Making language policy relevant to the twenty-first century


Huw Lewis and Elin Royles argue that language policy should reflect and take account of the way people live their lives

Currently, the Welsh Government is in the process of finalising the content of its new national Welsh language strategy. This new strategy, a successor to A living language: A language for living, published back in 2012, will outline the government’s vision for Welsh for the next 20 years. Given the Welsh Labour 2016 manifesto commitment of creating a million Welsh speakers by 2050, the strategy is likely to be an important document setting a series of key long-term goals. Indeed, when launching the government’s public consultation process last summer, the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Welsh Language, Alun Davies, emphasised his desire to set ‘deliberately ambitious targets.’

As we await the publication of the final strategy, it is important to appreciate that there is nothing unique about this effort on the part of the Welsh Government to use public policy in order to promote the prospects of Welsh. Rather, efforts by either state or regional governments to revitalise the prospects of regional or minority languages are now increasingly common across Western Europe. If we looked north, for example, we would see that in Scotland Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the official body tasked by the Scottish Government to promote the Gaelic language, is in the process of consulting on the contents of its National Gaelic Language Plan (the third to be published since 2005). If we looked a little further afield, we would see that over the past decade similar strategy documents outlining policy initiatives in favour of regional or minority languages have also appeared in a range of other European locations, including Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia and Ireland.

Significantly, these language revitalisation strategies have each been developed against a backdrop of radical social change. The turn from the twentieth to the twenty-first century is widely regarded as a period of fundamental social transformation, one perhaps unmatched since the onset of industrialization. Societies are now increasingly individualistic, diverse and mobile; their economies increasingly interconnected; and their governance structures are increasingly complex. Furthermore, many of the factors traditionally emphasised as key determinants of a language group’s level of vitality – the family, the local community, the economy and the level of state support – relate to areas of life that have been deeply impacted by these patterns of social change.

Given this, contemporary language revitalisation strategies could clearly benefit from paying increasing attention to the implications of current changes in how people live their lives, how they interact with each other, and, consequently, how they use their language(s). Yet, recent research conducted by members of the Centre for Welsh Politics and Society at Aberystwyth University suggests that this has not been the case. To date, bar some limited examples, there has been little sustained reflection within language revitalisation policy documents on whether our fast-changing social context should prompt a rethink with regard to how the task of language revitalization should be approached.

Consider, for instance, some of the following examples. First, despite the emphasis traditionally placed on role of the family in promoting consistent language acquisition, there has been little reflection on the implications of recent changes in the way that families organize their day-to-day lives and care for their children. Second, despite the emphasis traditionally placed on the role of territorial communities in promoting stable patterns of language use, there has been little reflection on the implications of recent changes in the nature of community life and the tendency for patterns of social interaction to be centred increasingly around specific ‘communities of interest’, or even to take place online. Third, despite the emphasis traditionally placed on the need to ensure that minority languages possess a measure of economic value, there has been little serious reflection on the implications of economic globalisation and in particular the advent of skills-based employment.

Examples such as these highlight the type of challenge currently facing the Welsh Government, alongside many other European regional governments, if they wish to implement language revitalisation strategies that respond to life in the early twenty-first century. They also pose key questions to minority language movements more broadly, by raising the possibility that long-standing assumptions may need to be re-examined.

As a contribution to this process, a recently established research network, coordinated by researchers from Aberystwyth University and the University of Edinburgh, will bring together an international group of language policy researchers, along with prominent policy practitioners, in order to examine the implications of current patterns of social change for our understanding of how language revitalisation efforts can be designed and implemented. Over the next two years, the Revitalise network will seek to study this question with reference to a variety of European examples and will seek to identify lessons to inform the future work of relevant public officials and civil society actors working in the field of minority language promotion.

Seeking to maintain and revitalise the prospects of a regional or minority language is widely acknowledged as an extremely challenging undertaking. Success, be it in terms of an increase in the number of language speakers, or in terms of wider social use of the language, can often be elusive. The contention that underlies the work of the Revitalise network is that such successes are likely to be even more elusive without those engaged in language revitalisation increasingly basing their efforts on a sound understanding of how people live their lives today.



Dr Huw Lewis and Dr Elin Royles work at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University and are members of the University’s recently established Centre for Welsh Politics and Society. The Revitalise research network is an AHRC funded research project, coordinated by scholars at Aberystwyth University and the University of Edinburgh, which brings together researchers and policy practitioners from across Europe to discuss the implications of current patterns of social change for efforts to promote the prospects of regional and minority languages. For the latest updates on the network’s activities follow @_revitalise on Twitter.

