Mind your (minority) language: Welsh, Gaelic, Irish and Cornish are staging a comeback

Thanks to impassioned campaigners, Welsh is in fine fettle, and other minority languages are also on the up, as Holly Williams discovers.

As a teenager in Wales in the late Nineties, I was not a fan of Welsh; it was easy to mock and moan about. There was the translation of my village's road sign, so it was both in 'English' and Welsh: Llandegley and Llandgelau. There was Wales's exciting new building, the Millennium Stadium, known in the native tongue as Stadiwm y Mileniwm. Silly!

There was missing Channel 4 shows from Six Feet Under to Sex and the City so that we could have Welsh medium S4C instead (it featured a sitcom called Pam Fi Duw?, which translates as 'Why me God?' – summing up my feelings perfectly). I resented being forced to study Welsh to GCSE – if I had to do a language, couldn't I do Italian, which would have been useful, as Italy was hot, and sexy, and a long way away…?

Fast forward to 2013, and I don't live in Verona, but nor do I live in the Valleys (it's London, predictably). But whether it's age or absence, my feelings towards Welsh have mellowed. I like the different perspective a rural upbringing has given me, and rather wish I was able to say more than "Wyt ti'n hoffi coffi?" ("Do you like coffee?").

The actual usage of minority languages is very slow to change, but hearts and minds can be quicker. Since I left Wales, the visibility of Welsh and other UK minority languages seems to have rocketed; and there's been a burgeoning interest in both localism, and genealogy – people want to know what their great-grandparents spoke. There has also been a raft of language acts, enshrining rights for speakers of minority languages in law, while our understanding of the benefits of bilingualism has prompted a sea-change in the educational arguments. I have a hunch my feelings are typical of a wider shift in public opinion – but what difference has that made to minority language-speaking communities around the UK?

If you look at the recently-published census results for 2011, not much. The number of people who speak Welsh has actually fallen in the past decade: there were 582,000 speakers in 2001, but 562,000 last year – a drop from 21 per cent to 19 – despite an increased population. The census results for Northern Ireland show an increase in Irish speakers, but only by 1 per cent (from 10 per cent up to 11). Data on Gaelic and Cornish is not yet available.

The stats were grasped by pressure group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg – The Welsh Language Society – who promptly declared the language "faces a crisis". Cymdeithas was founded in the Sixties as a radical group committed to non-violent direct action to save Welsh (they became infamous for defacing signs in protest at the lack of translation and going to jail for refusing to pay bills where forms were only sent in English). I met a spokesperson, Colin Nosworthy, at the Mochyn Du, a Welsh language-friendly pub in Cardiff (I almost asked for "Coffi, os gwelwch yn dda", but bottled it). He likened Cymdeithas' origins and activity to other civil-rights groups: "I do sometimes describe us as a Greenpeace for the language".

While historically considered by some as the lunatic fringe of language campaigners, Cymdeithas' pressure has helped produce serious gains for the language. Welsh now enjoys official status; public services are obliged to have language schemes and bilingual provision; Welsh education is available from nursery to university; laws protect your right to speak Welsh in the workplace. However, there are still battles.

"The most pressing thing is the future of Welsh-language communities – experts say, without some communities where Welsh is the main language, the language will struggle," says Nosworthy. "Affordability of housing, planning rules, young people moving away to look for work, economic factors… all these things are damaging the Welsh language as a community language." The census results bear out this fear – in traditional heartlands, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, usage has dropped below 50 per cent.

Welsh still has the greatest legislative protection in the UK, however, and it's increasing. Since April last year, Meri Huws has been employed in the new role of Welsh Language Commissioner, investigating complaints about discrimination or lack of services. While she was shocked by the census results, she does point to a shift in attitudes within her lifetime: "the change has been incredible, in terms of not only acceptance of the language, but a real pride". Anti-Welsh feeling is in decline – and part of that is enshrining the language's status in law, she believes.

"It gives a status to the language, and more than protects, it actually develops the language; it gives Welsh speakers in Wales a certain confidence in expecting quality services," says Huws. "There's a social-psychological side to it, as well as the pure statutory side: status and confidence, which lead to more usage." Well – hopefully.

The other big success has been Welsh-medium education. The advantages of bilingualism are now well recognised – there's no evidence a child's English will suffer if they are educated primarily in another language, and they're more likely to pick up further languages. Minority-languages expert, Professor Colin Williams, tells me that at Cardiff University they "are developing a strategy which sees Welsh in a European context: it's part of European mainstream where trilingualism may be the norm."

