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I’ve recently been immersed in Kate Fox’s book Watching the English, a popular anthropological tour of English idiosyncrasies. Much of her assessment of the English national character is rooted in our linguistic habits; indeed, a good half of… Read More
Earlier this month, over in the USA, Hazel Sampson died. With her died Klallam, a Native American language which has lost its last native speaker in Hazel and is, therefore, extinct. The decline of Native American languages can be put down to the increasing popularity of English as a global lingua franca, a more useful alternative in a land where English reigns supreme. But, what is often overlooked is that this decline is not just the product of a passive process of one language becoming more useful than other, but is also the end result of an active campaign of the US Government to quash Native American languages. They forced children to speak English in school in order to ‘help’ them assimilate to Western culture. How kind of them.
Americans, right?! Well, the same thing has happened closer to home. From the 18th century, efforts were made to send Welsh the same way as Klallam. In school, a small wooden board, usually inscribed with the letters WN, was put around the neck of any child heard speaking Welsh until the one who was left wearing it at the end of the day was given a lashing. What better way to suppress a language than by beating it out of the newest generation who threaten to keep it alive?
In the USA and in Wales, this was all done under the guise of helping people to speak a language which was deemed more socially elevated. In reality, it was an attempt to suppress a community and to quash any threat to the dominant status of English and those who spoke it.
Of course, we’ve come a long way since then. English is still the only official language of the UK as a whole, but Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Lowland Scots (Ulster Scots), Cornish and Irish are all ‘officially recognised minority languages’. Since the passing of the Welsh Language Act 1992, Welsh is considered an official language along with English within Wales. Perhaps politicians saw the error of their ways, or more likely perhaps political guilt and a desire to win votes set in.
Whatever the driving factor for this U-turn, is it all too little too late? Thanks for granting us the permission to call our own language ‘official’, but census data for Wales shows that the number of Welsh speakers plummeted between at least 1911 and 1981.
Hope is not completely lost however, as the most recent figures show an increase in Welsh speakers since 1981. So perhaps there’s some fight left in the Welsh language yet but there’s no denying that it’s going to be an uphill struggle.
There are those who think that these language-salvaging initiatives are all a waste of public money. David Mitchell’s self-satisfied speech on YouTube about Britain’s languages other than English makes no bones about that. “Language is fundamentally a tool of communication”, he tells us. He stresses that although the death of an ancient language is a “pity”, it is no more than that. A pity.
Well, I pity you David if that’s all language means to you. Yes, language is a tool of communication but I suppose we could also say that eating is a tool of survival. Perhaps we should all give up the food we love too and instead survive on that which we are force-fed.
I don’t think it a waste of money to try to undo the damage of culturally oppressive initiatives that had the sole intention of strangling people out of such an intrinsic part of their cultural identity. I’m glad that the law has changed to reflect the UK’s real cultural make up, but there is work still to be done.
Welsh is compulsory in Welsh schools from Nursery right up until GCSE level. That’s 13 years’ worth of Welsh education for most people. And yet the most recent census data show that a staggering 73.9% of people in Wales (most of whom would have gone through the Welsh education system) reported having no knowledge of Welsh at all.
That is nothing short of unbelievable. Clearly, the 2nd language Welsh curriculum needs to change dramatically. Instead of repeating the same basic topics over and over again, there should be more focus on grammar. I know people are quick to criticise teaching grammar, claiming that it is more difficult and less interesting but grammar is the foundation of language and without a sound grasp of a language’s building blocks, the only things people are learning are useless, random sound bites.
Moreover, those who spout the sort of short-sighted, uninformed opinion that David Mitchell endorses need to appreciate the history behind the demise of certain languages and realise that to some, language is so much more than a mere tool of communication. He snidely remarks that languages only ever die through “natural selection” and their decline is never the effect of man’s actions. Well once again he has failed to see the whole picture and hasn’t bothered to take into account the numerous examples from across the world (the Americas, Wales and Spain to name just a few) where man has actively tried, to varying degrees of success, to kill a language and in doing so suppress a culture.
The theory for language equality in the UK is sound, now all we need is for the practice to truly reflect that and then there will be real promise that the UK’s oldest languages will recover.
O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau.
Taylor Wessing LLP
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