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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Does it matter that government officials cannot speak Welsh?

This morning's Western Mail carries figures released to Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg which show that just 317 of the 2,688 or 12% of the civil servants working in the body’s headquarters at Cathays Park, Cardiff, can speak Welsh.

Out of the Assembly Government’s entire workforce of 6,513, only 203 (3.1%) are Welsh learners – down from 7.3% in 2003. This is despite the fact that the 2001 census recorded that more than one-in-five people living in Wales could speak Welsh, with more recent surveys suggesting it is now closer to 25%.

According to the Menna Machreth Jones, who chairs the Welsh Language Society these figures are disappointing. She says that "There are a few positive initiatives the Assembly Government is taking to promote the Welsh language, but they are clearly not enough.

“As the Equality and Human Rights Commission pointed out earlier this year, women are also under-represented at the top levels of power. There’s clearly a wider equalities problem.

“I hope the Assembly Government will agree to do something about the issue. At the moment, they’re treating Welsh like an optional add-on rather than as an essential part of the Government’s work."

The Assembly Government is currently consulting on its ‘bilingual Wales’ strategy. Well, they probably need to get their own house in order pretty sharpish before they start telling others what to do – a bilingual country means a bilingual civil service. The onus is on them to show leadership.”

The comparison with the wider equalities agenda is instructive but I am not so sure about the interpretation of what a bilingual society means. The paper is certainly right that these figures seem to demolish the myth that you need to be able to speak Welsh to get a job, but surely the requirement should be that civil servants should understand the bilingual context in which policy is formulated rather than be able to actually speak the language themselves.

Just as it is not essential that the First Minister speaks Welsh so it should not be compulsory that we achieve a welsh speaking majority amongst those who service the Welsh Government. As the Government spokesperson makes clear, where bilingualism is essential then it is insisted on. There are a whole raft of policies that support the Welsh language in the running of the government and opportunities are available for staff to learn if they wish. In fact 41% of Welsh Government staff have some level of Welsh language skills, ranging from basic to fluent.

Unfortunately, all the Welsh Language Society are doing with this sort of publicity is undermining their own cause and just when we were starting too make substantial progress as well.
This isn't a party political issue, and I agree actions speak louder than words and that the focus must be on language policy rather than individuals. However, I think it is important for as many people as possible in positions of power to be bilingual. My family and I would like the right to speak to our council, or an Assembly dept (which I pay for with my taxes) in my mother tongue in my own country, which incidentally has been the law since 1993.

Langauge is a skill and skills can be learnt. More and more children and adults are learning it and are perfectly comfortable with having two languages.
"Out of the Assembly Government’s entire workforce of 6,513, only 203 (3.1%) are Welsh learners – down from 7.3% in 2003. This is despite the fact that the 2001 census recorded that more than one-in-five people living in Wales could speak Welsh, with more recent surveys suggesting it is now closer to 25%"

We need to remember here that the 20/25% fibure relates to the entire population of Wales.

Most of the Assembly's staff are based in Cardiff, which means that they will largely be from the south east, the area of the country where proportionately fewer people are bilingual.

I am not saying that either of these facts are 'right' just pointing them out.
Why does Cardiff have to be the capital of Wales? it has only been since 1955.
A perfectly reasonable standard of Welsh can be learnt by the sort of intelligent individuals we're told civil servants are in about two years. It is not a lot to ask, and it could easily be implemented as a matter of policy. Contrary to popular belief, Welsh is not a difficult language (in fact, it's one of the easiest for English speakers to grasp common idiomatic expressions in), and there are plenty of very good Welsh for Adults courses in Cardiff.

The pretence that the Welsh-language versions of laws and other government documents are equal to the English-language versions cannot be sustained when they are drafted in English and then translated into Welsh. Government translations are notoriously poor: parts of Transport's online presence go so far as to crassly fail to get the gender of the word "trwydded" (licence) right (it's feminine, as are most two-syllable nouns with an "e" in the final syllable, in case anyone cares). And there's the broader issue of tortured Welsh trying to reflect technocratic English phraseology, which just would not happen if the material had been thought out in Welsh at the time. It is not unreasonable to ask that government publications be developed in parallel in both languages, rather than leaving our national language to be an after-thought. Tomas Masaryk didn't stand for that kind of thing in the early days of Czechoslovakia, despite the facts of centuries of Austrian rule and his mother speaking only German.

