How learning Welsh opened my eyes to progressive smugness

The Welsh government wants to promote the Welsh language. Yet many English speakers are disinterested in preserving it. 

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This week has seen the launch of a new white paper on the Welsh language by the Labour Welsh government. Cymraeg 2050 talks of increasing the number of Welsh speakers to one million by 2050. That target already existed, but the document gives more detail on how it is proposed to get there. Much of the emphasis is placed on education: increasing nursery provision in Welsh, having more primary school children taught in the language, and improving teaching to Welsh learners.

The document targets a substantial expansion in the number of speakers of Welsh, and in the use of the language across daily life in Wales. The current reality is rather less impressive. The Welsh language has not suffered the death foretold by Saunders Lewis in 1962. But it could hardly be said to be going from strength to strength. Although Welsh-medium schooling is growing, the number of local communities where Welsh is the majority language continues to erode. The 2011 census actually showed a showed a small decline in the numbers claiming to speak Cymraeg.

This is not an issue on which I can claim, or aspire to, neutrality. Born and raised in England, I moved to live and work in Aberystwyth in January 2000. I recall, early on, some of my new Welsh friends remarking with a tone of pleasant surprise on my positive attitude to their language. I began formal lessons a little later, and after a bit told a couple of good friends at work that we would now begin every conversation in Welsh. At first, the point at which I would feel the need to switch to English usually arrived quite soon. Then it got later; and now it would never arrive.

Welsh is my second language. (Although that in part says something about the typically English, and poor, standard of my French). I don’t often dream in it, and would rarely count in it. But I use Cymraeg every day. I have taught and broadcast in Welsh; this summer I’ll be giving a lecture on the general election at the National Eisteddfod in Ynys Môn. Part of my wedding ceremony will also be in Welsh. (Reflecting my other half’s cultural inheritance, part will also be in Punjabi – although she is the one who was born in the valleys). I was not born into, or raised in, the Welsh language. But, later in life, I have been given at least partial insight into a culture of extraordinary richness and history. This matters to me a great deal.

Along my sometimes stumbling journey with the Welsh language I have met with nothing but encouragement and support. I have often been very glad of this – but also occasionally deeply saddened. Too many people have appeared, on too many occasions, to be almost pathetically grateful that I have shown their culture some respect. They should be entitled to expect that as a matter of course. But the daily lived experience of far too many Welsh speakers is the exact opposite. Respect for the Welsh language, and Welsh culture, is distinctly an optional extra in Wales, never mind across the UK as a whole.

If the one million speakers target is to be achieved, there will need to be much more rapid progress than has been evident in recent years. That will require changed behaviours across many communities, and many areas of life, in Wales. Increasing Welsh medium education, for instance, has often been resisted by some local authorities. And advancing the Welsh language can sometimes be in tension with other laudable principles and aims. Increasing Welsh-medium education will mean recruiting more people who can teach through Welsh, or teach Welsh. Yet those who can do so are – currently at least – overwhelmingly white. Wales also suffers a shortage of black and minority ethnic teachers, and the desire for a more diverse workforce will tend to conflict with prioritising more Welsh-speaking teachers.

But to underpin practical changes there will need to be a fundamental change in attitudes. That remains an uphill struggle. Within Wales, surveys consistently indicate most people have a positive attitude to the language. But Wales exists within the British state. And, to the extent they think about such things at all, many of those with a strongly British identity are deeply contemptuous of the native non-English languages of these islands. Welsh, along with Gaelic and Irish, is rarely valued as part of the collective cultural heritage of all of us in these islands. This should belong to all of us – but it does not.

The left has no room for smugness on this issue. Lots of people who would happily support indigenous cultures in the global south have little time for them in the UK. Many friends and colleagues in Aberystwyth, who would be impeccably leftist on other matters, made no attempt to engage with the local culture around them, and were seemingly oblivious to the linguistic marginalisation and colonialism in which they were complicit. But they were hardly alone. The Green party in Wales, for instance, has rarely shown much time for the language, and sometimes appeared almost openly dismissive.

Cymraeg 2050 was launched this week by Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, and Welsh cabinet member responsible for the language Alun Davies. Both are fluent Welsh speakers, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of their ambition. But elsewhere in their party very different attitudes have often been evident, and are sometimes still so. A side-consequence of the long Labour dominance in Welsh politics is that some of most important divisions in Wales run through the party rather than between it and its opponents. That remains so with regards to the Welsh language. Wish Jones and Davies pob lwc (all good luck) in pursuing their aims. They will need it.

Roger Awan-Scully is Head of Politics and International Relations at Cardiff University.