Educational provision, in some areas, now goes way beyond the ineffectual class or two a week I experienced. Pressure group Parents for Welsh Medium Education (RhAG) – which turned 60 last year – has been instrumentalf in demanding local authorities provide schooling fully through the medium of Welsh. Their chair, Lynne Davis, explains: "When children arrive without a word of Welsh, it's astoundingly easy for them to pick it up. The immersion model is used successfully in Wales. The difference between that and one or two hours of Welsh a week is probably marked." Estyn, the Welsh school inspectors, concur – their 2011 annual report concluded that Welsh as a second language, in English-medium schools, wasn't meeting standards: "Many teachers are not confident enough and lack the knowledge to teach Welsh at an appropriately high level". No wonder the Welsh Assembly Government funds sabbatical Welsh-learning courses for teachers.

So perhaps it's no surprise that people are opting for fully immersive education – yn Gymraeg (in Welsh). Davis insists the demand is there – from parents, at least. "The numbers are obviously increasing, and in places like Cardiff and Newport, we've seen a massive increase in the Welsh-medium education sector in the past 10, 15 years. That's mainly in response to parental demand."

It's the same story in Scotland – even if the overall numbers of Gaelic speakers are decreasing, thanks to an ageing population of native speakers, Gaelic-medium schools have become a popular option. No schools are required to teach it, and there's no move to make it mandatory, but Minister for Scotland's Languages, Alasdair Allen, commented "the number of people who speak Gaelic is around about 60,000, and the population is quite scattered – it's quite a different situation [to Wales, so] it's not a question of forcing the language on anyone. In education, the biggest problem the government has is … trying to meet the demand for education, which is in some ways quite a happy situation to be in. Thirty or 40 years ago, no one would have heard Gaelic from a teacher; you've gone from that to a situation where about a third of primary kids in the Western Isles have their education in Gaelic units. Despite what you sometimes read in some papers, Gaelic is not actually that contentious. There's broad public support."

Fiona Dunn, from the Gaelic department at the University of Glasgow, suggests that "the whole Gaelic scene in Scotland has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. But that's still fairly recent. Unfortunately, language development is a very long and slow process. People are so quick to… criticise the money that's being spent on it."

Cost is always a thorny issue. But most campaigners dismiss it, with prickly disdain: if more people speak Welsh and we employ them, it's no extra cost for them to produce materials also in Welsh; if a child is taught in Gaelic, that's not an extra teacher, it's just one that speaks a different language…

This is another hot new topic: minority languages are not about nostalgia for the past or a romanticised Celtic identity, but a skill set. It's a slightly circular argument – speaking Gaelic is only useful if people are required to provide services in Gaelic, which is likely to come about because of language campaigners – but it still marks a shift in the terms of engagement. For young learners, a second language becomes another string to the bow in a tough jobs market.

"People see Welsh as a skill set, not an affair of the heart or tribalism or cultural loyalty or nationalism," suggests Williams. "Some students see that as being advantageous for their future employability."

Shona Masson studied Gaelic at Glasgow after getting interested in the language through Scotland's traditional music scene; she's now employed by the department, where we meet, and where nearly all personal and professional conversations are in Gaelic. "In the current climate in Scotland there are so many people who are unemployed, but the Gaelic community provides so many jobs, whether it's teachers or in the media, and I don't understand why people would argue against [that]."

Both she and Dunn insist the language is living, vibrant, useful day-to-day: "I don't see it as this old historical thing that I'm clutching on to because my granny spoke it!" exclaims Dunn, who first encountered Gaelic at a choir she sang with as a teenager. "I just feel it is relevant today, actually." And, unlike Cymdeithas, she embraces the idea that minority language-speaking communities are changing: "Now, there'sf more urban communities. We're beginning to see evidence that it's weakening in the Gaelic heartlands, but you're seeing communities emerging in different parts of Scotland, and Glasgow is definitely one of them. I use more Gaelic than I do English."

Williams echoes this in Cardiff; although not a traditional stronghold, it has enough learners, and bilingual provision, that he can state "I spend most of my adult life in Cardiff speaking Welsh – with the doctor, with the dentist, my workplace, entertainment…".

