Teaching children Welsh isn’t ‘forcing’ it on them – but giving them a choice of two languages

A child reading a book. Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash.

Owen McArdle

Powys County Council politics rarely throws up much to quicken the pulse. It was a surprise, then, that there has been a row this week that has made it beyond the borders of our shire and into national political discourse, based around an implication (or inference – people should judge that for themselves) that Welsh is being ‘forced onto’ certain non-Welsh-speaking parts of Wales.

Conservative councillor Amanda Jenner made the comments in an article published on the Conservative.Home website. The offending paragraph in the article which was on ‘policy devolution’ said: “I don’t want to see the Welsh language forced upon every nook and cranny of Wales, including upon those communities whose traditions and cultures may not have the Welsh Language embedded in them.”

The first thing about that claim – not a new one – that I take issue with is that there are ‘non-Welsh-speaking’ parts of Wales. This is historically the case for some Celtic languages: neither Scottish Gaelic nor Breton was historically spoken throughout Scotland or Brittany respectively, with some areas of those nations speaking other languages (including other long-established varieties such as Scots and Gallo).

Welsh, on the other hand, was historically spoken across all the territory comprising modern Wales, and indeed far beyond. There is no historical justification for a dichotomy between Welsh-speaking and non-Welsh-speaking Wales.

Just as there is no historical justification, the picture on the ground today does not support a binary division of the nation. There are no Welsh-speaking and non-Welsh-speaking areas, only Welsh-speaking and non-Welsh-speaking people. That statement itself is problematic because language ability itself is not exactly binary – almost everyone in Wales knows some words of Welsh and even fluency is hard to define – but it is possible to categorise people as those who are confident holding conversations in Welsh and those who are not.

I am a Welsh speaker living in eastern Powys, and I am not less of a Welsh speaker because I live in an area with proportionally fewer Welsh speakers than there would be if I lived in Ceredigion or Gwynedd or Ynys Môn. It is for this reason that I dislike attempts (and they come from both sides) to divide Wales into heartland and non-heartland areas. All communities in Wales have Welsh speakers, so they are all Welsh-speaking communities.

 

Choice

So having debunked the idea of non-Welsh-speaking communities in Wales, I can turn to the idea that Welsh is being forced onto areas (or people) in Wales.

I have no issue with the English language. It is my mother tongue and the language I feel most comfortable expressing myself in. While the ubiquity of English makes it hard to really feel proud to be a native English speaker, it is certainly a useful thing to be, and I broadly welcome the fact it has become an international lingua franca.

I do not wish to see a complete replacement of English with Welsh in Wales. There are a number of domains where Welsh is never likely to replace English on a large scale, domains ranging from advertising to academia to entertainment, where English is coming to dominate right across Europe. This emergent diglossia is not a threat to the other languages of Europe as community languages, even where most people in those countries now speak English.

Ultimately I believe in personal choice. I support the right for people to use whatever language they like in their personal lives, and to use either English or Welsh, or a combination if they wish, in public life.

But it is wrong for those who support the option of monolingual English education to claim they are on the side of freedom of choice. Hundreds of thousands of people in Wales cannot make a personal choice to use either English or Welsh, because their upbringing and education meant they only ever learnt to speak English. English-only education takes away the freedom of choice of a new generation of Welsh citizens; it does not defend it.

No-brainer

I support the right of people in Wales to use either English or Welsh – or any other language they choose outside the public sector. But as is so common, some trade-offs are needed to ensure a free choice.

It is, of course, necessary that public servants use Welsh or English as requested when dealing with the public, to ensure the public’s right to deal with the state in their chosen language is protected. Likewise, it may well be necessary for schools to mandate Welsh in certain settings, to ensure their pupils develop the Welsh skills to choose to use the language in later life.

Ultimately, few rights in life come without trade-offs and qualifications, and language policy is no exception. But ensuring all Welsh citizens have freedom of language choice, we need to make sure they know both of the languages they can choose between. To me it seems a no-brainer that all children should leave school as competent speakers and writers of both national languages.

Once upon a time, schools ‘forced’ English onto areas of Wales through beatings, now they do it by neglecting to ensure both languages are adequately taught. If the bilingual citizens of the future Wales would rather speak English than Welsh, then that is their choice and it should be respected.

All I ask is that they be given the linguistic tools so that that is truly a choice, not a necessity.

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