)

A tot ara (pronounced a toot aro) – See you later (à tout a l’heure)

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LIVING IN FRANCE

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Strikes

But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.

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