[lg policy] 'Welsh is a wonderful gift': speakers of the language relish new support

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Mon Apr 9 14:45:36 UTC 2012

'Welsh is a wonderful gift': speakers of the language relish new support

With language commissioner promising to act against suppression of
Welsh, there could be a resurgence in the tongue
 Abi Pierce takes time out from her work at the Affordable Household
Goods stall at Wrexham Butchers' Market to wax lyrical about the Welsh
language: "I see it as a wonderful gift, something to be cherished and

It's not easy being a Welsh speaker, she admits. "I'm not always
comfortable speaking it," the 17-year-old says. "Some people take it
as a bit of a joke, they think it's a dying language and not worth
saving." Which is why she is buoyed up by the bold attitude of the
newly minted Welsh language commissioner, who is promising not only to
act as an advocate for the tongue but to take action against those who
do not give Welsh speakers such as Abi the freedom to express

In her first speech as commissioner, Meri Huws spoke of her vision of
a Wales where speakers had the confidence to use the language and
trust in the law to rectify any prejudice. Her initial focus will be
to make sure that the Welsh government and public bodies fulfil their
obligations to offer services both in English and Welsh.

Strikingly, Huws signalled she would step in if employees in small
businesses were denied the freedom to speak Welsh at work. She gave
the scenario of two hairdressers who were speaking Welsh together and
a third insisting they speak English because he or she could not

"In that situation the third colleague has interfered with the other
two's freedom to use the Welsh language," said Huws. The Welsh
speakers could complain to the commissioner and she could investigate.

Abi is impressed. "Anything that can be done to make Welsh speakers
more comfortable and more confident has to be a good thing. Especially
in a place like Wrexham, which is not a Welsh-speaking heartland, we
do need someone that is going to help us fight for the language."

The legislation that introduced the post of commissioner – and makes
Welsh an official language – is the Welsh Language (Wales) 2011
Measure, the first piece of law relating to the language drafted and
passed in Wales since the Act of Union in 1536.

There is a possibility that Huws could be the first of a wave of
language commissioners. Scotland and Northern Ireland are watching how
she operates with a view to replicating her role. Some believe there
could be an argument to bring in commissioners in England to champion
minority languages.

In Wales, many believe the language is in crisis. Efforts have been
made to teach Welsh in schools and more younger people such as Abi
relish speaking the language but there continues to be a net loss of
fluent speakers.

Nigel Ruck, who works for a public body but is today on a day off and
enjoying a pint at Wrexham's new Welsh cultural centre Saith Seren
(Seven Stars), has learned Welsh since moving from the south to a
language heartland in the north. "I felt guilty I couldn't speak
Welsh. Learning was a revelation and I find it very empowering," he
says. But he wonders if it is better to encourage rather than coerce.

Meirion Prys Jones, the head of the now defunct Welsh language board
(which has been replaced by the commissioner), raised a similar point
in a BBC interview: "You can have as much legislation as you want, you
can have as much policy as you want, but unless you get in amongst the
people and persuade them that the language is useful to them, there's
no hope, I think."

The standards that organisations will have to meet will be shaped in
the coming months during a period of public consultation. The
commissioner will be able to fine bodies that do not comply with
standards up to £5,000. Her powers relating to, for example, the
hairdressers she mentioned are more limited though she could
investigate complaints, write a report and release it to the media.

The tenor of the commissioner's remarks is causing alarm bells to ring
in business and industry.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Wales believes that more
language legislation could put more of a burden on its members.

Iestyn Davies, head of external affairs, said the FSB was "fully
supportive" of Wales's development as a bilingual country. "But I
believe the best way to encourage the language is through voluntary
codes. People should be encouraged to use Welsh because they want to,
not because they are coerced."

Over in the People's Market (Wrexham has a rich variety of indoor
markets) Nyeem Aslam is less diplomatic than the FSB. "I think this
commissioner is talking nonsense. They always seem to be coming up
with new rules to make it harder for businesses." Aslam runs the Welsh
Shop in the market, selling rugby shirts and T-shirts bearing
patriotic slogans such as "Every morning I wake up, I thank the Lord
I'm Welsh" but believes that in towns such as Wrexham, the Welsh
language is irrelevant. "I don't speak it and don't do any business in

Huws' role is not unique. Canada has language commissioners to protect
its bilingualism and, as in Wales, immigration is seen as one of its
major challenges. The Republic of Ireland also has a commissioner and
is reviewing how its language laws are working on the ground.

Bethan Williams, chair of the pressure group Cymdeithas yr Iaith
Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society), said legislation was necessary to
make sure Welsh was a "central part of everyday life".

She wants the commissioner to tackle big business, to force
supermarkets to provide services in Welsh rather than just sticking up
a few "tokenistic" signs in Welsh and to ensure banks offer online
services in Welsh.

Professor Colin Williams, a language policy expert at Cardiff
University's School of Welsh, said there could be an argument for
language commissioners in the UK for other tongues such as Urdu or
Gujarati. "These minority languages aren't temporary, they are

Williams said the new law was important for the language but also
because it showed that Wales, which only gained primary law-making
powers last year, could frame its own legislation.

"The new language measure was a test case of the ability of the
national assembly to produce primary legislation. It was proof that
legislation distinct for Wales could be fashioned in Wales and
implemented by Welsh public servants. It is a symbolic sign."
Welsh in numbers

• Until the mid-1800s, more than 80% of people in Wales could speak Welsh.

• Factors such as the industrial revolution, which brought mass
immigration, led to a steep decline in the number of Welsh speakers.

• According to the Welsh government, there are now 580,000 people in
Wales who can speak the language – about 21% of the population.

• Language use surveys carried out between 2004 and 2006 suggested
that 56% of all fluent Welsh speakers, in every age group, lived in
four counties: Anglesey, Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire.

• The 2001 census revealed that 40.8% of Welsh children aged between 5
and 15 could speak Welsh.

• There is a net loss of 2,000-3,000 fluent Welsh speakers every year
as a result of outmigration, death, etc.

• A Federation of Small Businesses survey in 2009 found that 28% of
those surveyed were able to deal with customers or each other in
Welsh, and 12% were using bilingual signs or literature.


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