“As a teenager in Wales in the late Nineties, I was not a fan of Welsh; it was easy to mock and moan about. There was the translation of my village’s road sign, so it was both in ‘English’ and Welsh: Llandegley and Llandgelau. There was Wales’s exciting new building, the Millennium Stadium, known in the native tongue as Stadiwm y Mileniwm. Silly!
There was missing Channel 4 shows from Six Feet Under to Sex and the City so that we could have Welsh medium S4C instead (it featured a sitcom called Pam Fi Duw?, which translates as ‘Why me God?’ – summing up my feelings perfectly). I resented being forced to study Welsh to GCSE – if I had to do a language, couldn’t I do Italian, which would have been useful, as Italy was hot, and sexy, and a long way away…?
Fast forward to 2013, and I don’t live in Verona, but nor do I live in the Valleys (it’s London, predictably). But whether it’s age or absence, my feelings towards Welsh have mellowed. I like the different perspective a rural upbringing has given me, and rather wish I was able to say more than “Wyt ti’n hoffi coffi?” (“Do you like coffee?”).
The actual usage of minority languages is very slow to change, but hearts and minds can be quicker. Since I left Wales, the visibility of Welsh and other UK minority languages seems to have rocketed; and there’s been a burgeoning interest in both localism, and genealogy – people want to know what their great-grandparents spoke. There has also been a raft of language acts, enshrining rights for speakers of minority languages in law, while our understanding of the benefits of bilingualism has prompted a sea-change in the educational arguments. I have a hunch my feelings are typical of a wider shift in public opinion – but what difference has that made to minority language-speaking communities around the UK?
Welsh still has the greatest legislative protection in the UK, however, and it’s increasing. Since April last year, Meri Huws has been employed in the new role of Welsh Language Commissioner, investigating complaints about discrimination or lack of services. While she was shocked by the census results, she does point to a shift in attitudes within her lifetime: “the change has been incredible, in terms of not only acceptance of the language, but a real pride”. Anti-Welsh feeling is in decline – and part of that is enshrining the language’s status in law, she believes.
The other big success has been Welsh-medium education. The advantages of bilingualism are now well recognised – there’s no evidence a child’s English will suffer if they are educated primarily in another language, and they’re more likely to pick up further languages. Minority-languages expert, Professor Colin Williams, tells me that at Cardiff University they “are developing a strategy which sees Welsh in a European context: it’s part of European mainstream where trilingualism may be the norm.”
It’s the same story in Scotland – even if the overall numbers of Gaelic speakers are decreasing, thanks to an ageing population of native speakers, Gaelic-medium schools have become a popular option. No schools are required to teach it, and there’s no move to make it mandatory, but Minister for Scotland’s Languages, Alasdair Allen, commented “the number of people who speak Gaelic is around about 60,000, and the population is quite scattered – it’s quite a different situation [to Wales, so] it’s not a question of forcing the language on anyone. In education, the biggest problem the government has is … trying to meet the demand for education, which is in some ways quite a happy situation to be in. Thirty or 40 years ago, no one would have heard Gaelic from a teacher; you’ve gone from that to a situation where about a third of primary kids in the Western Isles have their education in Gaelic units. Despite what you sometimes read in some papers, Gaelic is not actually that contentious. There’s broad public support.”
There’s a more unlikely example of this in London, home to a vibrant group of Cornish speakers. Cornish is at an earlier stage of its revival, with no exact figures available, though the Cornish Language Partnership – Keskowethyans an Taves Kernewek – estimate there are hundreds of fluent speakers, and thousands that have some ability. It is, perhaps, one of the less contentious minority languages in the UK, and its revival has flourished alongside a wider recognition of ‘Cornish’ as an identity distinct from ‘English’.
Tony Hak isn’t Cornish, but after holidaying there in the Nineties, he got interested in the place names and started a correspondence course in Cornish; when he discovered a class in London, he joined and is now a teacher himself, and was even made a Bard. I met him and his students before an evening class, held at adult-education college City Lit, largely attended by Cornish people who’ve moved for work but want to maintain their links; it may be more than 250 miles away from Cornwall, but it’s the largest class running today.
It’s far from being compulsory in schools, but about a quarter of primaries offer some Cornish. Pensans Primary School even has it on the curriculum; Sarah Crommay is one of several staff who deliver Cornish one afternoon a week, with the help of children’s books developed by The Cornish Language Partnership, Maga. “Basically the resources were so good – I’m not a fluent Cornish speaker, but they made it easy for us to deliver an interactive, really fun way of leaning Cornish.”
In Cornwall, the language appears to be a pleasing heritage quirk, a link with a nearly-lost Celtic identity, a celebration of difference… but minority languages can also be used as a tool for maintaining a divisive sense of difference. So it has long been in Northern Ireland, where speaking Irish was a sure-fire indicator you were Catholic, Nationalist. A friend from County Tyrone recalls hearing people use it, very deliberately, in pubs – almost as a warning.
And while in Wales and Scotland, despite some wariness, the general public are either in support of or indifferent to the indigenous language, in Northern Ireland there is still a faction strongly against it. In a survey carried out by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure last year, 29 per cent of people were “against” Irish language usage in Northern Ireland, with 17 per cent of that “strongly against”.
A major issue for campaigners is the ongoing lack of a language act. “This is the only part of [the UK] where the primary indigenous language isn’t already protected in domestic legislation by a specific act,” explains Jan Muller of Pobal, an umbrella organisation for the Irish language. This flouts a commitment in the 2006 St Andrews Act, and has prompted concern from the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
While becoming fluent in any second language is no quick task, it seems that across the UK, there’s a feeling that attitudes, at least, are changing.”
Meanwhile the Guardian looks at the Welsh language alone and those contentious census results that seem to show an overall decline in the Welsh-speaking population (though the explanation seems to be a higher mortality rate amongst older native speakers while the number of new and younger speakers is actually on the increase). Signs of the future importance and impact of new speakers in all the Celtic nations can be seen in this report from the Press and Journal in Scotland on the continued growth in education through the Scottish language:
“Highland Council plans to build new facilities for Gaelic primary and secondary education in Inverness to meet a boom in children learning the language.
Council officers are considering carrying out a feasibility study to add the second extension to the region’s flagship Gaelic primary school in the past three years.
To cater for these pupils as they move into secondary school, councillors will be asked to agree that the design for the replacement Inverness Royal Academy includes six classrooms dedicated to Gaelic-medium education.”
While all looks somewhat better in Britain for the speakers of the indigenous Celtic languages in Ireland, as usual, one cannot say the same. Here the Irish state actively works as a weapon of anglophone discrimination and supremacism against its own citizens.
- Angloban – The Anglophone Fundamentalists Of Britain And Ireland (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Anglophone Propaganda And The British Press (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Funding Boost For Sabhal Mòr Ostaig And Scottish Language (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Sláintegate – The Irish Independent Newspaper And A Mysterious Report (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Wales News: No investigation over claims children punished for speaking English in Welsh schools (walesonline.co.uk)
- Wales News: Gaps in teaching knowledge ‘preventing children from learning Welsh’ (walesonline.co.uk)