Monday, 27 January 2014

Plaid's Vision for the Future of Welsh

The reverberations of the 2011 Census continue, with Plaid Cymru
recently reporting back on their own consultation into the future of Welsh.
(Pic :
Back in November, the First Minister concluded Y Gynhadledd Fawr ("Big Conversation"). It explored attitudes towards the Welsh language amongst Welsh-speakers, determining what they valued and how it could help shape current and future policy. This was in response to census results from 2011 which showed a proportional decline in the number of Welsh-speakers compared to 2001.

Last week, Plaid Cymru's Shadow Minister for the Welsh Language, Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales), unveiled the results of the party's own year-long consultation, which serves as both a response to the census and a way to flag up new policy ideas.

That process included a separate discussion paper from Adam Price – Arfor (pdf) - which called for the creation of a regional government for Y Fro Gymraeg, and new urban centres in Y Fro to act as hubs for economic and social development through the Welsh language.

During an Assembly debate last Wednesday, AMs from all parties raised all too familiar concerns about : the economy in Y Fro, Welsh-medium education, planning issues and TAN20 - raised by Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) - and social opportunities.

The First Minister, who has direct responsibility for the Welsh language, responded by accepting some on the issues raised, repeating some of the things he said in the Cynhadledd Fawr debate, and flagging up some existing schemes like Twf (bilingual childcare).

Linking Welsh to the economic development was the main thrust of both papers, but first of all it's worth looking at the results of the consultation itself.

What did Plaid's own "Big Convo" find?

The responses were under 8 separate headings, but I'm going to slim that down a bit.

Education & Transferring the language - The first part dealt with Welsh in schools, in particular lack of fluency amongst second-language learners. Some respondents wondered whether immersion would be better, including providing all Foundation Phase education through Welsh, pointing towards the innate cognitive benefits of being bilingual from a young age.

There were concerns about indifference towards the language amongst second-language school pupils, and respondents believed it would be better if the subject was put in a broader, historical context that makes full use of modern technology. They also – quite correctly – point out that compulsion breeds resentment.

Others believe that not enough is being done to support adult learners, who might find it easier to lose the commitment necessary to learn a second language outside a formal classroom environment. It was suggested nurseries and adult colleges could join forces to teach parents and younger children at the same time.

When it comes to transferring the language between generations, it was believed there was a responsibility amongst Welsh-speaking households to use Welsh outside of the classroom.

The Economy – The paper says "measures affecting the economy will inherently affect the growth of the Welsh language". Bingo. No jobs or affordable housing for young Welsh-speakers, no Welsh-speaking families, no Welsh-speakers.

Instead of an ultra-local, slightly parochial response to this – people living in the same village or town from birth to death – there's greater desire for a more regional, even national approach. It's said the economy as a whole will have to improve, and therefore Welsh language policies shouldn't be detrimental to economic growth. It's even suggested that traditional opposition to things like road schemes in Y Fro has done more harm to the language than people might expect.

What's unclear though is if such opposition is from locals or "green flighters".

There are, of course, areas where respondents felt there should be more obligations to Welsh-speakers, such as doing more to encourage entrepreneurship, and encouraging the use of Welsh in the workplace – both public and private sector.

Welsh in the community – Adam Price's Arfor paper is central to this, where he called for a regional tier of government encompassing the west and north west ("Arfor") where Welsh would be the primary language of administration.

Others disagreed with this, believing Welsh should remain a "national language" that requires a Wales-wide approach. Measures there would include the further expansion of Welsh-medium (WM) education, and more affordable homes in rural areas.

Some people were upbeat about the prospects of Welsh in future censuses, as the proportion of Welsh-speakers in younger age groups is relatively high, and WM education continues to expand outside of Y Fro - in many places remaining oversubscribed. Iaith Cyf believed the 2001 census was an over-optimistic assessment of Welsh-speaking ability, and there could well have been a slight increase in Welsh-speakers in 2011 compared to 1991.

Welsh as a "language proper" - Firstly, there was a suggestion that Welsh should become a legal "language proper" in the same manner as Basque or Catalan (Update : there's a much fuller explanation and interpretation of what this means from MH over on Syniadau) . That means Welsh-language skills would be essential in public administration (despite claims to the contrary, they often aren't unless Welsh skills are 100% essential, like WM education and media/translation).

Others believe 1% of the Assembly's budget (~£145million) should be earmarked for promotion of the Welsh language – mostly to encourage language transfer between generations and provide more social opportunities.

Plaid make no solid commitments there. Though if I were to choose one of those it would be to increase spending on bilingual social opportunities, which was one of the big issues raised in Y Gynhadledd Fawr.

In terms of attitudes towards the language, it's believed there needs to be a change in perception that Welsh "is for an elite", to combat both negative press and lack of confidence in using the language amongst school-leavers in particular.

Echoing important points

This sums up the Welsh second language short course perfectly. You can talk
about your favourite films, but would likely struggle to understand an S4C discussion
on films, or answer a phone call in Welsh.
(Pic : Apple itunes)
Broadly-speaking, the responses fall in line with a those to Y Gynhadledd Fawr – prioritising economic development, social opportunities for the young and education.

I completely agree with the "compulsion breeds resentment" argument in relation to Welsh in EM schools (and society generally), and I can hardly be accused of being one of "those sorts".

The first problem is that Welsh is taught as a second language full stop - something both Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) and Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) raised during the Assembly debate.

From my own experiences, that means learning to parrot phrases about the weather or what you did on holiday, not exploring things like Welsh literature or it's wider socio-historical context. There's no spark, and Welsh in EM schools is often a very dull, very dry subject which teachers aren't enthused to teach, and pupils (unless committed) aren't entirely enthused to learn.

It's right to point out that it's not confined to Welsh either, and can easily apply to how most second languages are taught in schools.

I'd even say some aspects are pointless, in particular the Short Course GCSE, its scrapping having been recommended as part of a review into Welsh Second Language a few years ago. I sat my GCSEs the year before a compulsory Welsh GCSE came into force, and I'm sure if I had been forced into doing the short course I would've resented it, in the same way I resented short course RE.

A compulsory second (or third) language at GCSE level is fine, but I don't see the point of a token short course that I doubt anyone takes seriously, and doesn't provide pupils with a strong grounding in Welsh.

Despite that, Welsh Language and Literature A-Levels in EM and WM schools are identical, so anyone leaving an EM School with at a good full GCSE Second Language grade probably counts as near-fluent.

Creating a formal "Bro" like the Irish Gaeltacht would be a mistake in my opinion, but I certainly agree Y Fro needs to be seen as a distinct region, including the creation of a planned Welsh-speaking community that has the same benefits as those cities to which the young might be drawn to.

That doesn't need to be a new town, and if I were to shortlist places ideal for that approach it would include Porthmadog, Aberystwyth, Caernarfon, the Menai Bridge area and Carmarthen. Bangor's a bit too crowded, topographically speaking.

I've said time and again that the long-term survival of the language will be linked to economic development and shifting the demographic tide in Y Fro, with expansion of WM education (especially at adult, higher and further education level) across Wales thrown into the mix. I doubt it's dependent on things like legislation, protest movements and compulsion.

It seems many of those who responded to Plaid's survey agree, but it remains to be seen if there's enough political will and bravery across the parties in the Assembly to see some of this through.


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