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In defence of the Welsh language

“Is the Welsh language a help or a hindrance?” 

It’s the sort of question that you hope is never asked in modern Britain. Yet, it appears as although the British media elite have surprised us all again. 

This was the question that introduced BBC Newsnight’s debate surrounding the Welsh language. This occurred during Wales’ largest cultural festival. In 2017. 

Of course, hostilities towards the Welsh language have existed for hundreds of years, and it isn’t my interest to visit the history books. But it is rather striking that a number of media outlets – from The Guardian to the BBC – have taken aim, intentionally or unintentionally, at the Welsh language in recent months. 

Yes, much of this debate surrounding the Welsh language has arguably stemmed from the Welsh Government’s decision to aim for one million Welsh speakers by 2050. This is an ambitious target that would require fundamental educational and institutional reform, but it has been used to belittle the Welsh on a national platform.

Fortunately, if the Welsh feel they’re being dealt with unfairly, they’ll let you know.

In June, The Guardian published an article suggesting that children that spoke and were taught in Welsh were at a disadvantage. Louise Tickie and Steven Morris’ feature read: “With a third of schools in Wales no longer teaching in English, debate rages over the ethics of using the classroom to bolster a minority language”. Criticism came in from Cymdeithas yr Iaith (the Welsh language society) and broadcaster Huw Edwards, with the anti-Welsh tone and bigotry of the piece slammed.  

But not to be outdone, The Times recently ran a smug and spiteful editorial questioning the Welsh Government’s policy to aim for one million speakers. Of course, as the editor of nation.cymru, Ifan Morgan Jones, pointed out: this is a newspaper that wanted the language “dead” back in 1866, and describing it as “rich and beautiful” now doesn’t disguise its disdain for the Welsh not learning what they’d see as a ‘useful’ language.  

They even tried to change their tone later, with Oliver Kamm writing under the headline: “We must protect the Welsh language before it is too late”. Did the number of sales in Wales drop that quickly? 

Professor Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University was visibly angry at Newsnight’s report when he appeared on S4C’s Newyddion 9.

Its framing, its script, its purpose – it was wrong. No other group or people in the UK would be targeted like the Welsh were by the BBC. There was no Welsh speaker on the show to defend the language, while Newsnight bigwigs had intentionally invited notable anti-Welsh language crusader Julian Ruck to argue against the language being funded, lying about the viewing figures for Welsh services on BBC Wales in the process. n

Evan Davis was ill-informed to present the debate, asking a non-Welsh speaking guest how often she spoke the language. It is even more disgraceful that former Plaid Cymru MP, Elfyn Llwyd, has claimed that he was contacted by a Newsnight researcher who wrongly believed that he was still an MP and a spokesman for Cymdeithas yr Iaith. After Llwyd told the researcher to contact BBC Wales and ask its Eisteddfod team to arrange an interview, the researcher then apparently asked: “What’s the Eisteddfod?”. 

Of course, one could forgive a member of the general public for not knowing what the Eisteddfod was, but for a researcher looking to do a piece on the Welsh language, it’s disgraceful. The fact that this report went out during Wales’ most prominent Welsh language cultural festival adds insult to injury.  

But why is the British media so racist to Welsh speakers?

There seems to be a tendency to paint a picture of the Welsh and suggest that the Welsh language and its associated customs are racist towards anyone else. This isn’t the case. Wales wants to welcome anyone to embrace the Welsh language, and it could be that the English newspapers are agitated by this.  

Sadly, we can’t often defend ourselves, which arguably makes us even more vulnerable to attack. Professor Laura McAllister has noted that Wales “has insufficient self-confidence, belief and leadership to speak out and to challenge hideous misrepresentations”. McAllister notes a few other reasons why Newsnight characterised the Welsh as it did. Of course, she is right when she says we, the Welsh, should have laid the foundations for what “bilingualism” in Wales might look like. Also, the professor points out how we in Wales do not have a media platform to argue different points, which is not helped by how BBC Wales representatives, such as Director Rhodri Talfan Davies, are silent on the issue. However, we must not under any circumstances put a price on something so culturally and historically significant as our language. 

What could be even more important in the future is that we do not fall into a situation where there is a “them and us” debate – between those who may or may not speak the language. When the debate intensifies surrounding the language, however, it is unlikely that this will happen. 

The Newsnight piece should never have been aired. The fact that the BBC issued a statement saying it “regrets” the broadcast does not go far enough. The report only emphasises how Wales and its language is discriminated against, and is the latest tirade against Wales in the British media. 

Fortunately, if the Welsh feel they’re being dealt with unfairly, they’ll let you know.

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