There's a more unlikely example of this in London, home to a vibrant group of Cornish speakers. Cornish is at an earlier stage of its revival, with no exact figures available, though the Cornish Language Partnership – Keskowethyans an Taves Kernewek – estimate there are hundreds of fluent speakers, and thousands that have some ability. It is, perhaps, one of the less contentious minority languages in the UK, and its revival has flourished alongside a wider recognition of 'Cornish' as an identity distinct from 'English'.

Tony Hak isn't Cornish, but after holidaying there in the Nineties, he got interested in the place names and started a correspondence course in Cornish; when he discovered a class in London, he joined and is now a teacher himself, and was even made a Bard. I met him and his students before an evening class, held at adult-education college City Lit, largely attended by Cornish people who've moved for work but want to maintain their links; it may be more than 250 miles away from Cornwall, but it's the largest class running today.

"There's been a growing sense of Cornish distinctness and identity, no doubt about that," Hak agrees. It's good business, too: Hak frequently does translation work for companies who want local, Celtic branding, and he's holding lessons in the Houses of Parliament for politicians who realise that if they can "stand up in a meeting and say 'Good evening everyone' in Cornish, it'll go down a storm."

It's far from being compulsory in schools, but about a quarter of primaries offer some Cornish. Pensans Primary School even has it on the curriculum; Sarah Crommay is one of several staff who deliver Cornish one afternoon a week, with the help of children's books developed by The Cornish Language Partnership, Maga. "Basically the resources were so good – I'm not a fluent Cornish speaker, but they made it easy for us to deliver an interactive, really fun way of leaning Cornish."

In Cornwall, the language appears to be a pleasing heritage quirk, a link with a nearly-lost Celtic identity, a celebration of difference… but minority languages can also be used as a tool for maintaining a divisive sense of difference. So it has long been in Northern Ireland, where speaking Irish was a sure-fire indicator you were Catholic, Nationalist. A friend from County Tyrone recalls hearing people use it, very deliberately, in pubs – almost as a warning.

And while in Wales and Scotland, despite some wariness, the general public are either in support of or indifferent to the indigenous language, in Northern Ireland there is still a faction strongly against it. In a survey carried out by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure last year, 29 per cent of people were "against" Irish language usage in Northern Ireland, with 17 per cent of that "strongly against".

A major issue for campaigners is the ongoing lack of a language act. "This is the only part of [the UK] where the primary indigenous language isn't already protected in domestic legislation by a specific act," explains Jan Muller of Pobal, an umbrella organisation for the Irish language. This flouts a commitment in the 2006 St Andrews Act, and has prompted concern from the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

But, as Seán Ó Coinn, deputy CEO of Foras na Gaeilge – a body responsible for promoting the Irish language – explains: "The fact that legislation would have to be passed by the Executives in the Northern Ireland Assembly will mean that it will have to have support of a majority of Nationalists and Unionists. It's a challenge to see that that could be obtained in the immediate future. Obviously we recognise we're in a particular political situation in the North, which we've seen the workings of very starkly recently. Items of culture and identity tend to become part of the zero sum game, where something that supports one identity or culture is therefore seen to be detracting from another."

Muller agrees: "We're still seeing the working of a deep-seated, long, ethnic conflict in the north of Ireland, and that's why the issue of identity, and of language, is still capable of raising people's emotions – but also being used to do that. It's all very sad really, very retrograde. It's really time to move on and say, the north of Ireland is like anywhere else on these islands, and its language should be valued and protected and shouldn't be this whipping boy for people's political ambitions."

It's not all gloom, though – the census showed an increase of around 200,000 Irish speakers. The Continuous Household Survey found that just under a third of Catholics have some knowledge of Irish compared to 2 per cent of Protestants: a low figure, but one that, as Ó Coinn points out, "is significant in itself – that equates to 17,386 thousand people". Just last year saw a groundbreaking new Irish learning initiative in East Belfast and other Unionist areas; even the deputy chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Judith Gillespie, got in on the act. Ó Coinn suggests "that's an example of something we might not have expected to happen 10 years ago, maybe even less, five years ago. It shows you how quickly attitudes are changing."

While becoming fluent in any second language is no quick task, it seems that across the UK, there's a feeling that attitudes, at least, are changing. There will always be some resistance, but the notion which I, like many others, held – that minority languages are dead or useless – may well be shifting permanently. Whether that is enough to truly revivify minority languages, in the face of dissipating communities and ageing native speakers, remains to be seen and – hopefully – heard.

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