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Post  Admin on Wed 1 Oct 2008 - 15:09

For Wales, over the centuries, our language has been the major thing that marked us as different from our neighbours on the other side of Clawdd Offa, since there is no natural geographical barrier that separates Wales from England. Over the past hundred years that has changed, reaching a low point where only a fifth of people in Wales could speak Welsh, though that trend is now being reversed.

Because of that decline we now rely on different, and less tangible, ways of defining our national identity. But this makes us no different from many other countries that were once part of the British Empire. In historical terms neither America nor Australia broke away because they thought that speaking a language other than English formed part of their national identity.

Even so, there is still much to be discussed in the way of language, especially the status of both Welsh and English in legal and constitutional terms. On the one hand, most people in Wales would agree that not being able to speak Welsh doesn't make anyone any less Welsh; but on the other hand, most of us want to see a Wales in which everyone who grows up in Wales is able to speak Welsh, even though they might choose, and have every right, to speak English. Keeping both balls in the air is a juggling act.

If we take Ireland as an example, the constitutional status of Irish is enshrined with Irish given priority as the first official language and English as a second official language. Deliberate steps were taken to give state institutions and offices of state Irish names, such as the Oireachtas, Dáil and Seanad, and the Uachtarán and Taoiseach. Irish is a compulsory subject in schools. Indeed until the 1970s one could not get a school Leaving Certificate and thus progress to higher education without passing Irish, nor get a public service job. Yet it remains true that Ireland is far from being a fully bilingual society. The last thing we would want is to give Welsh the same high status as Irish, but for it not to be a widely spoken, thriving language. The reality of day to day use is always more important that what the Constitution may say, or even what a court of law may decide.

Another example we might look at is Latvia. When it regained independence in 1991 after 50 years of Russian rule some 27% of the population were Russian, most of whom did not speak Latvian. In fact more people in Latvia could speak Russian than could speak Latvian. After independence it passed laws which made Latvian the only official language and made citizenship dependent on competency in Latvian, thus disenfranchising many people who had been born and lived all their lives in the country. Draconian? Those laws had to be relaxed as a condition of EU membership. Also, to use a more recent parallel from 2008, would Russia have reacted "to protect its people" in the same way as it reacted with over South Ossetia, and might still react in the Crimea. Is it so impossible to imagine England doing the same ... if not in military terms, then by flexing its diplomatic and economic muscles? After all, more than 20% of the population of Wales in 2001 was born in England.

So we need to be careful about how language fits into our legal and constitutional framework, and this forum is the place to discuss it.

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