Recently I have visited Wales for the first time. Apart from the dramatic scenery, what truly impressed me was the omnipresent bilingualism.
All road signs, information boards in shops and churches, were both in Welsh and English. These languages have a completely different origin, with Welsh belonging to the Brittonic group of the Celtic family of languages.
The mountainous terrain made Wales pretty much inaccessible for outsiders for centuries, thus the distinct language, culture and identity have developed. The linguistic politics of the authorities also helped.
Bilingualism à la Belarus: the civil society organisations in charge of it
Naturally, I compared it to the linguistic situation in Belarus. The country has two official languages, Belarusian and Russian, but the former dominates in the public sphere in the last decades. The example is actually set by the authorities themselves. The head of state, Alexandr Lukashenka, speaks Belarusian only occasionally. The state-run TV channels broadcast almost exclusively in Russian.
In Minsk, the capital with 2-million inhabitants, there are just a few private day nurseries that offer education in Belarusian. The same happens at the further stages of education.
Belarusian civil society organisations show a more active approach towards what the state fails to provide. Mova na nova, Mova ci kava – just to name a few free courses of Belarusian language for adults, organised throughout the whole country. (See my earlier article about it on Belarus Digest).
Recent data has just proved this phenomenon. The Financial Times recently discussed the results of the survey by Euromonitor International on the use of Russian language in the post-Soviet space over the last 20 years. In Belarus, the number of its users has significantly increased from nearly 50% (in 1996) to 71% (in 2016). To compare it with other former republics, in Ukraine fewer people recognise Russian as their first language – a drop from 33.9% in 1996, to 24.4% in 2016.
Bilingualism is being constantly challenged
Having media in Welsh, including radio and TV with Welsh-language soap operas, certainly helps, but it is insufficient. In the village Betws-y-coed, I spoke to one Welsh woman who confirmed that Welsh was a living language in their region. Children learn it and in it at schools and many people use it in their daily life. Yet, Welsh people migrate to other parts of the UK or abroad to find jobs.
I made some further research on this issue. In 2011 the Office for National Statistics revealed the results of the survey showing the declining trends for the use of the Welsh language. The number of its users have declined in 2 percentage point drop from 21% in 2001 to 19% in 2011 survey.
Yes, some would say that it is a way much easier to support bilingualism when the languages are so different as Welsh and English. “Russian and Belarusian are very similar”, I would hear often. Well, in my view, if the language remains perceived as a marker of a unique identity, then it should not be the case. Moreover, the situation with the Ukrainian language could be similar, yet the statistics show a different trend occurring in the society.
Unfortunately, the Belarusian language still has an image of having only a ceremonial position. To the large extent that happens because of the authorities’ policies. The Welsh, on the other hand, seems to be a living language, widely spoken and something that Welsh people are proud of.