Welsh Language Standards should be embraced by service providers

Delyth Jewell says the use of Welsh language services is complex, and standards will pose a new challenge.

With the passing of the Welsh Language Measure (Wales) 2011, new standards will soon be imposed on a variety of service providers, local authorities and voluntary services in Wales relating to their provision of Welsh language services for consumers.  But many service providers report that the numbers of people who use the services already available are low.  Last week, Citizens Advice Cymru published a report (English by default: Understanding the use and non-use of Welsh language services), which is aimed at understanding the reasons behind the low take up, as well as offering some practical solutions for service providers in embracing the new standards.

In order to understand the background, our report looks at the barriers which consumers face when using Welsh language services – which are often manifold and complex – as well as suggesting ways in which service providers could engage with consumers in order to improve the take-up of existing services (and ways in which they could design, implement and monitor services in the future).

Our report is based on the findings of research undertaken by Beaufort Research into the current and potential usage of Welsh language services by fluent Welsh speakers.

According to the 2011 census, 19% of the population in Wales are able to speak Welsh.  Invariably, levels of competence – and confidence – will vary, but the fact remains that this figure does not tally up with the numbers of people accessing Welsh language services on a regular basis.

We found, for example, that 54% of the fluent Welsh speakers we spoke to as part of our research always use English when contacting their bank or building society, and that 75% always contact their gas, electricity, phone, broadband and television suppliers in English.

Our findings did, however, suggest that Welsh speakers were more inclined to use Welsh in some contexts than in others: 65% of those who usually interacted with their bank in person said they sometimes or always used Welsh; yet, conversely, only 13% of those who contacted their bank online tended to use Welsh.  Websites fared particularly badly across the board in our survey – suggesting that a majority of consumers find it difficult or off-putting to use Welsh language services online.

The reasons behind consumers’ reluctance to use Welsh language services are complicated.  Our report suggests that the barriers which Welsh language users face in accessing services are both structural and behavioural – and that these barriers often compound one another.  Structurally, services which are designed without Welsh speaking consumers’ needs in mind,  are difficult to find or use and which are developed without the input of consumers are less likely to be used by consumers.  But the theories which underpin behavioural economics also come into play here.  Many Welsh speakers, for example, use English as a matter of habit in certain contexts – particularly in situations where the English service is offered as a default.  Welsh speakers are also sometimes nervous about making mistakes in Welsh, or do not trust that Welsh language services will be as easy to use as a result of a negative past experience.  Where Welsh language provision is inconsistent across platforms, or when technical or confusing Welsh is used, consumers are less likely to use the service in the future.

Our report argues that consumers value a service which has as few obstacles as possible: for example, consumers value services which don’t have too many automated steps before accessing Welsh, services which are efficient, and services which are consistent across platforms.  Research also shows that consumers are far more likely to choose a Welsh language service if it is offered upfront – in fact, this statement was backed by 93% of those in our survey.

The desire is evidently there – which we believe offers an exciting opportunity for service providers to engage with consumers in a way which will instil value and loyalty.  Our report suggests that service providers should consult Welsh language consumers through adopting a specific engagement strategy, in order to ensure that they understand what Welsh speakers want from services.  We also think it vital that Welsh language services should be signposted clearly upfront, and that these should be promoted actively and available consistently.

Most importantly, we feel that the new Welsh language standards pose a timely opportunity and exciting challenge for service providers – and will enable them to reach new audiences.

Delyth Jewell is Policy Officer for Citizens Advice Cymru.

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