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learning and using a minority language

I thought I would start a discussion on the issues of learning and using a minority language. I don't have the statistics, but I would assume that most of the people in the world are actually bilingual and speak at least one minority language or perhaps a very distinctly different dialect of the standard language.

There are prejudices and strong opinions on the use of minority languages and significant problems in terms of their everyday use and there are many very common issues that minority language speakers and learners seem to share around the world.

Many will be happy to see this as natural and be unconcerned when these languages wither and die, whereas for others it means the loss of something incredibly precious. I personally want to champion the cause of minority languages and cultures and welcome views on both sides. Hopefully we can gain an insight into new ways that could be used to offset the dominance of the worlds major superpower languages and avoid the scenario where the world becomes one big homogeneous uni-culture without any respect for diversity.

October 26, 2016



Just to offer my perspectives from another part of the world...my family is from Taiwan, and we speak the language Hokkien, which holds no official status anywhere in the world, and is distinct from the official language Mandarin Chinese which is used in Taiwan.

The irony is that Hokkien is not really "minority" language, in the sense that the majority of the population descended from Hokkien-speaking people. However, when the Nationalists got kicked out of China by the communists, they in turn came over to Taiwan and instituted their language policy which prescribed Mandarin to be the only official language, and actively banned and suppressed all other languages. The result is that many Taiwanese people under the age of 30 or so no longer speak Hokkien, despite it being their ancestral language.

The situation has reversed somewhat in the past few decades, with some revival of interest in studying the Hokkien language, but there is a definite fear among people in my parents' generation (in their 50s-70s) that Hokkien is becoming an endangered language.

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Thanks for that insight, it is very sad the prejudice against local and community languages in many parts of the world. Especially now that scientific research is showing very clearly the advantages of bi- and multi-lingualism both in academic development of children and also health of older people.


I think a lot of responsibility lies with the majority culture in how minority languages and cultures are handled. A hundred years ago the UK would actively persecute minority languages like Welsh and Irish, whereas now it seems to me that they are largely officially encouraged within their respective domains.

But outside of their domains there is very little curiosity about them, which I think is a shame. I grew up in Shropshire, a short drive from Wales, but my education contained absolutely nothing about the minority language and culture just down the road. I did however get to learn Latin for 5 years, a dead language from the other side of Europe...

I also learnt French and German, never really used and now long forgotten. I did however move to Sweden and am now bilingual in Swedish... and trying to fill the hole and see if it's possible to learn a third language in middle age :)

The point being that you can never tell what languages will be useful to you later in life (except that dead ones won't be :) ), so you might just as well learn your nearest minority language as anything else...


I guess the hostility is now limited to a minority, although they do tend to be quite vocal. I suspect a lot of people are more or less ignorant of the existence of these other languages or what they mean to people. To those who realise that the languages actually exist they may still think of these to be a threat perhaps to the majority culture and language outside of those areas.

Welsh is obviously not a minority language in some parts of Wales, but even in those areas the people are sometimes referred to as rude, when it is spoken in public, which is a bit upside down really and a very common attitude to languages in a similar position to Welsh around the world.

Breaking down these taboos is probably the most important thing to survival of some of our historic languages. Education would be a great tool to do that, if there was an awareness, a will or an inclination to do so.

Many people in England such as in Shropshire are being robbed of certain aspects of their own history in some respects - there seems to be a conscious denial of any celtic language speaking past in the British Isles and I guess it isn't part of the now established cultural folklore of England, much of which was actually created by the Victorians for deliberate state-building purposes.


Is there truth in the stereotype that English-speaking Welshmen are often more hostile to the Welsh language than the English? I can imagine Welsh now being compulsory in schools possibly being a double-edged sword in this respect. I'm not convinced compulsory Irish in schools has been a good thing for the Irish language necessarily, based on a few discussions with Irish friends.

Some of the hostility from English people is just ignorance, I think. They grow up thinking that Welsh is basically dead or a weird hobby for language nerds and can't quite believe that people actually prefer to speak it and it's not just a way to exclude them... A bit of education would go a long way in this respect: very few people think it's rude when French people speak French in France.

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Yes, it's true that some people born and brought up in Wales but who have never had an opportunity to learn Welsh can be hostile to the language. But this attitude has changed markedly over the last few decades as the success of the Welsh medium school movement has impacted on even the most anglicised of areas.

The most anti-Welsh prejudice is from a small but vocal minority of English people who have moved to majority Welsh speaking areas and are actively trying to anglicise the places they've moved to, by changing house names etc. Bear in mind that 25% of the population of Wales were born outside the country. It's the same ignorant mentality that pervades in 'English' 'colonies' in Spain. Where people live for decades without making an effort to learn Spanish and of which many voted for Brexit even though they benefit in so many ways from the UK being in the EU.

