Monday, November 16, 2009

Damaging row over the Welsh Language

Today's Western Mail has gone big on questions about Edwina Hart's suitability to serve as First Minister because of her inability to speak the Welsh Language. I'm really sorry to see this issue being raised. But Betty Williams, retiring Labour MP for Conwy has done so. Does she not realise that instigating this debate damages public support for bilingualism, and probably damages Carwyn Jones, the only Welsh speaker in the race to succeed Rhodri Morgan - the opposite of what she's reported to want. The best comment in the article comes from Menna Machreth Jones, Chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith (The Welsh Language Society) who's reported as saying "Speaking Welsh is an important skill for anyone, including the First Minister, but just as important, if not more so, is their attitude to the Language. Is that person committed to delivering the cross party vision of a truly bilingual country?" Spot on.

I have to admit that Edwina doesn't help herself by comparing the Welsh Language with Bengali or Chinese. What on earth was she thinking when she said that? When I was a young man, there was much division in Wales about the language. It was all deeply unpleasant, and reflected very badly on Wales. A few hotheads even set fire to houses of non-Welsh speakers. But over the years, wiser heads prevailed, and depoliticised the debate. They realised that if the language was to prosper, it needed the support of those who did not speak it, as well as those who did. Eventually, the now Lord Roberts of Conwy secured a successful future for the Welsh Language by means of adaption of the 1988 Education Reform Act to encompass the linguistic distinctiveness of Wales. It became part of the National Curriculum in Wales. This was the single most important development in the long battle which halted and then reversed the seemingly inevitable decline of Welsh.

Edwina's honesty sometimes gets her into trouble. She could so easily have said that she was going to learn, and arrange to have a few lessons. I know plenty of people who have done that, and then pretended that they can speak Welsh - when they can't. That's not Edwina Hart's style, and its to her credit. We do not want to see the future our Language being put at risk by stoking up an unnecessary row - if its all right with you Mrs Williams.


Anonymous said...

Hi Glyn, enjoying your blog as always.

I hate to make my first comment here a disagreement, but I don't think the phrase about a 'few hotheads even setting fire to houses of non-Welsh speakers' is quite correct.

Meibion Glyndwr's was a campaign against summer homes and not a linguistic issue per se - it was a protest on the issue of property. The homes burnt were homes of non-Welsh speakers by extension, but language was not the object.

Otherwise this is a balanced and fair post. Give me Edwina Hart over Beti Williams any day.

Simon Brooks said...

I think the problem, Glyn, is not that Edwina Hart can't speak Welsh, but some of her comments on multiculturalism and the Welsh language which have been part of the campaign.

Her leadership manifesto includes a highly vitriolic paragraph which seems to be in some way suggesting that Welsh-medium schools are racist ('self-appointed minority' is her term) because they contain a lower percentage of ethnic minority children than the English-medium sector.

Now we learn that she regards Welsh as akin in status to an ethnic minority language.

It is not hard, I think, to see why people will take offence. I agree with you that the language debate has moved forward. However if elected politicians make foolish and unfounded comments then their electors have every right to let them know what they think.

alanindyfed said...

I don't think this issue damages the Welsh language as much as it damages Labour. However, for a Chief Minister of Wales to be ignorant of Welsh is a distinct disadvantage.

don the incomer said...

could you perhaps mention, in the interests of balance, the various 'hotheads' who have called Welsh 'primitive', 'backward' etc on blogs like Betsan's BBc blog, and the various racist anti-welsh people who regularly post on websites and write letters into newspapers? Or are you only talking about welsh-speaking hotheads? From where I'm standing, the language extremists are the anti-Welsh lobby.
Are you suggesting that the only hotheads and extremists are welsh-speakers?
How about attacking the anti-Welsh lobby? or do you need their votes?

A Roberts said...

Well said Glyn. Both, Williams and Hart are wrong with what they have said. Edwina Hart's peevish and ill-thought out answer shows to me that she does not have the gravitas or experience needed to become First Minister.

Peter Williams said...

I went on a fantastic short course at Nant Gwrtheyrn
(and was taught by the amazing Cenard Davies of BBC Catch phrase fame). Everyone and anyone can have their lives changed, their horizons widened, and the gap in their education filled by going there.

Glyn Davies said...

Guto - I concede an error here - but it flows from how I and many others perceived the violence at the time. The issue of 'second homes' and language were merged in our minds, even if not in the minds of Meibion Glyndwr.

Simon - I've not read her manifesto, so cannot comment on it. I've known her a long time, and have never heard her say anything that suggested she was anything but supportive of a bilingual Wales - but her comparison of Welsh with Chinese and Bengali was daft.

Alan - I agree that ability to speak Welsh is an advantage, but it would not be sufficient to influence my vote if I had one. What matters is attitude.

Don - The hotheads I referred to set fire to people's houses - and thankfully seem to have grown out of it. I'm never that bothered by commenters on blogs who set out to be offensive. I always think that the level of rudeness and the attention readers give is inversely proportional.

A Roberts - Don't think I agree with you on this. I've worked a lot with Edwina Hart over the years, and reckon she's more than capable of carrying out the role of First Minister. She does speak so bluntly sometimes that she's in the Duke of Edinburgh catagory, and will get it wrong once in a while - as she did with the reference to Bengali and Chinese.

Peter - I learned to speak Welsh after becoming an Assembly Member. Agree that its life changing.

Anonymous said...

Nice one Glyn!

BTW I'm learning the keyboard, much more useful than Welsh

penlan said...

A staggeringly inept comment from Mrs Williams and a classic way to alienate people.It takes an internal Labour party squabble to reveal her view that the majority of the Welsh population ought not to aspire to leadership of the country.It is the sort of remark that can inflict immense damage to the cause of devolution.It seems that her understanding of democracy is decidedly skin-deep.Presumably if a modern day young Kinnock or Heseltine(to give examples)decided to make their political careers in the Bay,they would not be good enough for her.And God knows,we need genuine talent there.Competence is the requirement;ability to speak Welsh an advantage.

Peter Williams said...

Bearing in mind your/our interest in language(s) - and also in the quality of life of older citizens (and voters ! ) - I thought I’d mention the Adult Education outreach courses that are run throughout Powys by Aberystwyth University. There is of course provision for Welsh almost everywhere. I’m with a Spanish intermediate group in Brecon at present and you might like to look at my recent experimental bilingual blog (below) – and I need more followers !

It is mostly a journal noting discussion topics for our class. I read Spanish newspapers online most days and I’ve intentionally set it up in the most legible font (Verdana), with a text size suitable for the older members of our group. 50 per cent of the whole population is now over 50 ?- all wishing they had “young eyes” again. (It is rather devoid of comments because our group is not IT savvy so I have to print out posts for them).

I am having a useful discussion with Conservative Central Office at the moment about improving their vast web output, including The Blue Blog, which is currently presented throughout in a really microscopic ant-like font. Accessibility is vital if they are to get their message across. ( BTW - do see the comments under Eric’s post, “Counting Down”).

This comment is going a bit overlength ! owing to rough weather outside. So here is my brief language blog, plus links to Aber, and The Blue Blog: