Alun Ffred Jones says some celebratory wind is needed to steer the jewel in the crown of our heritage from the rocks
I drive down to Nant Gwrtheyrn on a fine summer’s morning. The village is in its best new clothes, shining like silver. A roomful of school headteachers have gathered to discuss how to ensure that Welsh is spoken outside the classroom, the dinner room and beyond. The conference is testimony to the vision of Gwynedd Council and the school heads’ commitment, but it also tells the unpalatable truth about the state of the language on our streets and in our homes.
What do you make of the last half century as regards our language? You could liken it to a sailing ship on a choppy sea. The wind has turned and filled the sails, seemingly blowing it towards the New World. But the currents are pulling it relentlessly towards the jaws of dangerous rocks. I can rejoice that I am sitting in the Parliament of my country listening to a Tory member asking a question (occasionally) and being answered by the First Minister in the language of Dafydd ap Gwilym (but not in cynghanedd). Most public signs from Anglesey to Monmouth are completely bilingual, if not always correct.
But at the same time fewer and fewer adults, children and young people use the language as a natural means of communication. Fewer workplaces, villages and towns provide the opportunity or the need to speak it from day to day. Oh dear, I’m in danger of sending myself into a state of depression writing this, although, like the ship, I am trying to head in another direction.
Let us rejoice. New Welsh medium schools are opening their doors in many areas. And I don’t believe we realise – or wish to acknowledge – the achievement of the One Wales Government in setting up the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol (the National Welsh-medium College), a Welsh-medium education strategy, a powerful Language Act, and a New Strategy for the Language – all of this in barely four years. Of course, these are not four Eureka moments. Perseverence and momentum are required to achieve results. That places a huge responsibility on the Government of the day, and on all of us who care about it’s future.
So there is an official wind in the sails of Welsh, by all accounts. It was interesting, nevertheless, to read the comments of Gerry Holtham in a recent edition of Barn, that Plaid’s commitment to the Welsh language is still a stumbling block to many of Wales’ voters, be they non-Welsh speakers in the Valleys or incomers. It’s a strange old world.
What can we do except look back longingly to the days when children in Rhosllannerchrugog and Brynaman spouted the old language full pelt and God was in his heaven? Back to Nant Gwrtheyrn. In my opening remarks to the conference I suggested that we needed a Blwyddyn Dathlu’r Gymraeg – a year of celebrating the Welsh language. A joyful year full of excitement to persuade the bulk of the people of Wales that the language is not only worth keeping but is a national treasure for all of us without exception.
Because of the disastrous failure of our curriculum, the majority of the people of Wales do not have the scantest knowledge of our history, let alone the history of our language. Without this basic understanding, without knowledge and background, it’s little wonder that too many Welsh speakers are insecure and lacking in confidence when using the language. And it’s little wonder either that suspicion lurks in the minds and subconscious of non-Welsh speakers.
Three years ago I had a revealing conversation with a Welsh member of the Westminster Government. I was trying to convince him that the ability to receive a service in Welsh was a basic right. His prickly and agitated reply was “English speakers have rights as well!” Oh dear me! Where does one start?
But back to the celebration. It’s easy to imagine institutions like the Urdd and National Eisteddfod and the raft of cultural bodies joining in enthusiastically. Balloons as far as the eye can see! I would envisage an advertising and publicity campaign using our national heroes and heroines. I would wish to see statutory bodies like the National Museum, Cadw, and the Welsh Sports Council joining in. And not just singing, dancing and lemonade of course, but getting to grips with political and social arguments at grass roots level to try and understand one another better and banish the national neurosis that is still holding us back.
Who should be taking the lead? Not the Government, in my opinion – although its support would be crucial. The call has to come from the direction of the voluntary sector (Mudiad Dathlu’r Gymraeg), with an invitation for the private sector to join in the spree. Is it worth the effort? Well can we afford not to? We cannot place the responsibility on the shoulders of teachers alone, be they in Maenofferen or in Monmouth.
Back to the image of the wobbly ship. The worldwide climate isn’t favourable for lesser-used langages. There are plenty of nice and respectable pronouncements, but that is not the real world. Only by creating our own “micro climate” here in Wales, only by harnessing our national emotion, can we ensure that the wind is stronger than the pull of the current. And who knows? We may enjoy ourselves at the same time!