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Toriad i Bwyllgor Llywio ELEN ar do yr OCCC

The European Language Equality Network was formed by minority language groups in order to provide a mandate for language equality in a Europe ruled by the majorities. In the wake of Brexit and the Welsh Government’s #miliwn (one million Welsh speakers by 2050) policy, David Wyn recently attended one of ELEN’s Leader Group meetings in Valencia.

Why Valencia?

Pre ELEN, the story of the Catalan, Basque and Galician languages were already known, promoted and shared widely. Post ELEN membership: Valencia and its Valencian language are now leading the way in diversity and equality.

As I arrived I heard what initially sounded like linguistic gangster speak,

“You guys know the protocol…” only to find, with some relief, that it’s an an actual language project that’s attempting to safeguard the rights of citizens to receive attention in their chosen minority language – and that is a key feature of a language that perhaps isn’t considered too fully by monoglots – people do not choose their first language, they inherit it from their parents as part of their cultural legacy, and surely this should not be overlooked in the modern era.

This has to be balanced naturally with the socioeconomic sphere, and in Wales the Government’s bold investment in Welsh medium education must be followed by language awareness in the private and public sectors lest that there be no work for the #miliwn speakers in 2050 onwards.

In an exchange that seems particularly pertinent after a renewal of British media attacks against the Welsh language from their ivory towers in what used to be referred to as Fleet Street (and indeed perhaps the attacks reflect the frustration of newspaper editors who no longer influence the general public of the UK as much as they’d like) my question to ELEN’s great and good was: what can one say to people in power who seriously believe that speaking Welsh is an indicator of latent Welsh nationalism? Indeed this is a theme familiar to all in the European Language Equality Network. The answer came from the Basque faction, who have an irony-laden saying:

“Friends speak the same language because they are friends, English people speak the same language because they are English, Basque people speak Basque because they want to overthrow the government!”

ELEN held their termly meeting in Valencia over the weekend of Fri 9 – Sun 11 June. As explained by their Secretary General, Davyth Hicks – a man from Cornwall who speaks Welsh fluently after studying an Ulpan course Lampeter – as he opened the conference, there are two main pillars to their work, namely:

• Project work on behalf of minority language communities

• Direct lobbying and advocacy in Brussels on behalf the members of over 100 organisations that deal with minority languages.

The meeting’s star was Marina Albiol Guznán, an MEP who campaigns on behalf of Catalan; and indeed recently she’s attempted to address official meetings in Brussels and has been prevented from doing so. She described how terrible this experience was, and how the European Union is such an alien and difficult field which purports to be in favour of minority languages, but in truth fails to act on their behalf.

Marina Guznán supports what the London-based barrister Gwion Lewis has already reported to the members of the Alliance of Welsh Communities in Wales, namely that Welsh speakers need to see that our right to our language is a human right and not an arbitrary one according to our geographical situation, and that therefore being offended or to suffer prejudice because of a minority language is just as serious as any other offence which shares the same intention of humiliating and insulting the victim.

That was indeed one of the key messages of the weekend – it is not acceptable for Welsh speakers to be treated as inferior, and that there is a social responsibility for Welsh speakers to share their complaints more effectively with not just the Welsh Language Commissioner, but also with Cymdeithas yr Iaith; especially now that there is a desire from ELEN that we must keep a record of cases of anti-Welsh bias following Brexit. It was highlighted therefore that ELEN are looking at systemic abuse of minority language speakers.

In response to the complaints from Marina Albiol Guznán, Sixto Molina, Secreteriat of the Council of Europe, stood firm to state that it is extremely difficult to understand the situation in each linguistic community across Europe, and therefore he outlined the paperwork and expressed a desire to improve the situation. The main advice was just keep it under 10 pages.

There was a stronger input from Professor Rafael Castelló, which brought the comparison between business and language – and claimed that provision to linguistic communities isn’t based on their expectations, more the number of first language speakers.

Of course it is not the business model that relies on demand that is required by minority languages in each country, so in Valencia they have been trying to create a new atmosphere of supply according to the desire – and needs – of the individual. To an extent, the radical thinking here is a response to the current situation in Valencia where up to 90% of the population understands Catalan but keep a monoglot Castillan mindset that remains in the city.

There was also a presentation in Asturian by the Director General of Policy Unit Asturian Fernando Padilla, a language that as yet has not received an official acknowledgement  in Asturias itself. This causes problems such as a lack of Asturian media, literature and music, but as it it is not an official language, there’s hardly a need for the Government to respond.

With the support of Barcelona, it seems that the Catalonians are at the forefront of language rights and territorial cohesion in this regard.

There is already a strong link between the academics of countries where there is a language minority, and indeed one of the last presentations of this conference was from Conchúr Ó Giollagáin asking where are the ordinary people in our community language planning, because the field is highly dependent on linguistic immigrants to try to create certainty where there is no assurance – apart from the cast-iron guarantee that 90% of the world’s cultures are going to disappear according to Conchúr, an Irishman and specialist on the Celtic languages. ELEN is therefore calling for a greater number of ‘native’ Welsh speakers to join the discussion.

The events were held at the ‘Octubre’ or OCCC building that is funded by the Government in Valencia: a language centre that is sufficiently similar to Cardiff’s Hen Lyfrgell , except for the penthouse and the uninterrupted sunshine on the roof.

In conclusion therefore, ELEN takes prejudice extremely seriously, particularly in believing that abuse of language minorities is systemic, and therefore this network wants to create one voice for minority languages across the whole of Europe – so that our cultures have fair play. They have a vision for the future: as the European Union countries will have to pay a fine for breaches of EU laws, the concept of language as an imperative human right will lead to a much more positive era in the future, with much stronger language regulation.

This is the kind of security we will lose if we turn our backs on Europe – and ELEN say that there will be a generational collapse unless Wales puts into practice many of the recommendations from the Welsh language sector; Welsh must make the most of its meagre resources or we are doomed to fail to reach a million speakers.

Just as the Welsh language society’s expertise has been there for ELEN, ELEN has promised to be there for Welsh. Iechyd da!

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