Saturday, 16 December 2017

Stop Blaming the Welsh Language for the Language Divide in Wales

Having just watched the video of a non-Welsh-speaking Anglesey Councillor arguing that Welsh Language Policy has created an ‘linguistic apartheid’ in Wales, I thought that it would be high time to try to debunk the anti-Welsh-Language-campaigners’ favourite argument – namely that the survival and promotion of the Welsh Language is responsible for the language divides that exist in Wales.

First of all, what language did Wales speak when there last wasn’t a Language Divide in the country? Answer: Welsh - and it was the entry of the English Language into Wales that created the split.

Now, having two languages is no bad thing; on the contrary, Finland, Belgium and Switzerland are all either bilingual or multilingual, and they are better because of it.  I, myself a native English-Speaker, love learning languages, and am actively trying to become more multi-lingual, not less. 

But when the anti-Welsh-Language folk blame the Welsh language for dividing a country, and its communities, I think that it’s important that we respond to that argument, and not let Welsh get criticised merely for existing within its own country.  Welsh has done nothing wrong, so to speak. 

On the contrary, I would argue that the universality of English is what’s to blame for a divided Wales.  Far from uniting Wales, the universality of English is the reason why Wales today is a land divided between those who do still speak Welsh, and those who don’t.  And this divide does indeed exist both at a national level and at community level. 

Think about it.  In England, where I’m from, there is no universal, or even widely spoken, second language, and that is a good thing.  It means that if you are an immigrant or an ‘expat’, you pretty much have no choice but to learn the local language, English.  In England, there is no divide between those who do speak the local language, and those who don’t, since everyone has to speak it.

In Wales’s Welsh-speaking communities, however, everyone can also speak English, which is why most incomers in such areas don’t speak Welsh, even after living there for a long time.  And it’s that phenomenon that has created the division and even social tensions, within said communities.

The 1989 A Study of Language Contact And Social Networks in Ynys Môn, by Delyth Morris, which looked at the Welsh-speaking community of Brynwran, showed exactly that.  Indeed, the results showed that a number of the incomers were actually angry that the locals spoke to each other in a language that they didn’t understand and didn’t like the fact that Welsh was the language of many of the village’s clubs and societies. 

 Of course, in a fair and just situation, those incomers would have been forced to learn the local language and not think anything of it, yet, the universality of English as a second language prevented this ‘normal’ process of integration and assimilation from happening, and is therefore a direct cause of the social malaise.

But of course, in most of Wales, this phenomenon has not stopped there, and has instead resulted in the collapse of Welsh as the local vernacular all together.
That was why, when I was in Aberystwyth, I met so many locals who either couldn’t, or didn’t, speak Welsh.  And it was always for the same reason -  that one of their parents or grandparents had been an incomer, which meant that English had to be the language spoken at home from then on, and that therefore English was the first language of everyone in the family from that point onwards.

In a fair and normal situation, any such incomer would have had to learn the local language to communicate with the locals, and not the other way around, and the local language would have been the common language.  The universality of English is what prevented this, and is therefore a direct cause of the collapse of Welsh as the community language in Aberystwyth, in the South Wales coalfield, in Dolgellau, across most of Wales, in fact. 

Thus, if I had to blame one language for the language divide in Wales, I wouldn’t pick Welsh.  Rather, it is the universality of English that has led directly to a Wales that is a) divided into Welsh-Speaking and non-Welsh-speaking areas, and b) a Wales in which there is division within it’s remaining Welsh-Speaking communities, since the universality of English prevents the absorption of non-Welsh-speakers into the local Language and culture. 

Not only that, but a non-Welsh-Speaking Wales would have far more reason to be internally divided than a Welsh-Speaking one.  When Wales was majority Welsh-Speaking, north Walians, Mid-Walians and South-Walians had something obvious that united them, their language.  

Now, however, that most Welsh people no longer speak Welsh, that unifying influence is no longer there, and many in North-East Wales, for example, feel that they have more in common with people from the geographically closer Cheshire, Liverpool and Manchester, than with people from Cardiff.   
Thus, the collapse of the Welsh Language has greatly strengthened the divide between north, mid and south Wales. 

So, when somebody accuses the promotion or survival of the Welsh Language of being something that divides Wales, tell them that they, if anything, are accusing the wrong language.