Creating work to support the language?

November 2023 | Arfor, Featured

By Dr. Huw Lewis, Centre for Welsh Politics and Society, Aberystwyth University

‘Creu Gwaith – Cefnogi’r Iaith’ (‘Creating Work – Supporting the Language’) is ARFOR’s motto and the programme’s material states an intention to target interventions that will increase the use of Welsh. However, what kind of work creation schemes are likely to have a positive effect on the day-to-day use of Welsh across the region?

For decades, the saying ‘create work to keep the language’ has peppered discussions regarding the future of Welsh among activists and policy makers, especially when discussing the language’s prospects across Wales’ western counties. There is a similar tendency in Ireland as well, where ‘no jobs, no people; no people, no Gaeltacht’ is a familiar saying among those who support Irish.

Implicit in these statements is the assumption that ensuring sufficient work opportunities in areas where higher percentages of the population can speak a minority language contributes to keeping people in those areas and, as a result, helps to ensure that the language continues to be spoken.

Of course, it’s a similar assumption that provided the basis for developing the ARFOR programme and it’s work streams. This is seen clearly in the programme’s logo – ‘Creu Gwaith: Cefnogi’r Iaith’ – and in the statement of purpose for ARFOR II that appears in the prospectus:

‘Supporting the communities that are strongholds of the Welsh language to flourish through economic interventions that will also contribute to increasing opportunities to see and use the Welsh language on a daily basis.’ (p.8)

However, although the connection between ‘creating work’ and ‘supporting the language’ can appear intuitive and reasonable when discussing in general terms, it is important to avoid treating the connection as a simple equation where one inevitably leads to the other.

As Wilson McLeod stressed when analysing discussions in Scotland regarding the best way to support Gaelic across the Gàidhealtachd areas: ‘Connecting language development to economic development is an important but sensitive task, for the two objectives are by no means identical.’

Therefore, what are the considerations that need to be kept in mind when assessing the type of work creation schemes that are likely to support the Welsh language’s prospects across the ARFOR region, and specifically to promote greater use of the language?

What work encourages language use?

A familiar first step is considering the extent to which an employment initiative in a particular area is likely to influence in-migration patterns by individuals or families that do not speak Welsh. A familiar case for us here in Wales is that of Ireland during the 1960s and 1970s when an emphasis was placed on attracting inward investment in the form of big industrial developments to Gaeltacht areas. A considerable number of jobs were created as a result of this strategy, yet the consensus by today is that the nature of these developments hastened the shift to English across the Gaeltacht by encouraging migration by workers who did not speak Irish. Given this, it is positive that steps have been taken in Wales to develop processes within the planning system for assessing the impact of large developments on the use of Welsh in the area – although  concerns regarding the robustness of these processes also need to be acknowledged.

Yet is this the only relevant consideration for ARFOR? If the work creation schemes envisaged are not ones that are likely to prompt substantial in-migration by workers who cannot speak Welsh, can one presume that the effect on the language, especially in terms of day-to-day usage, will be positive?

When considering this question, it is useful to start by establishing a clearer understanding of the different ways in which particular jobs, or the workplaces associated with them, can influence the use of Welsh. This question was considered in a previous report by IAITH: The Welsh Centre for Language Planning. Relevant comments are also made in a recent report by the Welsh Government. By combining elements from both these discussions, the following categories can be used as a guide to start assessing the extent to which different jobs may influence the day-to-day use of Welsh by individuals.

  • Verbal or written use of Welsh with colleagues to fulfil work tasks (internal work language).
  • Verbal or written use of Welsh with customers or people from outside the company/institution to fulfil work tasks (external work language).
  • Verbal or written use of Welsh with colleagues while discussing informal matters that aren’t associated with work (language in work).

