Immigration: obstacle or asset to language revitalization?

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By Gwennan Elin Higham

Immigration has long been considered an obstacle to the revitalization of a minority language. In Wales, immigration is not a new phenomenon but its steady increase, from within and without the UK, has intensified the debate over the future of Welsh as a community language. Welsh speakers may expect new arrivals to learn their language, yet the norm is for new arrivals, the majority of whom come from England, to use English as the lingua franca. Wales is bilingual after all, giving immigrants the choice of English over Welsh.

While the Westminster Government increasingly emphasises the need for immigrants to learn English as a requirement of UK citizenship and social cohesion, there is no risk to the vitality of English. The Welsh government indeed promotes bilingualism and, thanks to the development of Welsh language education, increasing numbers of children are given access to becoming Welsh speakers. My current research, however, is on adult immigrants from outside the UK. In many cases, these are parents seeking various pathways of acquiring Welsh to better understand their new country, to support their children or to help them in the job market. To my mind, these raise some needs for newcomers to be informed about and educated in the Welsh language.

However, there are certain barriers in place with regard to immigration in a stateless nation. Human rights specialist, Professor De Varennes, describes immigration as a “triple threat” to a national linguistic minority, for the following reasons:

  1. Immigrants are required to learn the state language
  2. Immigrants must take a Citizenship test through the state language
  3. The higher the percentage of immigrants, the more diluted the linguistic minorities become.[i]

It is possible to take the “Life in the UK” citizenship test through the medium of Welsh but it is neither publicized nor easily accessible. Furthermore, as of October 2013, immigrants to the UK must prove additional English language skills via a test or adequate ESOL qualifications[ii]. Despite Welsh language measures, the Welsh Government provides only ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes for adult immigrants.

The Welsh Government’s Community Cohesion strategy aims to create a fair and just society for both host community and newcomers to Wales.[iii] This strategy, however, has been transported from England to Wales as a result of the Cantle Report, following the 2001 riots in the North of England.[iv] For this reason, the Welsh language takes the place of other community languages, while English is the language of cohesion. As communicated to me in a recent interview with Welsh Government officials, any particular emphasis on Welsh in the sphere of community cohesion would be considered prejudiced. This reflects a wider assumption that, while immigrants are required to learn English, any requirement of immigrants to learn Welsh is essentially racist. This supports other academic claims of Welsh as an exclusive and ethnic language.[v]

In this respect, my thoughts turn to the case of Quebec, a stateless nation, albeit with a majority language, but which is a minority language within Federal Canada and North America. Quebec and Wales experienced a wave of language mobilization in the latter part of the twentieth century, in the attempt to protect their national minorized languages. Immigration in both cases was an increasing threat to the future of their languages. By the 1960s the vast majority of immigrants in Quebec were learning only English and 85% of them would send their children to the English-medium schools.

A radical change took place in Quebec during these years, which is better known as the revolution tranquille. This incorporated a political, economic and social restructure of Quebec society. The Charter of the French language in 1977, known as loi 101, made French the sole language of the province, enabling French to be normalised and become the language of business and social life. The measure further obliged all children of immigrants (except Anglophones from within Canada) to attend French medium schools. A francization programme was established providing free, and in many cases, financed and intensive French classes for adults to better equip them for employability and social life in Quebec.

Quebec thus claims itself as the dominant host community, recruiting new speakers of the language in order to secure the survival of its language.

   The official and common language of Quebec is passed on to everyone in the territory of Quebec, whatever his or her origin. In this way, French becomes the privileged means of access to the civic heritage common to all Quebecers and on which their citizenship founded [vi]   

Thus, the situation completely turned around to the extent that 85% of immigrant children by the 90’s were attending Francophone schools. Despite Quebec’s official unilingualism and Canada’s state bilingualism, Quebec is in reality the only true bilingual province of Canada. Thus, it does not comply with Canada’s multiculturalism, in which immigrant and national minority groups are given respective rights but with no dominant culture. In other words, this equates to assimilating into English and Anglophone culture. Quebec adopts an intercultural model, in which integration into a national community is encouraged. One key factor in this is developing a preference for the French language. Community Cohesion à la québécoise is thus based on privileging access to the French language on the basis of social justice and equality. As Charles Taylor points out, Quebec has a different story to the rest of Canada, but one that could apply to other contexts.[vii] Its century-old struggle over the language means that it is by no means prepared to disregard it now. Although the linguistic situation needs to be constantly assessed and renegotiated, Quebec has succeeded in turning immigration into an asset for the language.

I do not suggest that the case of Quebec fits the case of Wales as any other sub-nation state does. Quebec does, however, provide a reference point for the language struggles of other stateless nations. One striking aspect of my visit to the province was the consensus regarding the fallacy of Canadian state bilingualism and multiculturalism. As Joseph Hanse puts it, placing two languages on the same foot equates to placing two feet on the same language.[viii] In the Welsh context, Simon Brooks states that bilingualism in Wales, too, is a dead-end for the Welsh language community as it overlooks the disparity between English and Welsh[ix]. Likewise, Daniel Williams comments that British multiculturalism, and a recently emerged British interculturalism, considers English to be the sole legitimate means of communication. It denies the fact that Welsh claims a historic space and foreground culture, into which immigrants can participate.[x]

Further lessons from Quebec show that, although language policy is a backbone to linguistic preservation, it does not solve everything. Host community attitudes towards immigrants play a large part in the integration process. While an immigrant to Quebec may receive government funding to take French language classes and learn about Quebec culture, it may not be so easy to enter the job market and create a social network of Francophone friends. My small sample of research in Quebec indicates that immigrants experience barriers to feeling “at home” in Quebec. Bottom-up community initiatives are needed to bridge gaps between newcomers and host society such as language partnerships while also overcoming issues of prejudice and inequality.

While I believe pressure should be put on the Welsh Government to address language inequalities and facilitate Welsh language learning for immigrants as is provided with ESOL, the host community need also respond. In this respect, new community initiatives are emerging, providing Welsh language classes for adult immigrants in Gwynedd and Cardiff. These multilingual immigrants do not lack linguistic confidence as the majority of monoglots in Wales; they have not been subject to the same symbolic power that subordinates Welsh. Moreover, findings show that immigrants consider Welsh an asset to them, thus, challenging top-down ideas on the relationship between the Welsh language and ethnicity.

While these are only small ventures on a national scale, they have large impact on the individuals involved, enabling them to define their position as ‘new citizens’ in Wales. In turn, these are steps to challenging immigration as an obstacle to the language.








[viii] Dans notre pays, mettre les deux langues sur le même pied équivaut à mettre les deux pieds sur la même langue. Joseph Hanse




    Gwennan is a PhD student at the School of Welsh, Cardiff University. Her subject area is teaching Welsh to Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities as a pathway to multicultural citizenship. She conducted a 4-month research study on the Quebec francization programme at Université de Montréal during Autumn 2013, following a scholarship awarded by the French Language Council in Quebec (CSLF) and the International Association of Quebec Studies (AIEQ). She previously graduated with an MA in Welsh-German Cultural Relations and a BA in French and German at Queen Mary, University of London.

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