Yes, you're right about the issue of the failure of the teaching of Welsh in English medium schools. But this is more to do with the academic and boring curriculum and the lack of effective teaching methods. By contrast the outcomes in Welsh medium schools have been much more positive in producing fluent Welsh speaking citizens, although there is room for improvement there also.


“ignorant mentality that pervades in 'English' 'colonies' in Spain.” Not ignorant. Worse. More like arrogant. If English-speakers expect others to make great efforts to learn English, but they (English-speakers) don’t make any effort to learn other languages, even when on non-English-speaking soil; that’s plan arrogant and implies contempt and lack of respect to the non-English-speaking culture. Likewise, i hav never been able to stomach as fair the idea of others making great efforts to learn English, but English-speakers don’t bother to learn foreign language and expect others to accommodate them (lazy Anglofones) by speaking English.

I, an English-speaker (i am naturally bilingual in English and Finnish and liv in the United States) see such English-speakers as lazy, arrogant and not fair-minded; but to people in non-English-speaking countries, such people may be pests, forcing people outside the Anglosfere to use English more than they would prefer, and not being fair toward non-English speakers. For Welsh people (at least those in heartland, or heavily Welsh-speaking areas), such people may be worse: a threat. A threat to the Welsh language (a very important part of Welsh culture and identity), because newcomers to heartland areas often don’t learn Welsh. Newcomers would be much more likely to learn Welsh if they aren’t arrogant enuf to expect everyone to accommodate them by speaking English, and are respectful enuf to show some respect for Welsh culture and identity. “Activly trying to Anglicize”? Sounds like more ov the same arrogant and offensiv attitude of trying to make everyone accommodate them by speaking English.


I very much agree with you. And worse than Anglophone tourists expecting locals to speak English, is I've seen Anglophones get visibly angry at locals' relatively lower proficiency English. I've seen English speakers (and actually, this seems more common among Americans than other Anglophones) trying to raise their voice or shout--as if that makes the ESL person better able to understand them.

While I agree that any permanent resident in a foreign country should at least make attempts to learn the local language, I think the burden is less realistic for tourists who are only going to be there for a few days. That said, a little bit of patience and compassion can go a long way. You'd be surprised how well a simple "buenos dias, Señor/Señora", "assalam wa alaykum", or "ni hao/xie xie" can go a long ways towards setting the conversation on the right foot.


I don't know the reason why but i don't sense the hostility you mention about Irish (if that is the case) here in Wales and Cymraeg. There are some vocal people who will always complain and try to stir up trouble (and BBC researchers spend a lot of time sniffing these people out to use on radio phone ins etc), but if there was an approval rating for the language in Wales it would be overwhelmingly supportive for those born in Wales and for a lot of people who have moved here (there are many many English people who have become strong supporters of the language, but unfortunately this isn't the norm). I guess it's similar to English people who move to France - the Francophiles learn the language and integrate well, while some just want to parade and overdo their Englishness and pretend their in anothed English shire with cricket grounds, pubs and English shops. I think it's good to hold your identity but there are some who seem to go to extremes. These are the people who seem to create hostility towards themselves and then sit back and play the victim.

The negative comments about education in schools are really about effectiveness and driven by a desire to improve outcomes. I did Welsh second language in school in the 1980s and was very disappointed that it didn't make me a speaker, but years later when i revisited the language I realised how much i had learned and how much it had shortened by journey to being a speaker.

The subject of second language or L2 is a sensitive one since we all want to be learning the same thing as L1 speakers and be able to compare our abilities directly. A lot of people in Wales already know a lot more Welsh than they appreciate - I grew up with a Welsh speaking mother and surrounded by the language and that is very common. A lot of us only just missed the bus so to speak.

Perhaps thats a difference between Wales and Ireland, but I can't really speak for Ireland?

Perhaps we also need to address this nerd issue - is this an issue for example in non-maori New Zealanders attempting to speak Maori and if this is the case is this a perception that needs to be challenged in some way. It might be a short jump from nerdy to cool, they are two sides of the same coin.


To avoid endless indentation I'm starting again at the top...

I totally agree regarding the thing with integration, and have seen the same thing close up here in Sweden. Unfortunately native English speakers living here have a terrible reputation when it comes to learning Swedish, often those who arrive in Sweden communicating in English as a second language seem to make much more effort. And I know several people who have lived here for decades and can barely order a beer in Swedish. Wales and Sweden both also allow the excuse that "well they all speak English, don't they?", which isn't the case in say France or Spain.

Regarding the comparison with Irish, I definitely don't speak for Ireland either (God forbid that an Englishman should try to do that!) but my second hand information reports a lot of compulsory lessons with a heavy focus on history, medieval poetry etc delivered by a non-native-speaking teacher in areas where Irish has not been spoken natively for generations and none of the pupils had any other contact with it. Not a recipe for producing speakers...