There seems to be a peculiar fetish for the English-speaking elite to go to war against mythical Welsh-language extremists. In truth, most Welsh speakers are too kind in the face of this attitude: I distinctly recall attending Pawb a'i Farn when it was last in Cardiff, and no-one dared criticize Edwina Hart in terms of her failure to learn our language. Dependence on such kindness is dangerous: it will not last forever.
It should be "W"
The current figures suggest that those with a functional knonwledge of Welsh are under-represented in WAG officialdom and an already low level of learning is falling. Both these facts suggest a culture that is not prioritising the main-stream internal use of Welsh and sees bilingualism as a bolt-on externality: i.e. repeats the flawed philosophy of the 1993 Welsh Language Act.

The problem with the Act(see the socio-linguistic work of Delyth Morris and Glyn Williams at Bangor University) is two-fold: 1) Welsh is denied a central place in the workplace (in the domains of economic/political power such as within WAG). English is reinforced as the norm and what is "essential" is interpreted within that assumption. Welsh remains a hobby for staff who fancy it or one or two generalist token Welsh speakers. 2) Welsh Language Act bilingualism can't even be fully delivered on its own terms (i.e. as a service to atomised, individual, external "customers" or "consumers"). The external "consumers" can't get a Welsh service because the institution's bilingualism is shallow, extending only to token signs and posters, the first few web pages, inadequate translations, some generalist on the phone before you're passed to the person who knows something about your problem but doesn't speak Welsh etc. etc. Because the internal culture of the institution hasn't changed, Welsh speakers often either assume that English is the proper medium with dealing with it and don't try to use Welsh, or after an initial effort, don't choose to struggle to go on trying to deal with it in Welsh. Then, in a vicious circle, the body says it doesn't have a high enough uptake of its (second-rate) Welsh services.

Of course, if you take a minimalist view of what a bi-lingual society might be, this will be no cause for concern. If however we are serious about reversing the fortunes of the Welsh language, increasing its prestige and perceived utility and greatly increasing the number of speakers then WAG and many other institutions do need to take a lead in using Welsh much more widely in there own internal affairs.

For example, a representative 20% of the WAG departments could, over a period of years and following an energetic training programme (with the top-brass leading from the front), go over to using Welsh as their main internal language. That would be a real policy "raft" to "support the Welsh language in the running of government" (and would mean Welsh speakers' taxes would be going on creating the kind of Welsh-language working environments that state spending creates for English. You would also thereby create an "ecology" where additional staff would see a point to learning Welsh).

Peter may be right that we don't NEED a majority of WAG civil servants to speak Welsh, though why not aim for increasing the knowledge of our public servants in a relevant and life-enhancing skill (which is also a lot of fun), rather than being satisfied with ignorance?

There is real issue of fairness, though. Some people have grown up Welsh-speaking through a fortunate accident of birth. If others are to make a massive effort in learning Welsh, the native speakers should be expected in turn to take an active role in teaching others (or be required to display fluency in another language so that they too bring new insights to the party). None of this should be beyond a "learning country" given vision and commitment. After all, many people in Switzerland and Luxembourg are TRI-lingual. We're not thicker than them, it's all a matter of expectations and ambitions. What's crucial seems to me to be our point of view: is Welsh a threat and a burden or do we see our situation as an exciting opportunity to develop a wonderful, shared inheritance?

I wish people wouldn't quote anything from inter war Eastern Europe regarding language. A great deal of new research on the attitude of Czechs to the large ethnic minority in the then Ceechoslovakia including German speakers in the 1920s and 1930s has now been carried out. It was basically fairly racist, played right into the hands of Hitler and led to the rise of Konrad Henlein in the Sudetenland. As Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out in some of his writings there was often an economic motive behind much of the arguments over which language the station master should speak in Austro-Hungary before 1914. I would have thought that the real issue with regard to the civil service is why is it often so weak when it comes to capacity for new ideas. It was also easy for Czech nationalists pre 1914 to relearn Czech. Prague might have been a German city and German the language of the middle class but the bulk of the peasant population still spoke Czech in Bohemia. To really see the difficulty of reviving a language even with massive state encouragement you only have to look to the Irish Republic. For most people language is a means of communication not a political issue. The majority who live in Wales will always speak and think through the medium of English for this reason. Making certain language skills compulsory for state employees might increase the employment opportunities for those with the skills but it will not make much difference to the every day use of the language concerned.
Surely the Welsh language society are just asking for politicians to stick by their commitment to creating a fully bilingual Wales?

