Ruth Richards says new standards only provide a partial solution to problems with people using and enjoying the Welsh language.
The process of formulating and agreeing the first round of Welsh language standards has been by the Welsh Language Commissioner’s own admission in her Annual Report, “lengthy and laborious”. Compliance notices have now been set for local authorities, National Parks and Welsh Ministers. It is to be hoped that this new (and untested) process will be assimilated as swiftly and painlessly as possible.
If the standards succeed, they will lead to more uniform Welsh-language provision throughout Wales. The policy making standards will require an assessment of the linguistic impact of any decisions taken. At a time when policy decisions are driven by cuts and budgetary constraints, this has to be a positive and timely development.
The relevant bodies will be required to uphold the rights of Welsh speakers and provide them with the offer of receiving services through the medium of Welsh. The onus of responsibility however, rests firmly on the individual service user, who is expected to request this and complain if the request is not adequately dealt with. Although this principle confirms the legal status of the language, it nevertheless assumes that Welsh is always the alternative; an assumption that makes no sense in areas where a significant number speak the language, and where the local authority has taken positive steps to normalise its use. It was encouraging to see that negotiations between Gwynedd Council and the Commissioner led to agreement upon a series of requirements that went some way to acknowledging the linguistic culture of the authority, but this only serves to illustrate the limitations of the standards as a means of actively encouraging the use of Welsh.
In areas where the Welsh language is not as strong, and public sector commitment not as proactive, the process of requesting, demanding and complaining can be intimidating. This is particularly true for the Welsh speaker who lacks confidence, or for anyone who (perhaps understandably) wishes their contact with a local authority to be as swift and uncomplicated as possible.
The rights and regulations of the language standards must therefore be counterbalanced with a more flexible and positive approach; one that promotes the language as a natural choice and medium of expression. This should not only apply to accessing public services, but also to increasing the use of Welsh within the community and in the workplace. It is interesting to note that while there are standards aimed at increasing the Welsh language capacity of the local authority workforce, and emphasising workers’ rights to receive documentation and official interviews in Welsh, there is little encouragement to establish a Welsh-speaking workplace or administration.
It is also worrying that the promotion standards are conspicuously vague in comparison to the other highly prescriptive requirements. When it comes to actively promoting the informal use of the language, authorities are only required to produce a Welsh Languge Strategy, the contents of which are not specified in any detail. It can only be hoped that in time, further guidance and good practice will bring greater clarity, but this remains the area of highest priority and urgency; the one which has the most potential to bring about meaningful change.
While the Welsh language standards will undoubtedly force many local authorities to take their responsibility towards the language more seriously, in their current form, they can only provide a partial solution. If more people are to use and enjoy using the language, imaginative and creative initiatives are needed. Disturbingly, these are the kind of initiatives that have recently seen cutbacks and cancellations (projects aimed at increasing individual confidence to speak Welsh or the use of the language in the home, for instance). It needs to be acknowledged that the bureaucracy of the Welsh language standards cannot on their own engender enthusiasm for the language or encourage its use by any who are not already confident in their fluency and eloquence. As the standards are finally imposed and implemented, regulation must no longer be allowed to take the focus away from initiatives aimed at increasing the use of the language within as many different and pleasurable situations as possible. The Welsh language – like any other language – deserves to be celebrated and encouraged as a medium for joyous (as well as official) communication.