Occitan in the time of COVID-19: Creating connections through minoritized languages under crisis conditions

Sara Brennan

Dr. Sara Brennan is an associate professor in the Département des Langues et Civilisations, Université Toulouse 1 Capitole, France. She has published widely on the role of minority languages in times of crisis and recently was co-PI on the project “Language revitalization as community building in  Occitania: Language, economics and the politics of transmission” as part of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s ‘Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe (‘SMiLE’) initiative.

“I speak Occitan!” facemask from Macarel, an Occitan activist enterprise with a storefront in Toulouse 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much of social life to a grinding halt…unless you happen to be learning Occitan.

Almost a year into the evolving restrictions, lockdowns, and curfews imposed by the French government, two highlights of my weekly social calendar here in Toulouse are the introductory and intermediate Occitan classes I have been taking since September 2020, which are organized by the local branch of the Institut d’Estudis Occitans and have been conducted over Zoom since October. Activity on the WhatsApp group chats comprised of Occitan learners and speakers that I joined in 2018 and 2019 has positively skyrocketed since the first confinement measures were put in place in March 2020. While group chat members had exchanged messages in Occitan here and there before this period, the number of daily texts soared during lockdown, and Occitan-language Zoom happy hours were organized several times per week.

Even now under current ‘lockdown-lite’ curfew restrictions in France, the momentum has only barely slowed, with weekly Zooms and daily exchanges of Occitan memes, suggestions for socially distanced activities, grammatical insights, and TV, book, and music recommendations en lenga nòstra. Beyond Occitan aperitifs, Zoom has also been the venue for the November 2020 world premiere of a documentary about Occitan entitled Occitan, gardarem la lenga, which I attended along with nearly 100 audience members. As commented by several of the viewers during the spirited post-screening discussion, many of us – including someone working in indigenous language revitalization in Mexico – would not have been able to attend the originally planned in-person premiere in southeastern France and were grateful for the opportunity to take part.

These observations illuminate the complex junction at which the Occitan language now finds itself. Unfortunately, we’re used to talking about minoritized languages being in crisis, and Occitan is no exception: only last year, a sociolinguistic survey commissioned by the Euroregion Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Euskadi, Navarra and the Ofici public de la lenga occitana (OPLO; a French interregional public body tasked with Occitan language promotion in the Occitanie and Nouvelle Aquitaine regions) found that the language was more in danger of extinction than ever before, with speaker numbers having undergone a worrying drop over the past decade. However, as traditional speaker communities have in many cases dwindled, new dynamics have emerged.  Like many other European minoritized languages, Occitan has increasingly become “a language of networks” (Alén Garabato, 2019, p. 189), and this new reality has been rendered resoundingly evident as speakers from across and beyond France have messaged, memed, and Zoomed an online Occitan community into being, maintaining a social use of the language in the face of unprecedented obstacles and overarching uncertainty. What the pandemic has highlighted, therefore, is the potential of such minoritized language networks to provide vital reinforcement for social connections and emotional well-being under wider conditions of crisis. The extended networks individuals have actively built around learning and speaking minoritized languages can indeed offer crucial outlets for interaction and distraction in isolating, unsettling times. In this sense, the very nature of evolving minoritized language practices in the 21st century may in some cases help speakers maintain not only their use of these languages, but also some semblance of a normal life.

An Occitan cross in need of a very large facemask from Macarel, across from the Ostal d’Occitània in Toulouse 

Though my observations from the Occitan context represent one tiny sliver of perspective, this experience of creating connection in crisis through minoritized language practice is likely far from unique. Not only can engagement with minoritized languages strengthen links across at times far-flung digital speaker communities, as Occitan Zooms seemed to suggest, but it can also solidify a renewed focus on localness that has come to the fore during the pandemic. In the midst of a global crisis, our lives have become profoundly local as our movements have been restricted and we have focused on the course of the virus in our local areas. Whether it be a question of (re)discovering the cultural richness of our own backyards or seeking out the public health updates most pertinent to our surrounding communities, recent reports suggest that minoritized languages have in some cases generated (re)new(ed) interest or been given greater importance in daily life under confinement. Duolingo, for instance, observed in April 2020 that the “the proportion of learners studying Irish [in Ireland] has nearly doubled: during the initial stay-at-home order [in March 2020], 43% of new learners in Ireland were studying Irish.” Their Global Language Report published in December 2020 then confirmed this local swell of interest in Irish, noting that it has overtaken Spanish as the most popular language to study in Ireland. This same report also highlighted the popularity of Hawaiian and Navajo among Duolingo users in the United States. Though but lone data points, these insights offer a glimpse of a potential revalorization of local minoritized language under crisis conditions. The European Centre of Minority Issues (ECMI), meanwhile, drew on observations from 10 minority language media contexts to note (sometimes substantial) increased in audience figures and social media engagement, which they linked to viewers seeking out local news about the pandemic.

The implications of the current crisis for minoritized languages and their speakers are of course not always so rosy. This same ECMI study highlighted the negative impact of funding cuts, precarious employment, and the suspension of sporting and cultural events on minority language media, while other researchers have emphasized the lack of public communication in minoritized languages during the health crisis. The abrupt switch to remote education has brought the dearth of learning materials in minoritized languages into sharp focus. Researchers working in diverse contexts worldwide, including contributors to this blog, have indeed sounded the alarm about the potentially devastating impact of the pandemic on endangered languages and their speakers, particularly among indigenous communities.

In the midst of seemingly never-ending and ever-evolving crises though, the glimmer of hope offered by Occitan group chats and Duolingo learners is worth further investigation. As individuals worldwide are forced to regroup and recover in the face of unprecedented challenges and overwhelming uncertainty, there may be room for a reconsideration of the value of minoritized languages. Whether it be as social bridges in socially distanced times or as gateways to local culture and localized news, such languages might very well emerge from this crisis invested with new meanings and purposes as daily life is resumed – or perhaps more accurately, reconfigured – in a post-pandemic world.  

We invite you to tell us in the comments about your experiences of learning or speaking a minoritized language during the pandemic.

References

Alén Garabato, C. (2019). El occitano en el siglo xxi: ¿la utopía de la normalización? In J. Giraly Latorre & F. Nagore Laín (Eds.), La normalización social de las lenguas minoritarias. Experiencias y procedimientos para la salvaguarda de un patrimonio inmaterial (pp. 181–210). Zaragoza: Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza.

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