Subsidizing English

In 1951 Saunders Lewis wrote an article in Y Faner entitled Awrdurdodau Lleol a'r Gymraeg in which he spoke about how councils across Wales would use English as the language of their meetings even though the majority, sometimes even all but one, spoke Welsh.

In recent years technology has given us a neat solution to that problem; for I'm sure most of us will be familiar with being offered a headset so as to be able to hear a simultaneous translation by someone speaking quietly in the corner of the meeting room. The equipment is relatively inexpensive and can be taken from place to place in one or two large briefcases. This has transformed the situation, because people who would have preferred to speak in Welsh but switched to English out of politeness (or sometimes a mistaken deference) were now able to speak in their language of choice without inconveniencing those who could only understand English.

So it was with some concern that I read this story in Tuesday's Western Mail:

    Cuts signal ‘English-only’ meetings in Welsh town

The town concerned is Aberaeron, where the Council have just decided not to use the service on the grounds that it will save them thousands of pounds.

Some of the reaction to this news has been to point to it as an example of how much Welsh costs; but in fact the service only exists for the benefit of those who do not understand Welsh. Those who do understand it have no need of it. And the money is being spent not on Welsh, but on those who do not understand it. It is an example of the amount of money that is being spent on subsidizing English.

As for Aberaeron Town Council's decision, it appears their intention is to have the Councillors themselves do the translation rather than pay somebody to do it at a cost of £30 or £40 an hour ... or at least that's what they are saying. Personally I have no objection to a councillor doing the job instead on a voluntary basis, providing that they can provide the same service competently. But somehow, just somehow, I suspect this will be an excuse for them not to provide the service at all.


There is an important principle at stake, namely that people in Wales have a right to use Welsh in public meetings like these. For even though our language rights are very much more limited in other circumstances, they already exist in local democracy. I would urge people to exercise them.

The attitudes of sixty years ago are no longer appropriate today. What Welsh speakers did out of politeness and good will has resulted in some, though not all, non-Welsh speakers reciprocating that good will. But all too often the same sort of anti-Welsh attitudes prevail now as prevailed when Saunders Lewis wrote what he did almost sixty years ago.

I guess councils all over Wales will try and use the cuts in money for public services as an excuse not to provide services like this. But any savings that are achieved will be achieved at the much greater expense of denying people their right to use the language of their choice if the service is not provided at all, or of putting pressure on people not to exercise those rights because it will inconvenience those who can't speak Welsh.

If people can't speak Welsh in Wales, it is not Welsh speakers who are to blame. If others cannot understand what they say in public meetings of this sort, it is up to the Council to provide a service that will enable them to understand ... and if any who cannot speak Welsh object to the cost, they should be politely but firmly reminded that the service exists entirely for their benefit.

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Unknown said...

Perhaps those councillors and official who are unable to speak Welsh might be prevailed upon to meet the cost of translation themselves?

Barry said...

Hear, hear! Councillors in Aberaeron should still exercise their right to conduct council business in Welsh, then use the argument you've outlined.

MH said...

That's their argument, Siônnyn. In the interests of a fairer, more equal and more inclusive society, I have no objection to paying taxes for a service which I personally don't need, but others do.

Anonymous said...

The scandal here to me is that the report says that meetings are usually conducted in English in Aberaeron council anyway (the report does not draw any distinction between meetings of the full council/its committes and meetings in which the public are invited to participate. I took it to be as much about the former??). The council has a majoirty of Welsh speakers who in their vote appear to lack the awareness/will to challenge the norm into which they have been socialised that English is the language in this public domain. Many of them may well be functionally more confident using English in this sort of context. Could some have Stockholm syndrome? Would some will possibly regard those members of the council or public who insist on speaking Welsh as the awkawrd squad? Hugely depressing for those of us who have made the effort to learn the language as individuals and those areas of Wales where efforts are being made to revive it as a social language. With friends like these....

Dafydd said...

How does the total of £3000 compare with the total claimed in expenses by the councillors, I wonder?

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