Then, when considering what kind of factors can influence how much use of Welsh is made across these contexts, we can turn to the results from the Welsh language use surveys conducted over the past decade. Parts of these surveys have focused on measuring the use of Welsh in the workplace, and the results suggest that the following are significant factors:

  • Has the ability to speak Welsh been listed in the job description or specification? For example, the Welsh language use survey 2019-20 shows that use of Welsh when completing work tasks, including using reading and writing skills, increases significantly when a grasp of the language has been noted as essential in the job-description.
  • What percentage of colleagues in the workplace can also speak Welsh? For example, the suggestion in the Welsh language use survey 2019-20 is that Welsh speakers in workplaces where a smaller share of the workforce can speak Welsh, are less likely to use the language (even with other workers that speak Welsh) than those who work in workplaces where a larger share of the workforce can speak Welsh. The survey also suggests that this tendency is consistent when discussing work matters or matters that aren’t connected with work.
  • What percentage of the population in the area where the job is located that can speak Welsh? For example, the Welsh language use survey 2013-15 and the Welsh language use survey 2019-20 suggest that Welsh speakers are more likely to use the language in every way – when discussing matters to do with work, matters that aren’t related to work, or when dealing with customers or other external individuals – when the area’s population has a higher percentage of speakers.

Additionally, the latest 5 year report by the Welsh Language Commissioner, The position of the Welsh language 2016-20, emphasises the significance of workplaces that have a policy – formal or de facto – that establishes Welsh as the  internal administrative language. In such institution, it is likely that the vast majority of staff are Welsh speakers and most of the communication, both formal and informal, on every level, happens will take place through the medium of Welsh (p.162).

While the above points are useful, there are limits to the evidence currently available. For example, the Welsh language use surveys provide a general picture captured at a specific point in time. Additionally, and more importantly, without further research there is no means of assessing the relative influence of different factors on the use of Welsh in the workplace.

Lessons for ARFOR?

How then is this relevant to ARFOR’s work? We saw above what kinds of factors can affect the extent to which different work developments are likely to encourage further use of Welsh. The ARFOR II programme offers an opportunity to further evaluate the significance of these factors. For example, is it the percentage of Welsh speakers that live in the area that is most significant or are other elements such as the nature of the job’s language requirements or the internal language policy of the workplace more influential. It is possible that the activity undertaken by the ARFOR programme can provide more detailed answers to these questions.

Yet, while there is need for further research, it is possible to outline certain expectations here. Firstly, at the most general level, it seems that the extent to which a specific employment development will help to support or increase the day-to-day use of Welsh depends on the relationship between: i) factors relating to the linguistic profile of the area (e.g. the number and percentage of Welsh speakers); and ii) factors relating to the linguistic nature of the job or workplace (e.g. nature of the job description, number of co-workers that also speak Welsh, or the workplace’s medium of internal administration).

Secondly, when considering this combination of factors, we should avoid expecting that creating any jobs in the ARFOR area will promote more use of Welsh. If the jobs are ones that don’t have any clear language requirements, then it is possible that the effect on day-to-day use of the language in the area will be ambiguous. It is important to recognise that creating these kinds of jobs can contribute towards trying to keep individuals that can speak Welsh in an area, or attract them back, and that this would influence the basic demolinguistic situation (i.e. the number of people in an area that can speak the language and the size of that group as a percentage of population). Yet if focus is on the link between creating jobs and increasing daily usage of Welsh – as is implicit in ARFOR’s mission statement – it must be acknowledged that factors relating to linguistic requirements of the jobs, or the nature of workplaces are also relevant.

Thirdly, it is likely that employment developments that have clear requirements in relation to Welsh could be significant in areas where the situation of the language is slightly weaker. This can be especially relevant to ARFOR’s work. As Elin Royles explained in another blog, while there is a tendency in the ARFOR strategic plan to give the impression that the position of the language is relatively consistent across the region, in practical terms things vary quite a bit. Not only does the density of Welsh speakers vary significantly across (and within) the four counties; other important factors such as language transmission rates within families or social use of language vary as well. As a result, if the area is one where there is evidence of Welsh speakers moving increasingly to use English, new jobs that call for significant use of Welsh could contribute to resisting language shift by normalising it’s use in the workplace. As the Welsh Language Commissioner noted in The position of the Welsh language 2016-20:

‘There is potential for a significant increase in the use of Welsh as the language of work. With many people spending the majority of their waking hours at work, giving people opportunities to get into the habit of spending that time discussing and working through the medium of Welsh may have a significant impact on language practices in the workplace, the home and the community.’ (p.167)

Of course, this blog reflects on relevant evidence from a Welsh context and doesn’t come to definite conclusions. Despite this, the discussion points to the types of considerations that need to be assessed if ARFOR is to realise the aim of prioritising work creation schemes that will increase the use of Welsh across the region.

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