Thursday, April 19, 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 developed."

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 themselves.

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 understand.

"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 Welsh."

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 permanent."

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.


Morris, Steven. 2012. "'Welsh is a wonderful gift': speakers of the language relish new support". The Guardian. Posted: April 8, 2012. Available online:

1 comment:

melrinehart said...

Ahh, I just lectured about language revitalization efforts today and so glad to see this here...especially for the promising statistics.
mrinehart @