Thursday, 4 August 2011

What does 'anti-Welsh' mean?

There was a good article at WalesHome earlier this week by Labour MP Susan Elan Jones on the issue of the Welsh language.  I thought that it was a very positive contribution, and something to be welcomed.  However, much of the debate which took place in the subsequent comment thread related not to what she actually said, but to the question of whether Labour is or is not anti-Welsh.
The jibe of being ‘anti-Welsh’ is one to which the language’s supporters can sometimes revert far too easily.  But the dividing line is a lot more complex than a simple distinction between parties.  There are some people to whom the epithet ‘anti-Welsh’ can justifiably be applied - they actually want and hope that the language will die.  But they are much fewer in number, very much fewer, than those to whom the epithet gets applied in practice.
That there are figures hostile to the use of Welsh in the Labour Party is surely beyond dispute.  That the Labour Party is not alone in this respect is also beyond dispute.  But there are degrees of hostility, from outright hatred down to lingering suspicion. (And, dare I say this, I have even found an occasional Plaid member who feels that there is something wrong with the party publishing any material in Welsh which is not fully translated into English, because doing so ‘excludes’ some members from understanding what is being said.) 
The language is, and has long been, a potentially divisive question in Welsh politics, both between parties and within most of the parties as well.  There are a large number of reasons for that, and ascribing a lack of support to some sort of institutional hostility within one or more parties is far too simplistic.
As a simultaneous interpreter, I attend a lot of meetings where Welsh is used as part of a bilingual format.  I also get to see a lot of different attitudes towards the use of Welsh (and not just by politicians, although that is the focus for this piece).  There are a host of reasons why some people feel uncomfortable about the use of Welsh as part of the public administration of Wales, and they don’t simply come down being ‘anti-Welsh’, let alone to simple political differences.
One of the factors involved is age, and we should not be afraid to talk about that.  Some older people, partly because they didn’t have the same advantages of having Welsh used in an educational setting, and partly because of the prevailing attitudes when they were younger, often don’t have the same confidence or desire to use Welsh in formal settings.  (And at the risk of unintentionally antagonising some, I’ll make the sweeping statement that the age profile of the members of political parties is different.  There should be no surprise if attitudes towards the language at a local level can sometimes appear to reflect that demographic difference.)
Few go so far as believing that Welsh simply should not be used in such settings – although it’s only a small step to hold such a view.  More importantly, it doesn’t mean that they’re anti-Welsh – many of them have chosen to pass the language on to their children, and are intensely proud of their Welsh.  And they managed to pass on a natural and beautiful form of Welsh to their children at a time when the language was peripheral to education; seen from that perspective, even opposing Welsh-medium education isn’t necessarily being anti-Welsh.  They simply see the language as something which inhabits a more limited domain.  
It’s a great pity.  I’ve heard some beautiful colloquial Welsh being used naturally and confidently before a meeting starts, only to hear the speakers turn to English once the Chair opens the meeting.  I’ve had those same people telling me – in fluent Welsh of course – that their Welsh simply isn’t ‘good enough’ for use in the meetings themselves. 
It’s nonsense; but I do sometimes wonder whether those of us – including those like myself who’ve learned Welsh – who speak a more standard form aren’t in some way contributing to that feeling, and making some people less confident than they should be, even if unintentionally.  If only they understood how jealous I actually am of their own command of local colloquial Welsh.
There’s also still a misunderstanding of the purpose of interpretation in meetings, with some feeling that if they use Welsh it is somehow tantamount to an admission that their English isn’t good enough.  I find that sad, but again it’s a reflection of past official attitudes to the language, not of any antipathy towards Welsh.
And then there’s the suspicion of ‘closet nationalism’.  The use of Welsh can be interpreted as meaning that the user is a nationalist, and is using the language merely to ‘make a point’, as one person at a recent meeting told me.  Such perceived antipathy from others can itself be a deterrent to normalising the use of Welsh, and serves to underline the need to decouple the language from the constitutional question.  Paradoxically, greater use of Welsh by opponents of political nationalism would be one of the best ways of doing that.
Lack of practice affects usage as well.  It can be easy for some to forget that the natural bilingual way in which some organisations conduct their own internal meetings isn’t mirrored in others; not everyone has had the same opportunity to see, and participate in, bilingual debate as something entirely normal.  ‘Normality’ can look different from different perspectives.
So, for a host of reasons, people choose to use or not use Welsh – and choose to support, or not support, the public use of Welsh by others.  The dividing line isn’t between Welsh-speakers and non Welsh-speakers, nor is it between parties; there are a whole raft of historical and cultural attitudes behind this.  And nor is it about being pro or anti Welsh per se.
The challenge for those of us who want to see the language used naturally and freely in an increasing range of contexts in Wales, and want to see the number of Welsh-speakers growing because people want to speak it, is not to attack people on the basis of our own assumption that they hold an antagonistic viewpoint, or to seek to make political points, but to lead by example and actively promote the use of the language in an expanding range of contexts.
For all the doom and gloom of some, and despite the size of the task which undoubtedly still faces us, the Welsh language has more potential now to grow and spread than it has had for more than a century.  I don’t think that we seize that future by name-calling.

