One of the primary arguments against the Welsh language is that it costs too much to maintain. At first glance this is a persuasive argument. Why spend millions every year ‘propping up a dead language’?
Here are a few good reasons why it is money well spent.
First off, because there’s a common censensus amongst the people of Wales that it’s worth the money. Politicians are very good barometers of the public mood – if there aren’t any votes in it, they’d throw it under a bus before you can say ‘expenses claim’. Despite this, every single one of the five main political parties in Wales support the growth of the Welsh language.
Even the Conservatives, in their last manifesto, said that they would fight to ensure that Wales became a “truly bilingual nation”, with at least 1.5 million Welsh speakers. The First Minister of Wales, from the Labour Party, has taken the Welsh language under his wing and promised more action to ensure its survival. The language isn’t only an issue for those peksy ‘Welsh Nats’ any more – it’s got cross-party support.
It has cross-party support because it has cross-country support.
A report by Beaufort Research in the summer of 2013 found that 99% of the respondents who didn’t speak much Welsh said that they would like to be able to speak Welsh better than they did, and 92% of them would welcome more opportunities to speak Welsh. They believe that some things in life have value beyond the monetary.
But what about the rest of us, you cry. We don’t speak Welsh, and we don’t want to either. Why should we pay millions out of our taxes to keep the HMS Cymraeg afloat?
Well, let’s note first off that, in the wider picture of government expenditure, spending on the Welsh language is a tiny drop in the ocean that is more than covered by the taxes of Welsh speakers themselves. Some people like to suggest that if the money spent on Welsh was freed up to spend on other things, it would somehow buy Wales a top notch health service, a world-class transportation system, and that we’d shoot up the PISA rankings. I’m afraid the investment in such services is measured in the billions, not millions. The money spent on Welsh, if swallowed by the NHS, would have been spent on consultants’ fees by the end of the day. An eight mile bypass in Newport is costing the Welsh Government £1.2 billion to build.
Let’s take a generous estimate and say that some £150 million is spent solely on Welsh language provision every year (on S4C, the Welsh language commissioner, small grants for print and online Welsh language media, bilingual signs, etc.). That’s some £2 per person for everyone in the UK. But it’s worth remembering that us Welsh speakers pay taxes too, and there are hundreds of thousands of us contributing many thousands to the public purse every year.
S4C, at £75 million a year, represents the bulk of the annual cost of the Welsh language. Given that every Welsh speaker pays £140 every year in the license fee that in itself more than covers the cost of their channel.
Let’s also remember that are plenty of things we all pay for that don’t benefit us in any way. I’m indifferent to the Royal Family, and yet they cost more than the Welsh language every year. I do not smoke and am not obese, yet I pay for the consequences of unhealthy living every month through my taxes. My taxes pay for policing football matches I don’t watch. It pays for Opera I’m never going to enjoy. My taxes went towards bailing out the banks, while bankers continue to pay themselves large bonuses.
Welsh tax payers should also remember that the money for S4C comes centrally from the UK Government, not the Welsh Government. If it wasn’t spent on S4C it would probably be spent outside of Wales – on points for a high speed rail track from London to Birmigham, or new carpets for the BBC’S HQ in Salford, perhaps. The money given to S4C is money that would have been spent elsewhere which, because of the Welsh language, goes into Welsh pockets and is then spent in the Welsh economy.
The other side of the coin
The amount of money that is currently being spent on trying to save the Welsh language pales in comparison with the amount wasted on trying to get rid of it. The English language has been promoted relentlessly in Wales for many centuries, even when people who spoke the language were in a tiny minority in the country.
The Government of England had long considered it essential that the Celtic parts of Britain were assimilated culturally and linguistically. One of the most significant steps in this process was the Act of Union in 1536. The act transplanted the legal system, courts, administration, and local government structure of England to Wales. Welsh speaking areas were also placed on the English side of the border. The act decreed that English would be the official language of Wales and that every single person who worked in an official position in Wales had to speak English. If they didn’t, they lost their jobs. This was a ridiculously wasteful policy when you realise that it pretty much barred anyone in Wales from a decent job in their own country for centuries, and meant that jurors couldn’t understand the cases on which they were supposed to decide the facts.
The act also ensured that English would be the language of Welsh schools, based on the view that the only way for Welsh students to succeed in life was to learn English. (See Victor Edward Durkacz’s book The Decline of the Celtic Languages for an impassive view of this policy). However students left schools without any kind of education at all, because they had no understanding of the language they were being taught in – they had simply been taught to repeat English phrases like parrots. Secular education in Wales didn’t take off until the end of the 19th century, when educators hit upon the astounding idea of educating people in their own language.
This isn’t something confined to the history books. The use of Welsh was widely discouraged until the first half of the 20th century, in the public sector as well as in schools (by means such as the now infamous but seldom used Welsh Not). It is only since the 1950s that attempts to revive the Welsh language have received government backing, and the slow process of undoing centuries of damage has begun in earnest.
So as you see current government efforts to revive the Welsh language follows centuries of effort to eradicate it. Historically, trying to get rid of the language has cost much more than trying to save it. And for that misguided policy we’ve paid a price far beyond a few pennies each every year on a TV channel and some bilingual signs.
Ifan Morgan Jones