La Valette, 5th July, 2023
It has been over 20 years since I left Brittany, the peninsula in north-west France, and I’ve been living abroad for more than 18 years now. Which means that, except for a few WhatsApp messages with friends, I don’t often speak Breton. However, when my wife got pregnant with our twins, I didn’t need to think twice: it was obvious to me that I would try to speak Breton with my children. It was natural.
My wife is Hungarian and we live in Malta where English is spoken at school. My 8-year-old sons therefore live in a linguistic jumble. I couldn’t see a reason why they would learn Hungarian, English, French, and not a word of Breton.
I grew up in Brittany, but unfortunately, like many people my age, Breton is not my native language. I was never taught to speak it, I learned to do it myself later on. In Brittany, due to a linguistic fracture, grandparents did not teach the language to their children, who consequently did not transmit it to their own children when they became parents. I regret that a lot.
There’s a lot of anger that stems from that, too, because the French state is responsible for this fracture. Until the 1950-1960’s, there was a real policy of francisation and “debretonisation”, of delegitimizing the Breton language, and a whole generation gave it up. People would rather speak bad French to their children than good Breton. Because of that denigration, people from the generation of my grandfather, who passed away two years ago, could no longer even see the point of speaking Breton. They thought: “A language of yokels and country bumpkins is it, now? Well, then we’re gonna speak French only!”
And that is how several generations among us were deprived of a language that used to be passed down in the family. The wound of this non-transmission drove me to learn Breton, to be curious about the culture, its history. There is also a streak of contrariness in my endeavor: since France intended to erase the Breton language, we are going to do the opposite. We will keep it alive and its culture as well.
I don’t raise my kids in a spirit of upholding their French identity. They have so many overlapping identities. They are 50% Hungarian, 50% Breton… and 50% expats! I say that without a hint of animosity. When we watch football and rugby, we’re rooting for France and we love that. But I teach them the very rich history of Brittany – nearly independent a thousand years before France –, not the love of the French flag. In fact, the one they have in their bedroom is far more white and black than three-coloured (the flag of Brittany is black and white, Ed.). The goal isn’t to raise independentists, but since they weren’t born nor did they grow up in France, there isn’t much about them that is French, except the fact that they are French-speakers.
Now, except for a few idioms and orders, I don’t speak Breton that much with them anymore, because they had to focus on Hungarian – more difficult to learn – and English for school. I think they will get back to it by themselves (these days I can’t listen to a single Breton song without them asking me to translate it word for word). And beyond the language, what matters is the sense of belonging: they are French citizens, but Breton first and foremost. For them, Breton is Yezh ar galon, the language of the heart.
Thomas is a Breton born and bred. He left the region when he was 18 and has been living in Malta for five years with his Hungarian wife and eight-year-old twins. Today, he is capable of conducting a conversation in eight languages, but he has one major regret. When he was a kid, his family never taught him Breton. And so, when his sons were born, he “naturally” decided to speak to them in the language.