12 comments:

Democritus said...

Excellent post John.

menaiblog said...

There's a geographic aspect to this too John - in some parts of the country it's generally accepted that Welsh is the main language of formal communication (at a political level anyway), so Welsh is used in council meetings & so on by virtually everyone who's capable of using it.

In other areas it's accepted by many that English has precedence in such situations, & many don't use it for that reason.

It's a reflection of local cultural attitudes.

John Dixon said...

menaiblog,

Fair comment. I do tend to have, perhaps, something of a bias towards what I see locally in and around Carmarthen, albeit coloured by my own non-Welsh-speaking background in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Aled G J said...

A perceptive and important post. Too often, cultural nationalists opt for a default black and white picture when it comes to the language, without considering the nuances involved in language use in different settings. We need to think more about the grey areas, in the middle and the peope who inhabit these grey areas, and come up with some new ideas how to promote and encourage language use here. One idea maybe could be to set up a non-political Balchder Cymraeg/Pride in Welsh campaign to encourage more people to make use of the Welsh they have, and enable them to do so in different settings.

Cymro i'r Carn said...

JOhn, you make for good reading with this article and highlight the complications behind language and confidence, may I suggest however that as Menai as said it all comes from political direction.

For example as you've been working and live and witness the carmarthen area you will know all to well that for example in the county council chamber there is very little use of Welsh.

Let's question why? Many believe it's because some members whom do not speak Welsh refust to put the headphones on and listen to the translation thus completely ignoring the speaker just because he or she has decided to speak Welsh (you see this all to often by some Independent members). This then send the message speak Welsh and you don't get heard fully, speak English and people will listen. Surly the attitude of these individuals whom are putting pressure and are hampering the use of Welsh ought to be discussed and pubilicly shamed, i.e 'name calling'.

Carmarthenshire within the next census IMO will drop below the 50% thresh-hold of those whom can speak Welsh, in areas where over 70% of the population speak Welsh only some 30% are receiving their secondary education in Welsh.

Im afraid Carmarthenshire County council has histroicaly had a very anglicized attitude and it's this attitude that is one of the main factors killing Welsh in Carmarthenshire. Call me pessimistic but I see it all to often, with umpteen shortcomings in bilingual services. Welsh is regarded as something extra, a pet if you like not to be used in real life situations and I attribute this to the Independent and Labour domination of the county council during the past decades.

Plaid Cymru also do not hold the best record in carmarthenshire, giving way to much when they were also in coalition with the Independents. To much influential charachters directly hampering the use of Welsh in an area so important to the revitalisation of Welsh, if you cannot revive the langauge here, is there much hope for the Vale of Glamorgan and such areas?

The council should lead by Gwynedd's example, only then will Welsh have a brighter future in Carmarthenshire.

stuart said...

How about imposing a law that states that in any county where Welsh speakers total at least 50% (to begin with) then all new public sector jobs have to be filled with staff who are bilingual.

Be it a bin man or a chief inspector.

It will help keep jobs local and force foreigners to integrate.

Dave Edwards said...

John
The status of welsh is clearly one that needs a more balanced debate and your post is a good start.
Welsh speakers are often their own worst enemies by immediately switching to english if only one member of a group is non welsh speaking rather than persisting with welsh and offering a precis when necessary.
When I went to live in North Wales some years ago I was shocked to find in places like Porthmadog many shops reverted to an all english policy during the summer not to inconvenience the tourists.

