Anyone here speak Jersey?

Well, yes they do, actually. Schools on the Channel Island now teach the ancient language of Jerriais, writes Sam Green
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The Independent Online

Everyone knows that the British have an appalling record for teaching their children foreign languages. But not many people are fully aware of the rich diversity of languages that originate in these isles.

Did you know, for example, that the native tongue of Jersey – Jerriais – is the closest modern link to original Norman English? Tony Scott Warren certainly did, and he has spearheaded a campaign to get the language back in use.

Having given up his job as a television presenter to become Jersey's language teaching co-ordinator, Mr Scott Warren, along with one full-time colleague and a handful of part-time teachers, is now responsible for guiding 150 children and 40 adults through the intricacies of the language spoken by William the Conqueror.

"While on a trip to Acre in northern Israel, I visited the Crusader castle and learnt that it was built by Norman knights who spoke a language very similar to Jerriais," he says. "I was fascinated."

Mr Scott Warren started teaching primary-school pupils in 1999. The children are taught for half an hour a week and their studies continue as they move up through the school, the eldest group currently being in Year 7.

"A problem we have is that Jerriais is close to French and we have to be careful not to confuse the kids," he explains. "But it contains a lot of terms that didn't make it into modern French, so you could say it's an archaic version of French. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Norman was considered the highest literary language of France, but it was later taken over by Francien, which forms the basis of modern French."

Christopher Le Gallais, 11, has been learning Jerriais for two years. His grandparents speak the language, as did his great grandparents, and Christopher says he is proud to be keeping up the tradition. He speaks Jerriais with his friends and intends to teach his one-year-old brother.

The Jersey project has been modelled on a similar initiative started on the Isle of Man in 1992. Although Jerriais is very different to Manx, the Jersey group translated the basic format of the Manx textbooks.

Dr Brian Stowell is the secretary of a Manx Gaelic society, and as the Isle of Man's first language officer oversaw the introduction of Manx into the curriculum in 1992. Manx was the island's majority language well into the 19th century, but by the start of the 20th century only about one-fifth of the island's 50,000 population spoke the language, he says. The last Manx speaker died in 1974.

"We were amazed when we sent out the circulars 10 years ago to discover that 40 per cent of primary-school children, with parental support, wanted to learn Manx," he says.

There are now 900 to 1,000 children learning Manx in schools for half an hour an week, and there are also evening classes for adults. "In all areas we are rushed off our feet," says Dr Stowell. Students can work for a GCSE qualification, though Dr Stowell concedes that the number who pursue this is very small.

Breeshey Harkin, 12, has opted to continue her Manx studies in secondary school and plans to stick with them into adulthood. "I'm Manx and I don't want the language to die out," she says. "I think it should be compulsory."

At Ballacuttier School, on the outskirts of Douglas, they've gone further. Nine children, aged four to six, have been learning the full curriculum in Manx since September. The Manx class mixes with other pupils at breaks, but for the rest of the time they are taught separately.

Of the 1,689 people who claimed to speak some Manx in the last census, 46 per cent were under 19. Dr Stowell guesses there are about 60 fluent speakers among the island's 76,000 population.

When Mr Scott Warren was shown a CD-Rom that the Manx project had produced, with interactive games, voice recordings and audio pronunciation guides, he immediately contacted the company that made it, EuroTalk Interactive.

EuroTalk's chairman, Dick Howeson, says: "When I was asked about producing the CD-Rom for Manx, my first question was, 'What is it?' When I was told I said, 'You must be joking!' I told them that we would need to shift 500 copies to make it worth our while, thinking that would be the last of it, but a month later an order for 500 came in."

Besides the success of Manx and the imminent launch of the Jerriais product, Mr Howeson says that Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic are all strong sellers, and that a Cornish version is being planned.

"Having sat through more than 50 recordings I realise now how much of a depth of culture there is in those languages. And while we all say, quite rightly, how dreadful it is when a little plant in a rainforest dies out, there's even more wealth stored in a language."

Is there any chance that Jerriais might become part of Jersey's school curriculum, as Manx is in the Isle of Man? "I hope so," says Mr Scott Warren. "But it's not a great possibility because the curriculum is already over-stuffed and the main language focus is French.

"But the more languages you teach children, and the younger the starting age, the more receptive they will be to languages in general. It develops a part of the brain that can benefit performance in many different subjects, not just languages."

The Jerriais CD-Rom will be in Jersey schools from 15 April