6 thoughts on “Making language policy relevant to the twenty-first century

  1. I’m looking forward to the new report as I am hopeful that it will deliver on the promise of re-evaluating the long-held assumptions which have underpinned the Welsh Government’s approach to the Welsh language since devolution began.

    Clearly, the established approach – often criticized for creating the perception of forcing the language on an indifferent population – have failed to produce the desired results. Instead we sourly need to have a new approach which gets beyond this and actually delivers on the idea that Wales has two equal languages, meaning that we should never discriminate against anyone who speaks only one of them.

  2. A question for Leigh. When you say ‘speaks only one of them do you mean “is able to speak only one of them” or “chooses to speak only one of them” or both?

  3. This is an interesting project. The role of governments in promoting language development and use beyond the curriculum was a thorny political and social issue in Canada for several decades, which seems a distant memory today, considering how quickly issues rise and are overtaken by others. Nevertheless, I count myself fortunate to have worked with colleagues from Quebec and Catalonia in a period when the use of their respective languages evolved into a matter of standard procedure in day to day activities regarding intergovernmental matters.

    Another business-related experience comes to mind which suggests that more work is needed in Wales to ensure the effective use of Welsh and English in day to day business transactions.

    As member of a well-established organization in Wales I paid my annual membership by International Money Order. Not long ago, a bank teller in a Welsh-speaking community declined to accept the cheque for clearance, despite the fact that the order was issued in accordance with internationally accepted standards. The Secretary of the organization returned the cheque to me with a letter of apology written in Welsh.

    I raised the matter with my bank and was advised to return the cheque to the Secretary with written assurances that the document was valid and could be cleared through the process in the UK. I wrote the return letter in Welsh, as I have done in correspondence with this organization for the past twenty years. Unfortunately, the bank did not have a member of staff who understood what was written in the letter.

    The overall transaction and working costs involved in clarifying this matter far outweighed the face value of the international money order and the processing fee that I paid for it.

  4. The ‘fate’ of the welsh language to the 90% of welsh population who are non speakers is extremely marginal as they live their lives almost exclusively through the English language and are perfectly happy in that condition.I have good friends who grew up in the REAL welsh heartlands and clearly they love the language,as that’s how they identify with parents/grandparents/family and friends and therefore that’s their ‘homeland’,whereas for us in the east its the complete reverse. In ‘private’ conversations it is clear that the current policies/practices pursued to advance the welsh language in the anglicised areas are having the impact of great resentment which can never be openly discussed without having a ton of bricks on top of your head.There must come a time when even the most ‘fanatic’ have to see reality,except for one’s within the ‘bubble’,i.e BBC Wales/S4C/etc etc and accept that its bound to fail in the long run as there is no consensus to accept great imposition amongst the English only speakers in this unhappy region of the UK.

  5. Ken Richards makes a telling point. The question is to what extent are Welsh speakers able to live their lives through the medium of Welsh. These rights exist in the public sector but not the private one. The first port of call should be banking and financial services. It should be a statutory right for customers to use Welsh in the banking sector. It is not as if the banks cannot afford to provide the necessary resources for such a service. However the political will has to come from the National Assembly.

    On the contrary side, one problem is the policy that only recognises Cymreictod (see the National Eisteddfod) as a valid culture within the language. Welsh language education has been excused from following a multicultural agenda. This has the effect, if not the intention, of creating a whites-only culture which ignores the cultural identity of the many cultural groups which make up Wales. However it also excludes the majority of the population who do not belong to Cymreictod. If you insist that you must belong to Cymreictod in order to be a Welsh-speaker, you are not going to get many takers.

    The other difficulty is the insistence that education be divided between 1st language Welsh speakers and 2nd language Welsh speakers. Whatever the original purpose of this measure, it runs contrary to every principle of what it means to be a citizen in a modern democracy like Wales. Language achievement should be based on ability. If the education system is unable to deliver such a system then questions need to be asked about that system and who is responsible for designing it. Unfortunately, I have come across too many Welsh speakers who regard this system as proof of their superiority over “learners”. They are far from being in the majority. But they often occupy positions of influence and use this system to impose their bigotry on others more able than themselves. It is unacceptable for one social group to impose an identity on other social groups that they have not chosen for themselves, but the current Welsh language policy of monoculturalism allows them to do so. To change this to a system based on ability and equality would require political will from the National Assembly.

  6. Leigh said, “perception of forcing the language on an indifferent population”. In border regions this is exactly how many people perceive Welsh language provision.
    To broaden it’s appeal, Welsh culture (tv/music/books/arts/events etc) could be supported, so that people want to be a part of it. INSPIRE people to want to learn, use and live the language.

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