Outside the 3 fairly remote Gaeltacht areas I think less than 1% of the population are native speakers so it's obviously much more of a minority language than Welsh is even outside its heartlands.

Thinking about it, the success of Welsh-medium education makes a lot of sense. Bilingualism from an early age is such a gift (that my kids also have) and all the worry about it producing less competence in English is entirely unfounded. Is it spreading in areas outside the majority-Welsh heartlands, do you think? If it produces good results even the most indifferent English parents will consider it I would guess.


This is a long reply and not really a reply to most of the points you make (which I agree with) as much as a few extra of my thoughts on top (sorry, I've been reading too much).

I have just been reading extracts from books analysing medieval literature in Europe and there are some interesting parallels between the language struggles of that period and modern day issues for the status and survival of minority languages. English aristocrats who spoke the faux francais of the anglo-Normans were in the same boat once, subjected to ridicule by speakers of the highly esteemed Pontoise of the Ile de France.

English has emerged after a long historic struggle for social respectability amongst the aristocracy. The father of the English language, Geoffrey Chaucer, learned as a child a variant of what would be called French - taught to him by a prioress who probably spoke the much less fashionable Marlborough-French and speaking that style of French would have led to ridicule, whereas English had no real status at all. At the time of Chaucer, London was very cosmopolitan in terms of languages and at some point this turned to strife - many language speakers were singled out for attacks – Anglo-Flemish speakers etc were brutally murdered, which perhaps highlights historic xenophobic attitudes within Europe to other language speakers and fights for language and cultural dominance.

Languages played a large part in the hundred years wars and writers fought over how they portrayed and interpreted these times – using ridicule and parodies to put down the opposing language speakers. In terms of English a Welsh descendant, Henry the VIII, finally drew a line under this, making English the official language of his court and the Elizabethan era, with patronage for Shakespeare and the like was all about elevating the stature of English and the creation of a prestigious and cultured English speaking aristocracy. Bizarrely Elizabeth also allowed the creation of the first Welsh bible, suggesting French was a threat and Welsh was on the same side at that time? This is the period of history most taught in English and Welsh history lessons and Shakespeare still plays the most prominent role in English literature classes at schools. Just as we still focus on very small periods of history – e.g. remember, remember the fifth of November and Guy Fawkes, so this period of Elizabethan and Tudor history has been replayed to our youth for centuries.

It feels that however powerful the English language now is, it still has a bizarre historical insecurity in its underbelly, hard fought acceptance from the shadows of aristocratic “french”. There is perhaps a constant need to demonstrate the cultural worth of English and maintain its hard earned place at the aristocratic high table.

The fights between the dominant languages of the European aristocrats probably enabled a lot of the smaller languages to get away with it for a while. The French revolution enabled the French language to regroup and standardise, probably seen as important to maintain their own unity and combat the rise and rise of English, ensuring that it’s “purity” was enshrined in their constitution. Some of the smaller languages like Breton and Welsh were probably off the radar and only really became considered to be problems in the 19th centuries, but still more of an itch than a real threat.

Academics in Ireland and Wales have long sought to demonstrate the historical wealth, cultural values and strengths enshrined in the Celtic languages, but the vast majority of aristocrats in these countries are English speaking. We now have a position where language revitalisation efforts are often accused of trying to create Celtic language speaking elites – the success of bilingual education is often thrown back as a sinister ploy to create an elite. This has meant that the language has also been kicked from the other side by people who view it as elitist and a threat to socialist principles.

There seems to be a knee-jerk response by some people to try to stop anything positive happening in terms of language revitalisation. Some people do want to ensure that these languages never get a chance to truly thrive – perhaps because they are seen as a potential threat to English language and culture – something that many are programmed to defend at all costs.

I think Wales and Ireland differ perhaps in the extent and influence of the establishment and aristocrats. Aristocrats or an elite who aspire for respect in aristocratic circles outside of their own countries. The Irish and Welsh speakers themselves in the heartland areas are probably very similar, but snobbery and misplaced aspirations are often the biggest things that often drive people away from the languages.

I think Welsh is finally finding its happy place, but it has been bit of a roller-coaster ride and it will continue to do so. The language has fallen further than it should have and now has a long road to climb back. Dealing with enormous demographic changes with 25% of the population coming from outside Wales and finding its place in the now anglicised areas is never going to be anything less than a challenge.


I think your reading of the history of the English language is spot-on, but I think you overestimate the influence this has today, simply because so few people in England are aware of this. I remember studying the Norman conquest in school and very little was said about the language aspect at all (and indeed it seems very strange in retrospect that King Harold's army are always referred to as "Saxons", when for example Alfred the Great is definitely "English" two centuries earlier... presumably because the English cannot possibly have lost a battle...)

