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.