What does fully bilingual mean if not trying to arrive at a society where the majority of people can speak Welsh?

That's what the governnment says it wants as well, so why shouldn't they be held to their aims?
Jeff - I wish people wouldn't quote anything from Eric Hobsbawm regarding language. Read his memoirs about his time at Portmeirion to see how clueless he was about his linguistic surroundings. His starting point does sometimes seem to be a presumption againt minority cultures in true Soviet style.

Against every Ireland we can look at the example of Israel or now the amazing language shift taking place in the Basque Country. Each country has its specific characteristics. The Irish case and the Welsh case are very different: when the Irish won independence, Irish was far weaker than Welsh is, in terms of number of speakers, strength of literary tradition and range of use. Knowledge about linguistics and language teaching was far less developed. The Irish state adopted a policy of tokenism as regards the use of the language in the modern spheres of urban life, requiring a formal Irish qualification for service but not systematically moving over to administering internally through the medium of Irish. This does not amount to "massive state encouragement".

Yes, there is often an economic motive behind the decision to learn a language, but the market is more than a "hidden hand". Social and state organisation matter, whatever Mrs Thatcher said. The benefits to speaking Welsh were undermined over generations by deliberate state policies not by an act of God, some abstract "market" or any natural evolution.

As to whether language is a "means of communication" or a "political issue", this is a false dichotomy. It is often both, and more (otherwise why would you, or I, so often contribute to discussions of it on blogs?). The polls show a strong sense of ownership of Welsh among non-Welsh speakers and there is much sympathy among people from England, some of whom, such as myself, have learnt the language and see it as a common British and European asset.

Jeff also mentioned the weakness of the civil service's capacity for new ideas as being a key issue (implying that language was somehow a diversion). I'd have thought their failure to make progress on the internal use of Welsh was an illustration of that very weakness. Doesn't it depend what our ambitions are for Wales and the Welsh civil service? Jeff, you said in your comment to Alun Davies' piece on WalesHome on 28 November that "We do need civil servants and local government officers who think outside the box. But you can’t expect departments in a regional administration to have the same ‘firepower’ as their Whitehall equivalents." You have limited expectations from what you see as a "region". Fair enough. Many others just have ambitions for Wales that are simply higher than that. I think Wales can be as good as anywhere, certainly not provincial.

I my first post I noted that educated Swiss and Luxembourg people are often tri-lingual. I should have added that they THEN go on to learn English as a 4th tongue. Why are we making acquiring a working knowledge of Welsh and working in Welsh on a daily basis into such a big deal?
Peter, a 100% of the staff at the Assembly are fluent in English, and therefore can offer 1st class services to people who wish to converse in English. On the other hand only a small minority are fluent Welsh speakers, and therefore people who wish to converse in Welsh, and who are more comfortable doing their business in Welsh will get a 2nd class service. Is this acceptable? I think not!

Don't you think it is reasonable, whilst supporting that 100% of Welsh Assembly staff should speak English (and they do!), to support the call that they should also speak Welsh (to a certain degree anyway)? Of course, English only speakers (or non-Welsh speakers), should have the same chance as anyone else to go for the jobs, but like happens with north Wales police, they should be given training (during working hours) to learn Welsh, so that they can converse with people in either of Wales' languages.
If people cannot speak welsh they should be offered a house in England I will then be able to move.
I support in principle the aims of Cymdeithas Yr Iaith CYI, but sadly I find their activists and members hypocritical. I'm a school Governor on a Welsh Medium School and we have never had anyone from CYI ever give us any service or voluntary help. Moreover, take the fuss about Shop Assistants and the Welsh Language - this has not stirred many CYI activists, but when we talk about cushy civil service jobs with high salaries CYI make a big hoo hah presumably because CYI all want nice little well paid jobs cwtching up to the likes of litle Lord Twinkle Toes Elis Tomos and his ilk in plush Cardiff Bay. Yes CYI I support your aims but not your narrow self interests.
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