TEACHING two-year-olds to speak Cornish would have been considered an impossible dream by members of the language movement even a decade ago – but at the weekend, a group of pre-school children took their first steps into becoming bilingual.
Skol dy'Sadorn Kernewek – Cornish Saturday School – welcomed eight youngsters aged under four to the first bilingual creche held at Cornwall College in Camborne on Saturday.
And as their parents conversed in Cornwall's ancient language in an adjoining classroom, the little ones learned, through playing, drawing and food, to say their "mar pleg" and "meur ras" (please and thank you) with confidence.
The project is run by Rhisiart Tal-e-bot, who cut his teeth in pre-school bilingual education while teaching English in the Basque country.
He said that several studies had proved there were considerable benefits to learning an additional language before the age of five.
"All research shows that children who learn a second language at an early age not only have a greater capacity for learning other languages in later life but find it easier to learn other subjects in general.
"This is the first time it has been tried with such young children in Cornwall and we are hopeful it will be a success.
"We begin by building routines in a homely atmosphere, with the aim of making Cornish part of their everyday lives."
He said most of the children were from the Redruth and Camborne area and the fact that their parents were also learning Cornish would reinforce and assist learning in the home.
Cornish was once spoken exclusively in Cornwall, but a combination of persecution – most notably the massacre of thousands of native speakers during the Prayerbook Rebellion – and the increasing dominance of English for trading and professional purposes, resulted in a decline in its use.
Although still present today in some words of everyday dialect, as well as in thousands of place names, most scholars accept that it had completely died out as a first language by the 1800s.
A revival started in the early years of the 20th century and interest has grown steadily ever since.
By the 1970s, its predominantly academic use began to broaden into a more grassroots movement. This drive, allied to an increased awareness of cultural distinctiveness, resulted in the Government recognising Cornish under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in 2002.
Its status was strengthened further in 2008 when agreement for a standard written form for its use in education and public life was reached between the various factions of Cornish speakers and scholars.
Evening classes in Cornish are now held in towns and villages across Cornwall, with the number of fluent speakers growing all the time.
"Traditionally, the language was seen as for academics or people with beards and the community of bards," said Mr Tal-e-bot. "Now there is more of a cultural connection, a sense of community and history.
"An independent study into the language in 2000 recommended teaching it to pre-school children as a way to help it to flourish – and that's what we'll be doing on Saturdays at Cornwall College."
One of the parents taking part in the pilot is Emilie Champliaud, who said that, ultimately, she would like to see Cornish nursery schools set up as they were in Wales for Welsh speakers and in parts of Scotland for Gaelic speakers.
She added: "The Saturday session is firstly to give children an interest in the language and accustom them to it. But the real aim is to bring up our children bilingual."
Another mother, Sonya Anjari, said: "When I was growing up, Cornish was seen as a bit insular.
"Now it's part of a movement and it is easy to make it part of everyday life."
Mr Tal-e-bot said he hoped language teachers in other parts of Cornwall would follow the lead of Skol dy'Sadorn Kernewek, held in Cornwall College's Karenza Centre from 10.30am-12.30pm every Saturday during term times.
For more information, call Rhisiart Tal-e-bot on 07787 318666.