Student Keeps Endangered Language Alive

By Cale Donaldson

Before freshmen arrive at Tech, they must choose a foreign language to study for at least three years in high school. Their options include Spanish, French, Mandarin, and Italian.

Julio D’Orville ’13 can read, write, and speak Occitan, the rare Romance language of the Occitanian region, which covers parts of Southern France, the Italian Occitan Valleys, Monaco, and the Aran Valley in Spain.

D’Orville’s French and Portuguese background, along with his love of language, has led him to learn and fluently understand French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, and Occitan. The following is a Q&A with D’Orville on the many languages he speaks.

Q: How would you describe the Occitan language and how did you learn it?
Occitan is a romance language spoken by a couple million people throughout Southern France. Along with the other regional endangered languages of France, Occitan lost most of its speakers when Paris came to prominence. I learned to speak, read, and write the language from my mother and grandmother.

Q: How important is the Occitan language to you, and how does it affect your life? What is the cultural significance of Occitan for you?
Although I am not really exposed to the language and culture, I consider Occitan such an important part of who I am. Occitan allows me to immediately connect to people with whom I’d otherwise have no connection. It’s unfortunate that I am not more familiar with the culture.

Q: How do you feel about the small percentage of people who can speak, read, and/or write in Occitan?
I feel that Occitan speakers should fight to prevent the extinction of our language, but most don’t. Most speakers who speak the language on a regular basis are elderly; many middle-aged people speak the language at home, but otherwise speak French. Children of Occitan speakers either only understand the language, or are not taught it at all. I’m glad I was taught differently. In Spain, regional languages get recognition, why can’t French Occitan speakers fight for the same [recognition]?

Q: How does Occitan relate to other languages? How does it differ?
Although spoken in France, Occitan shows a great resemblance to Catalan, the language of the Catalonia region in Spain. It also resembles French in terms of grammar. I like to say that Occitan is as romantic as French, as elegant as Italian, and as quirky as Portuguese.

Q: Are you aware of any writers, artists, or other people who write or speak Occitan?
Unfortunately, I don’t know of any. I know that there are modern-day troubadours who sing and perform in Occitan, but there definitely aren’t any widely recognized artists.

Q: What do you like about knowing such a “rare” language?
I like the expression on people’s faces when I tell them I speak Occitan. It’s both amusing and upsetting when people ask, “Did you just make that up?”

Q: You also know many other languages. How did you develop this interest in linguistics? Do you spend a lot of time researching and learning new languages?
Both of my parents speak other languages, and my family is really diverse, so I grew up speaking and hearing a lot of languages. My parents instilled a love of languages in me from a young age, and although at first I found learning multiple languages overwhelming, I grew to love it. I spend several hours during the week studying and researching languages at home, and going to language classes on the weekend.

Q: How do you feel the protection of rare languages from extinction, including their variants and dialects? Do you think there should be more opportunities, especially in schools, to learn rare languages, such as Occitan?
Protecting endangered languages from extinction is important because it helps to preserve a part of the speakers’ cultures. Although there are mega-languages that people all over the world are learning, so that they can compete in a global economy, we should not forget about their native languages. There should be more opportunities to learn endangered languages, and to instill a sense of pride in their speakers, so that they may be widespread again. There have been attempts to revive Occitan in Southern France, and I hope this will continue and occur in other places.

Q: Anything else you would like to say about Occitan, the Romance languages, or rare languages in general?
I think people should be more aware of the fact that there are so many endangered languages. Thousands will go extinct by the end of this century, but it’s not like the speakers are willing to do much about it. People around the world focus on learning the languages that will help them succeed in the business world, so they often forget about their native language and culture.

As the world reliance on interconnected relations with all nations and groups of people continually grows, the purpose of there being a large number of languages is largely decreasing. Still, these various underrepresented languages are spoken by people who believe that they should be protected to preserve our world’s diversity.

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