Why is the Welsh language dying? Because the land of my fathers is obsessed with purity

Years ago, the emerging bourgeoisie appropriated the Welsh language and they are now in the process of ossifying it, says Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett.

I took the bus to school. It weaved around narrow country lanes, crawling up the side of the grey, gouged-out mountain, picking up stray schoolchildren as they stood at the ends of their parents’ dirt-track drives (occasionally it would also stop to allow the sheep to cross). On reaching what was, literally, a dead-end village, it would turn its back on the towering heaps of slate and make its way downhill towards the graveyard containing those who died building them. It would pass the bodies of my ancestors and then it would swing by the cottage bearing the words “Go home, you English twat”. Forty-five minutes and several villages later, it would arrive at my secondary school, “Yr Ysgol Saes”: the English school. It’s been eight years since I left Wales but I can still picture every inch of that bus route.
 
The land of my fathers is not, technically, the land of my father, although his Welsh is formidable. It certainly isn’t the land of my mother, whose Welsh is, not for want of trying, less so. She once banished a group of nationalists from her dinner table for making an anti-English joke. The joke was this: “What’s the difference between an Englishman and an onion?” “When you cut an onion, you weep.”
 
I grew up in the Welshest part of Wales. I have a Welsh name. I am fluent in the language. Almost all of my primary-school education was conducted in Welsh – I do not know a single word of the Lord’s Prayer in English. I still sometimes dream in Welsh and will cry out in it in my sleep. I am proud that I was the only one of my beloved Taid’s grandchildren who could have an adult conversation with him in his mother tongue, though I’m less proud that I have yet to open the copy of David Jones’s In Parenthesis he gave me a week before he died. When I return to Wales and speak Welsh with my father, his wife, Siân, and my youngest brother, I feel tied to the place. Yet growing up, I was conscious that I was Welsh by ancestry but not by birth.
 
You might say that history is what truly binds you to a country. The ability to walk the terrain and say: “There. That’s where my grandfather saw the bomber come down. That’s where my brother fell in the lake.”
 
But Wales has never felt that way to me. I was watching The One Show on BBC1 on Friday (please don’t judge me) and the singer Cerys Matthews was presenting a film about Richard Llewelyn’s novel How Green Was My Valley. It concluded that Llewelyn hadn’t even been that Welsh. How perfect, I thought, that the man who did much to romanticise Wales wasn’t all that authentic – and how typical of you to say so.
 
Then, a few days later, a new report said what we all know already, that the language spoken by just 19 per cent of the Welsh population is dying. Among Welsh speakers aged 16 to 24, half consider themselves fluent and only a third use Welsh with friends. Another report, cited in the Welsh-language magazine Golwg, found that, of all the adults who attended Welsh classes, less than 1 per cent emerged fluent. I know many who consider the whole industry a racket.
 
So why, even though most people in the world speak more than one language, does Welsh seem to be failing so miserably? A journalist acquaintance, who went to the same school as I did, believes that even those who make an effort are treated with the same sort of disdain as the “Mudbloods” in Harry Potter. Certainly, an English person in Gwynedd, the county in which I grew up, will encounter some prejudice. This was the heartland of Llewelyn, the 13th-century last prince of an independent Wales, and more recently the arsonist avengers Meibion Glyndwr – although the only things they’re lighting these days are their fags. They say, up there, that Wales stops after Aberystwyth and incomers of any kind are regarded with a wary eye. The last time I visited, one of the gift shops was selling golliwogs.
 
It’s not just outsiders who don’t speak Welsh. It’s the young, too. The language lobby is the preserve of the middle classes. Years ago, the emerging bourgeoisie appropriated the Welsh language and they are now in the process of ossifying it. They dominate in the media, local government and education. An insistence on formal Welsh alienates those who speak the living language. It’s no wonder many Welsh people don’t consider themselves fluent: their Welsh will never be good enough for some people.
 
The classes who run the Eisteddfod, alienated from the economic realities of life in a country where youth unemployment is at a 15-year high, have put themselves in charge of “Brand Wales”. And, as we know, the minute middle-class people try to market anything, it becomes massively square. The Urdd, the national Welsh youth organisation, is a prime example.
 
So, those are some of the reasons why the Welsh language is dying. That and the mainly English internet.
 
Sadly, many people don’t realise until their twenties that it is cool to be bilingual. Very often when you see people arguing about Welsh, it isn’t about Welsh versus English but monoglots versus polyglots. I am one of the latter and I love my country, although there are those who would not want me to describe it as such.
 
And yet, they need people like me. They can make their jokes. They can even try to cut me open, like an onion, if they like. They’ll only find I bleed the place.
 
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is the co-author of the Vagenda blog and also writes for newstatesman.com
The Welsh countryside. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.