Welsh nots, tally sticks & Te Reo tu meke: A lesson in bilingualism

Two years ago, while attending a spring music festival held in a holiday camp in Prestatyn, northern Wales, I got a glimpse into how a truly bilingual society works. For one thing, the aisles at the local Tesco had signage in both English and Welsh. Later, walking down the main street, I followed behind a young hippyish couple conversing entirely in Welsh.

Months later, on summer holiday in the Basque Country in Spain, I marvelled at the 1970s-font Basque signage on all shopfronts, drinking too many kalimotxos at numerous town festivals led by beret-clad pipers, mascots in giant papier-mâché heads chasing children with pigskin balloons – Basque political banners and t-shirts everywhere. Wales and the Basque Country showed me confident national cultures coexisting within the more grandiose identities of Britain and Spain respectively, although in both cases the colonisers had to be fought against hard to make this so.

“Wales and the Basque Country showed me confident national cultures coexisting within the more grandiose identities of Britain and Spain respectively”

Like other languages in the 19th Century, Welsh and Basque clashed with the needs of 19th Century Britain and Spain; language was viewed as a political tool either contributing to or undermining national unity. In Wales, the UK government utilised this tool effectively by targetting children via the education system. Though not government policy, nor was Welsh explicitly banned, many schools started to use the ‘Welsh Not’ – a stick used as punishment by children overheard speaking Welsh in class who had to hold it until another student was overheard and it passed to them.

This wasn’t abnormal in the British Empire – 19th Century Irish schools similarly had the ‘tally stick’ to curb the speaking of Gaelic, while Māori children were beaten for speaking Te Reo in school even in the 20th century. In the Basque Country, the industrial revolution that catalysed the urbanisation of Basque cities largely by Spanish-speakers and the repression of the Basque language during the Franco Era from 1939-1976 saw Basque as a language wither.

Read Agnes Carter on growing up bilingual in Wales

While such overt punishments and cultural assimilations have ended, it has taken national independence (Ireland), political devolution (Wales; Basque Country) and indigenous rights (New Zealand Māori) to see a revival of declining languages in a bilingual environment. All benefitted from similar measures, namely: significantly increased funding for language provision in public schools and immersion schools, the right to receive public services in a native language, and native radio and TV public broadcasters.

These efforts have had mixed results. Fluency in Basque and Māori, especially among younger generations, has soared while Gaelic and Welsh fluency has declined – though Wales is embarking on an ambitious plan to increase fluency from about half a million now to one million by 2050.

Across the Anglosphere, there’s been a backlash against bilingualism – whether through public broadcast media as a threat of ethnic separatism with no practical economic value in the modern world and forced imposition of political correctness, or the use of compulsory language in schools a threat to personal freedom. Such attitudes misunderstand language as a personal, rational choice. Language is ultimately a form of cultural expression – a lens that produces an outlook and logic of how a people see and process the world.

Read David Hesketh on the rise of bilingualism in Wales

Attempts to repress Welsh, Gaelic, Basque and Māori, ironically unjust political impositions themselves, failed to fully assimilate these cultures because they only repressed one form of cultural expression. Equally important traditions of storytelling, literature, jokes, dances and cuisine remained. Reviving these languages has corrected historic wrongs by acknowledging the right to full, free cultural expression. Whether British, Spanish or New Zealand Pakeha, dominant cultures would also be naïve to think that they’re inoculated from larger bicultural and multiculturalisms that cohabit the same places, and can easily embrace and even gain from them.

“Reviving these languages has corrected historic wrongs by acknowledging the right to full, free cultural expression.”

Singapore, my father’s homeland and the darling of those who idolise free economic choice but know nothing about the place beyond transitting through Changi, making them proclaim it the world’s best airport, has four official languages (English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil). It requires all students to learn English and one other language and many, from young students to older people, are proficient in more than two.

My Singaporean father was fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese, and claimed proficiency in his ethnic Hokkien dialect, Cantonese and some Malay. Multicultural, multilingual identity has made its national culture stronger, most evident in my two favourite Singaporean things: a fusion cuisine including the polyglot Singapore Noodles and the pidgin language Singlish – a form of English mangled with elements of the other three languages.

A culture can only really fully be realised when it is both able to express itself in all forms, and recognise the peoples inhabiting the same environment as part of itself. There’s no direct economic value in bilingual supermarket signs or conversing in a language that won’t get you a multinational job in Brussels or Shanghai, but that’s the point. No country is truly monocultural so to deny bilingualism as some sort of imposition is the real imposition of those, ironically, who are uncomfortable with others’ cultures.

Oliver Chan is a London-based social and political researcher and writer, and Politics and Economics Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Oliver.