By Mukul Devichand
Analysis, Radio 4
Wales has been enjoying a revival of its native tongue, driven chiefly by those in rural areas. Now a new awareness is growing in the industrialised south, but some - including native Welsh speakers themselves - fear it could foster division and resentment.
Extreme reaction: How one dissenter was treated
On a crisp Welsh morning, I followed a man into a quiet country lane before he felt it safe to start our anonymous interview. We weren't discussing mafia activity or official secrets. He was a public sector worker in Wales. The subject was language policy in the workplace. His opinion was that policies to promote the Welsh language had gone too far.
"To be seen as being the Welsh speaker in a particular environment will give you career bonuses," he says. "I object to this, I really don't like it at all."
This, from a Welsh speaker himself. But in Wales, such antipathy to the native tongue can be seen as tantamount to heresy.
There's a real mood of national pride among the Welsh, crystallised in the renewed vigour behind efforts to revive their ancient language. The devolved Welsh Assembly Government now wants to extend its control over language policies - a move that could see parts of the private sector being regulated.
But does the fact he sees his dissent as taboo point to a wider unease about the forces driving the Welsh revival?
The south Wales valleys where I grew up are predominantly English speaking, with a working class culture shaped by migrants from across Europe who came to work in the coal mines. It's here that many are now discovering a sense of national identity by learning the Welsh language.
"It is our right to speak our own language," says one learner at an adult education centre in Caerphilly.
"It's our identity, it's who we are," says another.
Their passion for Welsh isn't driven by state policies or the allure of public sector jobs. They've come to see learning the language as a fundamental part of being Welsh.
This increasing sense of national confidence is in many ways heartening. These areas took a particular hit after coal mining collapsed during the 1980s when Britain embraced global markets. The misery is fresh in people's minds.
What is new is how the Welsh language has increasingly become the focus of this sense of identity. But does it bear any relation to the language politics of rural Wales?
In Ysgubor Goch, a council estate in Caernarfon in the far north-west of Wales, the townsfolk are 88% Welsh speaking and there's a history of militancy around the Welsh language. Yet what's surprising is how removed some of the locals are from the current language revival.
"There's a bit of a resurgence in the language," says one man. "Especially down in the south, where it's becoming more fashionable."
Since legislation in the 90s, Welsh has become highly visible
The twinkle in his eye shows he's pleased about this. But he also seems bemused. After all, in his view it hadn't made much difference in Ysgubor Goch. "It's always been strong in this area," he says.
It seems the Welsh learners of the south are leading the linguistic revival, rather than those in areas that naturally speak Welsh. This made sense when set against the other recurring theme in my travels - the search for identity and roots.
"People start to feel they are starting to disappear into a faceless mob," says Aran Jones, of Welsh language rights group Cymuned, which argues that the flow of English incomers should be discouraged.
"You get some people saying that's not who I want to be." And so to stand out from the crowd, they learn Welsh.
His politics is at the extreme end of Welsh language preservation. Yet he has spent most of his life abroad and only learnt Welsh in his 30s.
Some have compared what's happening in Wales to the identity politics of other stateless European nations, like Catalonia and the Basque region in Spain. The argument is that globalisation and the fragmentation of traditional nation states - like Britain - means people are now rediscovering their local histories and languages as a way to give their lives meaning.
There's much to commend this positive take on what's happening. But why are some critics of the Welsh revival afraid to speak out?
The state is a huge employer in Wales and there are varying levels of Welsh language compliance for workers - from fluency down to not speaking the tongue at all. I spoke to several public sector workers who are upset about the way language policies work, but who are afraid to speak publicly.
Mukul Devichand and Aran Jones discuss the future of Welsh
"You tend to find that there's always a them and us of some kind," says the public sector worker, quoted above. "To be seen as a Welsh speaker within a particular environment will give you career biases. There are cases where you will find that someone who can speak Welsh but isn't as qualified to do a role will get a role that a better qualified person without the Welsh speaking facility doesn't get."
As a Welsh speaker himself, does he not stand to gain?
"I want to be known for the fact the quality of my work is good, not because the quality of my work is alright but I speak Welsh."
One English-speaking civil servant, who asked to remain anonymous, says dissenting from such policies doesn't necessarily mean being anti-Welsh language. Nevertheless, he sensed there is a growing divide between those who do and don't speak Welsh, with an inference that Welsh speakers are at a career advantage.
"Welsh people who live in Wales, regardless what language they speak, would like Welsh to be promoted," he says.
What worries him and others is that in the public sector, workers feel they have been shut out of the debate about the linguistic revival.
"Because it's a legal issue, because it's an issue that people have to comply with, it becomes a difficult issue to engage with and to empathise with," he says.
What's at stake is what bilingualism will mean in future. Will it:
- ensure a place for the Welsh language, or
- eventually mean everyone speaking Welsh alongside English?
"What we will see, and what the evidence shows us we will see, is a wholesale transformation," says Meri Huws, chair of the publicly funded Welsh Language Board.
"The young people are going through the bilingual schools of South East Wales, a very traditional non-Welsh speaking area. They will become, over time, users. Over the next 30 years we will see a transformation in the nature of Welsh society."
It's an ambitious plan, in a country where 70% still don't speak, read or write Welsh. But her vision for Wales does enjoy a democratic legitimacy which her anonymous opponents lack . Her critics' counter argument is that what they feel is an atmosphere of self-censorship - and even fear - does not make for a healthy debate on national values.
