Language is always about far more than just efficient communication. Learning a new language opens a gateway to a new world, new knowledge, new ways of being, and a potential new community of friends.
My research concerns the ways in which music can potentially help safeguard and revitalise endangered languages, with a focus on the language of Jèrriais in Jersey. Jèrriais is an ancient form of Norman – the language of William the Conqueror – with its own equivalent form still existing in mainland Normandy. This fact, coupled with the linguistic connections between Jèrriais and modern French, meant that as I approached my PhD fieldwork I knew it would be beneficial to improve my fluency in French, alongside my attempts to learn Jèrriais itself. Thanks to support from CHASE, I was able to go on a two-week intensive French course in Paris, just prior to beginning my fieldwork in Jersey. The course was challenging but great fun, and raised my level of French from a very rusty ‘advanced beginner’/GCSE level to a much more confident, solidly ‘intermediate’ level. Génial! This gave me a real boost not only to grapple with related patterns and connections in Jèrriais, but to build bridges with fellow musicians and language activists in Normandy, as well as read more widely.
Fast-forward to January 2019, when I found myself invited to attend a rather important conference in Caen, Normandy (the home of William the Conqueror himself). In fact, not only was I invited to attend, but I was asked to participate in a round table discussion… in French! The event itself was organised by the government of Normandy (which itself has only recently been formed out of what used to be two separate halves of the larger region), calling together about 150 delegates not just from around Normandy, but experts and academics from across France, in order to discuss Norman culture, language, and heritage, and launch a new initiative. This initiative, led by the current president of Normandy (former French defence minister, Hervé Morin) aims to promote and revitalise Norman culture and language across the region and beyond.
Of course, it’s one thing to read out a pre-prepared and well-rehearsed paper, but another thing altogether to take part in an improvised discussion, so as you might imagine I was more than a little nervous, but I was determined to give it my best shot. To make matters worse, I was initially asked to take part in the second round table, discussing issues relating to the ‘revalorisation’ of language and culture, but as it turned out, due to bad weather Jersey’s Minister for Culture, Deputy Montfort Tadier, was unable to attend, so at the last-minute I was asked to take his place on the first round table, on the issue of language safeguarding. I thus became the proxy representative of Jersey as a whole, sitting alongside Professor Jean-Pierre Montreuil (University of Austin); Gaïd Evenou (Head of the ‘Languages Mission of France and Overseas’, French Ministry of Culture); Deputy Jonathan Le Tocq (Guernsey’s Minister for External Affairs), and Olivier Engelure (Director of the Regional Agency of the Picardy language).
Happily, as I arrived at L’abbaye aux Dames, where the event was held, I had been introduced to John Ritchie, a professional translator (and lovely Scotsman), who sat beside me on the panel just in case. With this extra security blanket, I dived in as best I could and in the end I only needed his help on two words – ‘divertissement’ (entertainment) and ‘envoyé’ (past tense of send). Whilst if I’m honest my nerves did significantly affect my confidence so I do cringe a little as I look back at the video (e.g. stumbling here and there, and mangling a few words, like the word ‘Minister’ which meant I actually described Deputy Tadier as the ‘Ministry of Culture’). But on the whole I more or less managed to say what I meant to say, and even managed to crack a joke which went down pretty well. It’s a good feeling to make folks laugh (intentionally!) in a second language; to build bridges, represent my own community, and make new friends, colleagues, and new connections in a mode of communication other than English – moreover, in la belle langue – Français!
The truth is, there is no way I would have had the confidence or fluency to even attempt this if it weren’t for the language training CHASE provided, which kickstarted the further development of my language skills. Now I am regularly emailing and skyping my French colleagues, including organising a forthcoming collaborative concert, and I’m more able to read relevant news and academic articles. Who knows where it will lead… on verra!