Market forces and minority languages in the Welsh digital landscape

December 15, 2023 by Alison Tunley

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Back in 2018 Rhodri Williams, the outgoing director of Ofcom Wales, warned that the growth of streaming services such as Netflix could have a detrimental impact on original language content aimed at a “geographically-specific audience”. The power of the market means that global players are most interested in content that is accessible to the widest possible audience, and Williams noted that this would “obviously […] be in English.”

This warning from five years ago is echoed in a report on Broadcasting in Wales, published this year by the Welsh Affairs Committee. The threat to public service broadcasters posed by on-demand streaming services has a particular resonance in Wales because of the prominent role played by the Welsh language television channel in revitalising the language since its launch in 1982. A review produced by the TV station reported a 10% rise in the number of Welsh speakers in Wales since it began broadcasting, and although it is hard to quantify the precise contribution made by the channel, there is no doubt that the availability of entertainment and information in Welsh has played a part in ensuring this is an “active, vital, everyday language”.

As someone living in England with minimal access to Welsh language resources, it is pleasing to see the Welsh Affairs Committee report emphasise the importance of retaining sports coverage with Welsh commentary on free-to-air services. Tuning in to watch the Wales football team’s international fixtures is one of my regular forays into Welsh language content. My rusty Welsh skills struggle to keep pace with the commentators, but occasional stock phrases pop up and my husband now also enjoys shouting “chwarae teg” — fair play — at the television. And the team’s recent momentous win against Croatia has cemented the words “cadw eu gobeithion yn fyw” — keeping their (Euro qualification) hopes alive — in my expanding mental Welsh lexicon.

The commercial incentives driving language content on streaming services are also reflected in the relatively limited language choices offered by the voice-activated devices increasingly used to navigate the digital world. In written evidence to the Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee on ‘The future of public service broadcasting’ in 2020, Dr Caitriona Noonan notes that “the digital ecology is overwhelming anglophone and this has direct implications for the discoverability of non-anglophone content, especially minority languages”. Her statement references a 2020 survey of the most popular smart speakers on the market, revealing that Siri at that time offered the highest number of languages (21) while Amazon’s Alexa offered just 8.

Finally, although Duolingo often offers a proud reminder of its courses in minority languages when you log in to the app, this may ring somewhat hollow if its recent decision to ‘pause’ its Welsh language content is anything to go by. Welsh language learners don’t need to panic just yet as the app will continue to offer a course in Welsh, but with no updates to the teaching materials planned this minority language will inevitably end up playing second fiddle to more popular options.

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