Analysis is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 25 October at 2030 BST.
Here is a selection of your comments.
It's fine for people to speak their native tongue, as long as it remains their choice and there are no 'benefits' to doing so. Where I work we have to create everything in Welsh, at a very high cost for very little usage...it doesn't make economical sense. I'm English and I live in England, I object to having to pander to the languages of other countries that I'm not even in!
Paddy G, Nuneaton
I applied for a job with Anglesey Council and although being best qualified, did not get it on the grounds of Welsh not being my first language. It's no wonder north Wales has a lack of opportunities when everyone in the local Government was hired because they can speak a minority language.
DE, London, Britain
Born in England but brought up in South Wales I practiced a little Welsh when I was in primary school but where I lived (North Cornelly then Kenfig Hill) there was not much practice outside of school. Now living in Lancashire I regularly visit the communities I was brought up in and would just love to converse in Welsh, rather than using the occasion 'hello', 'goodbye', 'please', 'thank you', 'good morning', etc., which is just about all I use. It would be especially useful when I travel to areas like Mid and North Wales where I have heard it used more in public but unfortunately haven't had the chance to learn and practice.
John Richard Jones, Preston, Lancashire, UK
People living in Wales should learn Welsh, just like if they live in England they should speak English -- simple as that.
Plus, the advantages of bilingualism have been proven, not limited to a greater ease of further linguistic acquisition (and end this "Anglo-Saxon" disease of not learning foreign languages).
mel, London, England
I fear the welsh are going the same way as the french.
I was in Wales on holiday a few years ago (not too far from Caernarfon) staying with family. I went into the local bank to withdraw cash as the ATM was broken and the cashier addressed me in Welsh. When I said that I spoke no Welsh it was clear that I had just been demoted to second class citizen in that persons eye's. Charming!
Mike, Exeter UK
Absolutely regional languages should be taught to those living in the regions...whether it's Welsh in Wales, Gaelic in Ireland, Breton in Britanny and Basque in the Basque Country - they aren't national languages but of extreme cultural importance. Once enough of the Welsh embrace it themselves, most English will learn a few words for a visit....sadly most Brits don't do more than that for France/Spain etc....so the Welsh shouldn't expect to much of us!!
I hope that in future all schools in Wales will be bilingual. I am a Welsh speaker and would love to be able to use it more in day-to-day life but probably the main stumbling block is not knowing who speaks it and who doesn't. If the vast majority of the population spoke it, it would enjoy much more wide-spread use. As it is, I live in an area which is supposedly one of the most Welsh-speaking in the country yet the language is still fairly rarely used compared to English.
Rob, Aberystwyth, Wales
If you live in a country, why shouldn't you learn its language? How else can you truly understand its culture? To me this smacks of double standards. Enough fuss is made in England about how people should learn English. Welsh was treated as a second-class language for years and now it's regaining ground, people want it subjugated again! Coincidentally I have just started learning Welsh myself - it's like my heritage is inaccessible otherwise.
I grew up as an English 'immigrant' in South Wales. Despite having lived there from the age of three to eighteen, I was always viewed as an English kid. When I was old enough to go into pubs, it was notable that the locals would be speaking Welsh - it didn't take me long to realise that they spoke English amongst themselves, but if an 'English bloke' came in, they'd switch to Welsh. Although I have nothing against Welsh as a language, it's this kind of casual racism associated with the language that made me distinctly uncomfortable growing up there, and I have no desire to return. It's a shame. What is especially ironic is when I moved to England, when people heard I grew up in Wales, they started making sheep jokes...!
Ian, Southampton, UK
My daughter, a gifted linguist, is currently doing GCSE coursework including Spanish and French, which she studies for 4 hrs each per week. It is a requirement that she learns Welsh at school, but only gets 1 hr per fortnight to do so. This is hypocrisy at work, how can a language be learned with that limitation? Welsh is not spoken at school at any other time.
Gena Fletcher, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, South Wales
I am Welsh by birth and lead a £3.3million turnover manufacturing company in Wales. Being taught only Welsh & English to the exclusion of French or German during the 60's has been a continuous handicap in my business career. Teach Welsh by all means but do not restrict European language development as consequence. It's not much good for Wales in Europe! I still see pitifully few job applicants with any real useable European language skills beyond English. Is this really an adequate state of affairs in so called enlightened 21st Century Education in Wales ?
David Thomas , Crickhowell Powys
I think it is appropriate that Welsh children have the opportunity to learn their native tongue. It is however equally important that they also retain the ability to learn and speak English. English is THE major international language and most nations ensure that their populations speak English as a first level business language and a second or third level domestic language. Road and place names ought to appear in both tongues. Reintroducing the domestic language for Welsh people must be seen as a positive action and not side tracked into any extremist dogma or the political arena.
Ken M, London
It's interesting how Scotland, with a clear leaning of many in the population towards independence from England, do not see the need to foster a non-Englash language (even though they have one in their heritage) whereas Wales, which was seemingly indifferent to it's own National Assembly when set up, feel the need to push the Welsh Language. I suspect the Scots are being the more canny as putting up barriers to English (and overseas) businesses relocating to your region does not make good business sense.
Take a lesson from Canada. Quebec's infamous "language law" forced English businesses to leave, alienated entire communities, and drove a wedge deeper between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Linguistic nationalism can go too far!
Sarah Budd, Toronto, Canada