Wales: language should help unite the nation

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Oct 28 15:07:43 UTC 2007

Language should help unite the nation
Oct 27 2007 by Our Correspondent, Western Mail

Welsh language policy has come under attack in the UK media this week
amid accusations that discussion and debate on the subject has become
'taboo'. Here, Euro-MP and Welsh-speaker Eluned Morgan responds to the
criticism WALES should be proud of the fact that it is one of the very
few countries in the world that has managed to turn around the
fortunes of a minority language and increase the number of its

This turnaround was not achieved by osmosis or half-hearted tokenism,
but in large part by direct and targeted government intervention. We
should not be ashamed of that – we should wear it as a badge of pride.
This week the UK media has questioned whether support for the language
is as widespread as many of us would like to think, and whether a
reverse insipid discrimination against non-Welsh speakers has crept
into our country. It is a question from which we should not flinch,
and a question that we must confront head on.

I believe that there are indeed many examples, particularly in the
public sector, where a Welsh speaker has been given an opportunity
denied to a non-Welsh speaker. However, I also believe that in the
right context this can be justified. It goes without saying that to
ensure the continued revival of the language we must ensure that,
where relevant, there are opportunities to use that language. This
clearly requires that some employees must speak Welsh. In this way,
the language should be considered a skill in the same way as knowledge
of French of German would be useful in certain employment contexts.

Yet, tensions are bound to arise if there are cases of a Welsh speaker
being promoted beyond his or her ability and over non-Welsh speaking
colleagues, purely on the basis of their language ability. In jobs
which clearly do not require the ability to speak Welsh, prejudice
against non-Welsh speakers cannot be tolerated. That said, there are
examples where we need to go further in our promotion of the language.
Who could deny that an elderly lady in the last days of her life
should not be allowed to express herself and given the dignity of
communicating in her mother tongue? That means in certain areas of
Wales it would be correct to give an employment advantage to a
Welsh-speaking nurse or care worker.

Who was not moved by the recent case of a woman forced to express
herself in English, a language in which she was clearly uncomfortable
and not confident, during a highly emotive murder trial for which she
was eventually acquitted? The question which is more pressing is
whether the way we currently support the Welsh language is the correct
one? Are we inclusive enough? Are we targeting our scarce resources in
the right way?
This weekend I confront a dilemma. My scarcest resource is time, so do
I spend the weekend translating my web site into Welsh which may, if
I'm lucky, be read by 60 people, or do I spend the weekend
entertaining my children's friends from non-Welsh speaking homes who
attend their Welsh language school to be immersed in the language and
establish Welsh firmly as their language of communication?

Government too confronts dilemmas over the allocation of resources.
Would the money currently spent on reams of complex and costly Welsh
documents read by very few not be better spent on expanding the
opportunities to speak Welsh at the grassroots level, with for example
help to open a Welsh-language nursery school in every small town in
Wales? Of course we must continue to give support to Welsh language,
literature would have little chance of being published otherwise, but
we should have a serious debate about redirecting more of the finance
away from the Welsh language elite into the hands of the Welsh
speaking masses.

We also have to question whether current considerations on whether
Welsh should be required in the private sector is the right policy,
and whether there is the capacity to deliver in terms of Welsh
speakers available. Welsh language provision already made available by
companies such as BT are rarely used by Welsh speakers. Unless there
is more use of Welsh language services at the grassroots level, we
shall never achieve the goal of being a truly bilingual country. The
legislative route is not always the right one.

To ignore or dismiss the needs and concerns of the 80% of the
population who don't speak Welsh would be wrong and dangerous. Not
least because, in order to secure the future of the Welsh language, it
is vital that all our population support it – whether they speak it or

Our goal must be to reach out and welcome non-Welsh speakers and to
give confidence to Welsh speakers who do not use the language. It must
not be an exclusive club. Our language is a unique asset. It must be
used to help celebrate and define our nation, not to divide it.

Eluned Morgan is Labour MEP for Wales and Chair of Cymdeithas Cledwyn,
the Labour Party's Welsh language forum.

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