As other contributors have stated local government, all over Wales,
does not seem comfortable with using welsh in its formal settings. Here in Pembrokeshire,with a welsh speaking Leader, the County council standing orders require any member speaking in welsh to provide an english translation themselves after they finish.Clearly, this inhibits the use of the language.
I complained about this to the Welsh language Board but they replied that they had no problem with this rule. If we cannot rely on the WLB to support the use of the language where do we turn?

Siônnyn said...

John, I agree that there is a tendency amongst cultural nationalists to polarise people - if you are not for us you are against us - and that immediately alienates the undecided majority, so it has to stop.

There exists a very small, but very active and vocal cadre of vehement Welsh haters, however, as you will see from the pages of the WM, on the comment sections of their articles, on Betsan, and on other blogs (I'm sure you have plenty trying to disrupt your fine medium) , and these people presume to speak for the 'silent majority', trying to force us into a ghetto mentality that sees us lashing out wildly in an attempt to defend what is dear to us. To some extent they have succeeded, and we push people that we could have won over into siding with the forces of darkness. We have a lot to learn.

The Olde Boar said...

I agree with Stuart in principle for a local approach to the language (hiring people in areas where there is a Welsh speaking majority to be Welsh speaking or at least learning the language). However am I as a English speaking Welshman a "Foreigner"?
"It will help keep jobs local and force foreigners to integrate."

Andrew said...

I agree with The Olde Boar. I am an English speaking 'Welshman' and used to work in a Welsh medium High School in Cardiff as a cleaner.

Alot of the teachers there were very cold and even damn right hostile towards me on times because I didn't speak Welsh.

Calling me English or foreigner. I am not English and I am not a foreigner in my own country, I am Welsh. Just because I don't speak Welsh doesn't make me any less patriotic than the next Welshman or make me Anti-Welsh.

It's attitudes such as that that are pushing undecided people away.

I love Wales and the Welsh language, I think it's a beautiful language and needs to be cared for, nurtured and promoted by everyone in Wales.

These devisions need to stop.

Siônnyn said...

Andrew - your treatment was inexcusable, and not typical of what I have observed, having worked as a full time teacher, and as a supply teacher more recently, in Welsh medium schools in South Wales. It is a credit to you that you have not allowed your experience to sour your views of the language and of Welsh speakers.

John Dixon said...

I agree with Siônnyn that polarisation is unhelpful. There are, as you say, an active and vocal cadre who hate the Welsh language, and would love to see it die tomorrow. But I'm convinced that they are a small and shrinking group - vehemence can sometimes run in inverse proportion to the strength of the argument. By allowing ourselves to rise to the bait, and getting involved in responding to people who will never come round to an alternative way of thinking, we do more harm than good. I am convinced that the argument of principle - i.e. that Welsh should be encouraged to grow and be used in an increasing number of contexts - has been won. The debate now is surely about how, where, and when - responding to the fringe is a diversion from the task of working with the majority to agree on the way forward.

Stuart's idea is one that worries me, and not just for the wholly reasonable responses from Olde Boar and Andrew that it can look like treating those who do not speak Welsh as foreigners. Like it or not, we have to accept that there are two languages in Wales, and those who only speak one of them are no less Welsh for that. Being 'Welsh' means lots of different things to different people. Certainly, if services are to be provided to people in the language of choice, then there are going to be some jobs - in all parts of Wales - which will require Welsh speakers to carry them out. But I really don't think we can declare that, on a geographical basis, all jobs in some areas have that requirement.

Both Dave and Cymro i'r Carn made valid points about the reluctance of public authorities in Wales - in this case, two county councils - to be more pro-active about embracing the language and using it more fully. I agree. And asking anyone speaking in Welsh to provide their own translation after the event is a way of ramming home forcefully that, in that particular context, Welsh is the inferior language.

The way forward is surely to harness and work with the undoubted good will that exists; but to do that, we need to stop behaving and talking as though anyone who doesn't agree with us about any specific proposal is ergo facto anti-Welsh. They're usually not, and need to be persuaded, not abused.