There are two small and mountainous nations under Italian rule in the north of that state: South Tyrol and Aosta Valley. These two territories have a special political status, a broad autonomy and an identity of their own. In both, their own languages (French in the Aosta Valley and German in South Tyrol) are co-official, although their vitality and strength are different. Thus, while in South Tyrol the German language is the majority language (except in the capital, Bozen, and in two or three other towns), in Aosta Valley the French language has a weak presence in the street, since Italian is the hegemonic language.
Both Aosta French and South Tyrolean German have known hard times in the past. The time of the fascist Benito Mussolini, in particular, was very black for these languages. Mussolini prohibited teaching in French and German, sent thousands of Italian settlers to these two non-Italian-speaking territories, changed the toponymy and carried out a brutal process of Italianization. At the end of World War II, however, the new Italian state granted a statute of autonomy to Aosta and South Tyrol, which recognized the co-officiality of French and German.
Today, 69% of the inhabitants of South Tyrol are German speakers, and 60% of those in Aosta know French. It must be emphasized, however, that in the case of Aosta, knowledge of French does not guarantee its use, as only 2% of the population has French as its mother tongue. Aosta is very similar to Ireland, where, despite a high level of knowledge of the native language, its use is minimal.
As Aosta journalist Etienne Andrione told NAZIOGINTZA, “in Aosta, French is learned as a foreign language, like English, and most students do not achieve a minimum linguistic ability; this makes it very difficult to use”.
The situation was very different in 1921: according to that year’s census, 88% of the population was French-speaking, the vast majority of them monolingual.
How is it possible that, being part of the same state, these two small nations have had such a different degree of success in the normalization of their own languages? Why is it that in South Tyrol they have been able to maintain German, while in Aosta, on the other hand, French is on the verge of extinction?
It is very interesting, in our opinion, to analyze these two linguistic communities in order to identify the factors that have intervened in this process and the influence they have had on the different evolution of the two languages.
The first difference between these two Peoples is historical. Aosta Valley was incorporated into Italy in 1861, and South Tyrol in 1918. Almost 60 years apart. The process of Italianization of Aosta, therefore, began much earlier.
The educational system is, in the linguistic field, the main difference between these two territories. While in Aosta Valley they opted for a “bilingual” model (i.e. French and Italian in the classroom), in South Tyrol they opted for a system of linguistic immersion. In the latter territory, since 1948, there have been two school models: the German school and the Italian school. In German schools all subjects (except Italian language) are in German, and in Italian schools it is the other way around. In South Tyrol 72% of the pupils attend German schools and 24% attend Italian schools. In Aosta Valley, on the other hand, there is no French immersion model, and in schools than are theoretically bilingual, Italian is often more present in the classroom than is French.
There is no doubt that these two very different linguistic models have largely conditioned the evolution of the German and French languages in each nation. We Basques should learn from this.
It should be emphasized that in South Tyrol, in the difficult times of Mussolini, clandestine schools in the German language, the so-called “schools of the catacombs”, similar to the Basque ikastolas, were created. This shows the strong will of the Tyroleans to preserve their language.
The behavior of the neighboring states has also had a great influence on the linguistic situation. Austria has always claimed the territory of South Tyrol, which Italy took from it in 1918. There have been many diplomatic conflicts with Italy for this reason. That’s why, Austria has always made it easier for South Tyroleans to study or work in Austria, signing collaboration agreements with the autonomous government of South Tyrol (for example, many South Tyrolean students study at the University of Innsbruck). This close relationship between Austria and South Tyrol has strengthened linguistic ties. France’s position on the Aosta Valley, on the other hand, has been different. Although it is true that at the end of World War II France claimed the territory of Aosta, without success, since then indifference has prevailed, and French governments have not shown any great interest in protecting the French language in Aosta.
The strength of the nationalist parties is also different in the two Alpine territories: In the South Tyrolean Parliament, nationalist parties account for 55%, while in Valle d’Aosta nationalists poll 34%. The strength of pro-independence parties is also greater in South Tyrol. In general, the nationalist parties defend the language more strongly in South Tyrol than in Aosta.
Finally, the demographic influence must also be taken into account. Aosta (130,000 inhabitants) is smaller than South Tyrol (525,000 inhabitants) and therefore demographic changes have a greater impact on linguistic dynamics. While 13% of the inhabitants of South Tyrol are foreigners, in Aosta this percentage is greater than 50%.
NOTE: In addition to French and German, other indigenous languages are spoken in Aosta Valley and South Tyrol. In Aosta Valley, French-Provençal, which has no legal protection. And in South Tyrol Ladin, a Romance language, which is official in the small area where it is still spoken.