Language revitalisation in an age of social transformation

Huw Lewis & Elin Royles

By Huw Lewis and Elin Royles, Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University.

This post was originally published in Discover Society on 2 August 2017.

Currently, the Welsh Government is in the process of finalising the content of its new national Welsh language strategy. This new strategy, a successor to A living language: A language for living, published back in 2012, will outline the government’s vision for Welsh for the next 20 years. Given the Welsh Labour 2016 manifesto commitment of creating a million Welsh speakers by 2050, the strategy is likely to be an important document setting a series of key long-term goals. Meanwhile, up in Scotland, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the official body tasked by the Scottish Government to promote the Gaelic language, recently concluded a process of consulting on the contents of its new National Gaelic Language Plan, the third to be published since 2005.

Efforts to revitalise the prospects of minority languages are now increasingly common in different contexts across the world, for example indigenous languages in a number of developing countries, indigenous languages within certain developed countries and also regional or minority languages within various sub-state nations. Often, these revitalisation efforts are led by the language communities themselves. However, in an increasing number of cases, particularly across Europe, sub-state governments play a leading role in the process. Indeed, in addition to initiatives in Wales and Scotland, the past decade has seen the publication of official language revitalisation strategies by sub-state governments in a range of other European locations, including Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia.

Significantly, these different language revitalisation strategies have each been developed against a backdrop of radical social change. The turn from the twentieth to the twenty-first century is widely regarded as a period of fundamental social transformation, one perhaps unmatched since the onset of industrialization. Societies are now increasingly individualistic, diverse and mobile; their economies increasingly interconnected; and their governance structures are increasingly complex. Furthermore, many of the main factors affecting the prospects of minority languages – the family, the local community, the economy and the level of state support – have been deeply impacted by these patterns of social change.

Given this, contemporary language revitalisation strategies could clearly benefit from paying increasing attention to the implications of current changes in how people live their lives, how they interact with each other, and, consequently, how they use their language(s). Yet, as we demonstrate in our recent article, published in Policy and Politics this has not been the case. To date, bar some limited examples, there has been little sustained reflection within language revitalisation policy documents on whether our fast-changing social context should prompt a rethink with regard to how the task of language revitalization should be approached.

Consider, for instance, some of the following examples. First, despite the emphasis traditionally placed on the role of the family in promoting consistent language acquisition, there has been little reflection on the implications of recent changes in the way that families organize their day-to-day lives and care for their children. Second, despite the emphasis traditionally placed on the role of territorial communities in promoting stable patterns of language use, there has been little reflection on the implications of recent changes in the nature of community life and the tendency for patterns of social interaction to be centred increasingly around specific ‘communities of interest’, or even to take place online.

Examples such as these highlight the type of challenge currently facing sub-state-governments within Europe, as well as further afield, if they wish to implement language revitalisation strategies that respond to life in the early twenty-first century. They also pose key questions to minority language movements more broadly, by raising the possibility that long-standing assumptions may need to be re-examined.

As a contribution to this process, a recently established research network, coordinated by researchers from Aberystwyth University and the University of Edinburgh, will aim to bring together an international group of language policy researchers, along with policy practitioners, in order to examine the implications of current patterns of social change for our understanding of how language revitalisation efforts should be designed and implemented. Over the next two years the Revitalise network will seek to study this question with reference to a variety of contemporary examples and will seek to identify lessons that can inform the future work of public officials and civil society actors working in the field of minority language promotion.

Seeking to maintain and revitalise the prospects of a regional or minority language is widely regarded as an extremely challenging undertaking. Success, be it in terms of an increase in the number of language speakers, or in terms of wider social use of the language, can often be elusive. The contention that underlies the work of the Revitalise network is that such success is likely to be even more elusive if those engaged in language revitalisation do not base their efforts on a sound understanding of how people live their lives today.

Dr Huw Lewis is a lecturer at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University and a member of the University’s recently established Centre for Welsh Politics and Society.

Dr Elin Royles is a senior lecturer at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University and a member of the University’s recently established Centre for Welsh Politics and Society.

The Revitalise research network is an AHRC funded research project, coordinated by scholars at Aberystwyth University and the University of Edinburgh, which brings together researchers and policy practitioners from across Europe to discuss the implications of current patterns of social change for efforts to promote the prospects of regional and minority languages. For the latest updates on the network’s activities visit the project’s website and follow @_revitalise on Twitter.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may be interested in Citizen Participation and Changing Governance: cases of devolution in England

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