Britain is failing its minority languages – Conservative Article
I was struck last week by the fact that the 2021 Census will give us the first nationwide data in 10 years on the status of Britain’s minority languages. To which I am not optimistic.
As a long time resident of Wales and, as a product of a confusing Anglo-Welsh upbringing in the borders, it’s Welsh that’s closest to my heart. But, the ailing health of Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Ulster-Scots, Cornish, and Irish are never far from my thoughts.
In an age of increasing globalization, our focus on utility and efficiency seems to leave little space for languages besides English. In many of the rural heartlands of these languages, job opportunities are scarce. Housing is difficult to access, and for young people, there are few reasons to stay. The story of a young Welsh speaker who moves to England for university, and never returns to their community, is all too common.
Current policies in place to address these difficulties are, at best, well-intentioned but doomed to fail. At worst, they belie a lack of interest in meaningful attempts at preservation. Teaching basic Welsh in schools is unlikely to equip the next generation with enough useful Welsh. Therefore, it will not effectively keep the language alive. Nor does the continued operation of S4C or BBC Alba actually make these languages attractive for young learners.
In Northern Ireland, the unique political situation makes support for Ulster-Scots or Irish difficult at best, and impossible at worst. Indeed, there are many who do not even recognize Ulster-Scots as a language. Is it any surprise then that the last 40 years have seen a slow decline for these languages?
We must act now and act decisively. Or we forever lose these pieces of intangible cultural heritage to the ruthless march of modernist utility. Speaking Cornish might not be greatly useful in the modern-day, but enabling people to speak the language that their ancestors spoke for hundreds of years, and allowing them to access a host of vibrant literature in its original tongue, is surely a worthwhile pursuit. Our current policies will ensure, at best, that these beautiful parts of our common British heritage continue along a path of managed decline.
Existing policies have flagged on two fronts. First, there has been a failure to provide adequate infrastructure. Too few schools which teach primarily in the medium, too little funding for producing media in these languages. These are the bread-and-butter issues of language revivalists, and they should not be ignored. If you cannot speak Welsh at work, you should at least be able to send your children to a Welsh-medium school, and immerse yourself in Welsh language books, television, and radio.
These efforts can only go so far though without a concerted effort to make Welsh-speaking communities genuinely viable in the modern-day. This will mean tackling head-on issues including housing, over-tourism, and the lack of attractive career opportunities outside of our major cities.
There should be a focus on access to housing for locals, ahead of second-home buyers from the Home Counties and on diversifying tourism-dependent economies with support for local businesses. This would all go a long way towards making these parts of the country attractive to young people. There should also be a renewed focus on funding for transport links between rural and urban. It would bolster the idea that ambitious, intelligent young Welsh speakers should view staying where they grew up as a viable alternative to moving across the border.
Second, and just as importantly, there has been a failure to raise proper awareness. Outside of Hebrew, an exceptional case, our best example of successful language revitalization comes from New Zealand in the shape of the Maori language. Maori’s revitalization is often credited to its cultural capital amongst the population as a whole. A focus on promoting the language as one of the country’s unifying national symbols. Nationwide commemoration and support for learners from non-Maori backgrounds have all played a part in this.
It’s easy to see how promoting these languages in our national media and in our national curriculum, while learning the lessons of Maori, will focus policymaking minds in Westminster on putting forward a serious strategy. Turn Scottish Gaelic from an obscure curiosity to be joked about into a common cultural touchstone in the minds of the next generation of English children, and it might stand a fighting chance.
Such a policy initiative would also be a boon for unionism and would instil the next generation with a sense of collective ownership and a common stake in these deeply important parts of our national history and future.
In the same vein, making our rural communities and small towns attractive places to live. Easy transport access to the country’s metropolitan hubs will go a long way. It will bridge the sense of disconnect that many feel so keenly. If not for the sake of personal investment in one of these individually beautiful languages then, support policies like this for the sake of national unity. Especially, at a time when it seems to be in short supply.
Written by Guest Conservative Writer, Sam Bidwell
Point of Information
Language is political, so be careful what you wish for – A Liberal Response
There is much in this article I would agree with. The UK’s minority languages certainly have been neglected and require significantly more efforts in order to preserve them. As Sam makes clear, teaching basic Welsh and other minority languages in schools is not the best that can be done. Where possible, the use of minority languages should be encouraged and the right to use them protected. Whether they can be spread far beyond their current communities as a “cultural touchstone” across the whole UK remains to be seen.
My main bone to pick with the article is the idea that this would mean a boon for unionism. I disagree. If minority languages and minority status become a more pressing front-page issue. Then it would logically follow that minority groups often would be more inclined away from unionism and towards nationalism and separatism, whether that be Scottish, Welsh, Irish, or even Cornish.
It would not form a whole UK national identity in the same way Maori did in New Zealand due to the different geographical distribution of these languages. By all means, include the minority languages as official languages of the UK, and put more money into funding their teaching and use, but don’t expect a lack of political consequence.
Written by Junior Liberal Writer Emma Hall
Minority languages are an integral part of UK culture and should be treated as such – A Labour Response
Sam’s article is really interesting and raises many points that are worth considering. Minority languages undoubtedly need to be funded, encouraged, and nurtured. Language is the key to preserving indigenous music, history and culture that has often been neglected from the mainstream narrative of history. Sams’s point about language not necessarily needing to be useful is spot on.
The UK has a weird relationship with multi-culturalism being founded on a basis of colonisation and oppression of nations both on this island and across the world. A legacy of this is the conception of the UK as a melting pot of languages and culture, the favoured example is Chicken Tikka Masala being our national dish.
However, Brits are infamous for their monolingualism, Labour writer Jack Rolfe recently discussed this. Similarly, English colonisation and oppression of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland is among the least talked about parts of colonial history.
I understand both writers’ points about unification and polarisation through language. Whilst I don’t know nearly enough about the psychology and sociology of minority languages to properly comment, I want to contribute my own thoughts. The strengthening of minority languages theoretically could lead to separatism due to a stronger sense of identity within communities. However, I agree that there is potential for them to promote peace and unity.
Historically, empires and countries which have provided space for minorities to practise their religions, speak their languages, and enjoy their cultures freely, have facilitated peaceful coexistence between communities. An explanation could be that minorities feel they are contributing to a collective culture and identity that is an amalgamation of different distinct cultures rather than having one mainstream standard enforced.
Either way, the preservation of these languages is essential to the preservation of our nation’s culture and history. And, the government must take responsibility for facilitating this.
Written by Junior Labour Writer, Zoë Olsen-Groome