I watched and read a couple of interesting and equivalent programs this week: "No Béarla" from Irish TG4 and S4C's "Popeth yn gymraeg". Basic idea: send a guy out with a TV camera to tour Ireland and Wales respectively and ban him from speaking English. The different results are quite instructive... and much more encouraging for the state of Welsh than for that of Irish, which the protagonist basically concludes is moribund at the end.


I would love to figure out the problems associated with Irish. It seems that they have invested significantly and vast amounts of people in Ireland can read and write the language - but speaking, usage and the battle for hearts and souls seems to be falling short. I really hope the protagonist is wrong when he or she refers to moribund, but I have read plenty of similar things and even if it is wrong, the fact that these things are being thought or said, often by Irish people themselves, will only make the challenge even harder.


Manchán Magan likes to be provocative and, I think, must have been feeling the need to shock people out of any complacency. No Béarla (2 series) has been effective. His was a needed voice I am sure, but I think you have to see his as just one of many... So much has happened in the ten months since this thread was started and last contributed to. Significantly the increasingly strident demands, north and south in Ireland, for genuinely accessible, genuinely effective political action. The pan-Irish Conradh na Gaeilge seems reinvigorated by NI developments. The Pop Up Gaeltacht movement seems to be claimimg space in urban pubs and youth venues The DUP, despite riding high on a Tory bolster, looks more moribund than ever, but in the North the live issue of language/culture has become more apparently a chasm between the most fearful head-in-the-sand monoglottery of far too many (so-called) unionists, and the now ever more confident and determined political activism of the bilingual or bilingual-friendly rest, (+ a steadying buffer zone of sceptical apoliticals, too) and with establishment influences applying brakes via the usual "but what about the cost?" (default pro-conservative) news /discussion programme silly season etc dirty tricks campaign (used against any provision for minority anything) across the UK.

In the Irish Republic, the problems of recruitment (lack of any extra allowances etc to attract teachers) to schools in Gaeltacht areas is in the news, and Leo Varadkar's government know they are being watched... economic threats to the West from lack of opportunity for young people, and from second homes, linguistic threats from monolingual anglophone incomers, the way in the rest of the country Gaelscoileanna and summer schools are taken up by middle class aspirationals but not so accessible to the poor and urban... all this stuff is hot.

Social media is producing successes in making use of Irish cool. Duolingo is also definitely having an effect.


It sounds very promising and I hope the new vibrancy you mention "claimimg space in urban pubs and youth venues" is taking hold and leading somewhere.

If Irish can be revitalised and made to thrive, then it will add new impetus elsewhere - minority languages need role models around the world and we can hopefully gain strength by feeding off each other, in terms of new ideas, fresh vigour and enhanced confidence.

Things like Duolingo are great - they add to the general feeling of contemporary and relevant - for too long many great languages have been tarnished (deliberately) with being, uncool, out of date and irrelevant.


Diolch - the pop-up things looks quite interesting. I'm not sure if it would work here in Wales or not - maybe?

There are plenty of organised things here and plenty of groups, but nothing for that random type of meeting in a bar or a hotel sort of thing - not meaning to sound creepy, but the language thing could form a sort of excuse or icebreaker to start talking to someone, if done in the right sort of way and environment?.


I've worked for years in contact with Swedish companies, and have tried to learn some Swedish in order to at least have basic "hello how are you?" conversations. My Swedish counterparts questioned my sanity since "there are so few of us and pretty much all of us speak English". I regarded it as simply polite.

I always feel embarrassed abroad when I am not able to speak in the local language - and always make some effort; when Inter-railling, my two years of Latin and five of French were put to good use in France, Spain and Italy and I was grateful when the natives were patient enough to let me struggle through! By contrast, after taking Italian A level in my 30s, I surprised a placement student when at his farewell dinner, attended by his parents, I was able to speak in (probably painful!) Italian to his mother who spoke only Italian and French; boy did that feel good!

I am an English incomer to Wales, in a predominately English speaking area. I started to learn Welsh because I thought (and still think) that one should learn the language of the land in which one is living. If I moved to Italy/Sweden/Japan, I would learn the relevant language, so why not when living in a part of my own country that has another language?

I've been dabbling in Irish on DL, and will return to give it more effort when I have got to my desired standard in languages currently more important/interesting to me at the moment. I'm not ranking languages in and of themselves; just recognising that there is a limit to how much I can learn at any one time and that I have to make a choice.


Given the shameful historical reason why English replaced so many local languages, I think it's important for the sake of moving forward if nothing else to make sure endangered languages and cultures are available to further generations. I think you're right that most people in the world know two languages or more, but in North America monolingualism is very much the norm and monolingual people can be very hostile to second language learners, meaning that a few short years in school is many people's only contact with a second language.

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