Jersey's poor standard of French

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From the Independent February 1999

The Normandy coast is clearly visible from Jersey but the islanders' grasp of French is in a sorry state.

Where once it was common for people to be bilingual, now French street names are misspelled and public notices grammatically inaccurate. With A-level results last year well below those on the British mainland, many fear for the future of the island's gallic culture.

French consul

Robin Pallot, the honorary French consul in Jersey since 1994, is among them. He claims he was shouted down when he warned of falling standards. "I lament the watering down of the commitment to written and spoken French," he said. "The use of French in cultural life mustn't be lost, in Jersey of all places."

Jersey's small French community is dwindling: the mainly elderly population numbers between 1,000 and 1,500. Mr Pallot fears the French may have been neglected through "political correctness". He says there is a greater emphasis on Portuguese, to cater for the large influx of migrants from Madeira who work in the hotel trade.

"These days, French people have a difficult time at the tourism reception desk if they don't speak English," he said. "The use of French mustn't be allowed to dwindle: it's essential for rapport in business."

Yet as modern French declines, Jèrriais, the island's 1,000-year-old native tongue, is undergoing a revival. A pilot project is under way to introduce what once was despised as a peasant language into schools.

Exam results

It is thought that fewer than 3,000 islanders are fluent: but there was a resurgence of patriotic interest after celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of Nazi occupation. While Jersey law states that primary schools must teach French, Mr Pallot claims it is being "whittled away surreptitiously". The island's education department admits that performance in languages has been a matter of concern for some years. "A-level results for French were better in 1997 than for the UK, but have slipped back again. The department is making inquiries; we teach French from an earlier age, yet don't appear to be doing as well," said project and planning officer Tim Allen.

Last year 46.2 per cent of A-level students passed with grades A to C, compared with 61.9 per cent in mainland Britain. Despite its cosmopolitan nature, Jersey doesn't have its own languages adviser for schools; one is seconded from Portsmouth University. "The size of the island is such that it's not viable to have a full-time person," said Mr Allen.

Canon Michael Halliwell, a fluent French-speaker and member of French cultural associations in Jersey, feels the island is being made a laughing-stock. "Parishes have erected street names, some of which are misspelled or have accents missing or misplaced," he said.

"One can only cringe at some pronunciations on Radio Jersey. When we have French visitors to stay, they ask 'can't these people speak the language?' I've had complaints that staff at a five-star hotel cannot speak French."

Deputy Jerry Dorey is one of a minority in the States - Jersey's parliament - who is fluent in French. "In theory we are a bilingual parliament, and I try to keep that alive by saying something in French during the sessions," he said. "Twenty years ago, the vast majority of members had a grasp of French. Now only half understand any at all.

"When I was at primary school, we got at least a lesson a day. It was a central subject, along with maths and English. But now it's taught for a maximum of an hour a week in some schools. That's not enough without support and home reading."

It is somehow symbolic of the decline that Mass is no longer said in French at St Thomas's Roman Catholic Church in St Helier. Father Vincent Igoa, 71, said: "When we decided to stop French services we had complaints from people who did not actually attend. There was a feeling of sentiment - it is more a cultural problem than a religious one."

Father Igoa himself retires to France next summer. "I'm the last of the Mohicans," he said. "It isn't a very happy ending."

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