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As part of his leadership campaign within Plaid Cymru, Adam Price has produced some proposals on the Welsh language.  It’s a pity that the media reporting concentrated on only one aspect – there’s a lot more in the plan (available here) than simply the suggestion that certain senior officers in some organisations should learn Welsh.  But there we are – the problem with producing headline-catching proposals is that they tend to, er, catch the headlines.  It’s a controversial proposal – but then, that’s precisely what makes it headline-catching.
It would be very problematic, without changing employment law, to impose such a condition on those already in post.  Changing conditions of employment retrospectively is something which tribunals tend to frown on, and quite rightly so.  Even for new appointments, there are difficulties in ensuring that the desired outcome is achieved (define ‘learning Welsh’, for instance), let alone in dismissing any appointee who does not reach a set degree of fluency in a set timescale.  There are also questions about how generally the policy could be applied – what’s appropriate for Carmarthenshire today may not be appropriate for Monmouthshire for many decades to come, if ever.  And the last (but far from the least) of the problems that I’ll mention here is the potential electoral consequences of such a policy outside the areas of Wales where speaking Welsh is still commonplace, and the impact on Plaid’s attempts to free itself from the ‘party of Welsh-speakers’ tag.
And yet…  Despite all those problems, the reality is that if the use of Welsh is to develop and grow, we need to look at how and where it is used as the normal language of day-to-day administration, at least in the areas where it remains in use by large numbers of people.  As a user of services provided by ‘bilingual’ organisations, and having worked as a simultaneous interpreter for some years, I’ve observed the way in which a number of public organisations use the language, and one of the concerns that I have about both the legislation and the standards flowing from it is the concentration on ensuring bilingual communication with the outside world rather than considering the operating language of the organisation.  The result is that many allegedly ‘bilingual’ public bodies operating in Wales, both locally and nationally, are essentially operating through the medium of English with a thin (and sometimes extremely thin) veneer of Welsh for the benefit of the outside world.  But the fact that the internal language is English shapes the thinking and operating methods of the whole organisation.  It is that which leads so many to think that it is acceptable to update the Welsh version of a website days or even weeks after the English version, or to produce material containing the words ‘Welsh translation to follow’. – and then argue that low usage reflects a ‘lack of demand’.
Experience leaves me wondering not whether the proposal is worthwhile, but whether it goes far enough; ‘being able to communicate directly with the people they serve’ is surely about improving the quality and thickness of the veneer rather than changing the underlying practices.  That’s a worthwhile aim in itself, but we need to move beyond seeing the use of Welsh by an organisation as being an add-on solely for the benefit of an external audience.  For at least some organisations in at least some parts of Wales, Welsh needs to be normalised as an internal language as well.  Doing that will certainly require that, over time, the proportion of chief officers able to use the language competently in performing their functions needs to increase, and the chief officers identified by Adam is as good a place as any to start; but there’s more to it than that.
In a local authority where the leader, most cabinet members and most councillors can and do use Welsh on a daily basis, the impact of an inability on the part of many of the chief officers to understand Welsh means that all those informal discussions which happen between the political leadership and the administrators on a daily basis either require the presence of a translator, or else default to English (and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to work out which of those happens in reality); and any onward transmission of messages also defaults to English.  And when the political leadership receives most of its briefings in English, guess which language those who are briefed will then tend to use?  Being able to speak both languages fluently does not mean that they are able to, or should be expected to, translate complex and technical arguments themselves and then deliver their comments in Welsh.  Non-Welsh speaking chief officers can sometimes be an unintentional but very effective barrier to extending the use of Welsh.
No doubt many will argue (as Jeff Jones does in the Western Mail’s report) that we ‘want the best person for the job’, but that presupposes firstly that being the ‘best person’ for the job does not require being able to understand or communicate with either the political leadership or the staff (let alone the wider public) in their language of choice, and secondly that defaulting to the use of English is the natural thing to do.  Those presuppositions need to be challenged.  Of course, what’s appropriate in Carmarthenshire today will not be appropriate in Bridgend; this is an issue on which a single blanket policy will not suit all areas.  But if the Welsh government manages to achieve its target of a million Welsh speakers, then what’s appropriate in a given area will also change over time and that change needs to be planned for and managed.
I don’t think that the blanket employment policy proposed by Adam can work as it was reported, but it serves to draw attention to the paper as a whole, which is a useful contribution to a wider debate about whether, to what extent, and how we normalise the use of Welsh in the administration of public bodies in Wales and lay the groundwork for an extension of that use over time.  That is an aim to which the headlines about obliging certain officers to learn Welsh did not do justice; I can only hope that the wholly predictable reaction to the headline does not sink the whole policy.