UNESCO International Mother Language Day: Reflections on Welsh and Breton

UNESCO International Mother Language Day (21st February) encourages us to reflect on the importance of the preservation and continued growth of the Welsh language, as well as how it can be used to cultivate Welsh foreign relations.

For the past 23 years, UNESCO has celebrated its International Mother Language Day in order to promote cultural awareness, mutual respect, and peace in places of linguistic diversity, and to promote the revitalization of languages that are threatened with extinction. The theme of this, the 24th UNESCO International Mother Language Day, is ‘multilingual education – a necessity to transform education’, with a particular emphasis on early years education. 

In recent years, Wales has served as an example to which other countries and devolved governments look in order to better preserve their own indigenous languages. Perhaps the best example of this is Brittany, in France, with whom the Welsh government enjoys close relations, and the Breton language, with which Welsh shares not only linguistic similarities but also historical treatment by its national government. 

Gwenn ha Du et Y Ddraig Goch lors du Festival interceltique de Lorient 2018 by XIIIfromTOKYO, available under a Creative Commons licence 4.0 at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Festival_interceltique_de_Lorient_2018_-_Gwenn_ha_Du_%26_Y_Ddraig_Goch_-_1319.jpg

Welsh, Breton, and the Threat of Extinction

Efforts of English monarchs to erase the Welsh identity through the systematic stamping out of the Welsh language go back centuries. With the passing of the Acts of Union in the first half of the 16th century, Henry VIII declared Wales legally a part of England. All official business and church services were to be conducted in English, it being declared the official language of Wales, severely limiting economic opportunities for those who only spoke Welsh. 

Jumping a few hundred years ahead to the 19th century, a report commissioned by parliament (and investigated by three monolingual English barristers) attributed the alleged lawlessness of Wales and poor education to the use of the Welsh language, and prescribed the introduction of education through the medium of English as the solution. It is to this period that some of the most notorious means of enforcing the exclusive use of English in Welsh schools owe their origins, notably the infamous Welsh Not.

Across the English Channel, the Breton language has faced similar treatment over the centuries. In the days of the French monarchy, whilst Breton wasn’t explicitly targeted, the use of French was required for all government business. Following the French Revolution in the late 18th century, the French government sought to stamp out all regional dialects in France under the belief that they were exploited by monarchist forces to turn the peasantry against the government. These regional languages were collectively referred to as ‘patois’ – a term that carried implications of a lower social class to that of French speakers, along with a perceived lack of education and culture. 

Welsh Not by Amgueddfa Cymru, available under a Creative Commons attribution license 2.0 at  https://www.flickr.com/photos/museumwales/2764499791

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the French state used the education system to stamp out Breton in France, just as the British government was doing at the same time with Welsh. The use of Breton both in the classroom and the schoolyard was forbidden under the pretext of developing a single national culture, and as late as the 1960s, Breton-speaking schoolchildren were humiliated by their teachers for speaking their mother language. In a manner eerily similar to the Welsh Not, schoolchildren caught speaking Breton were given ‘the Symbol’, which they could only get rid of by denouncing another student for speaking Breton; the child who wore ‘the Symbol’ at the end of the day would face punishment. Breton was similarly banned in the early 20th century by the Ministry of Interior and Worship, with priests who refused to comply having their salaries suspended. Consequently, the number of Breton-speaking people in France dropped from around a million in 1950 to c. 200,000 by the beginning of the 21st century, the majority of whom are over the age of 60.

Wales: A Blueprint for Success?

Internationally, Wales is often pointed to as a success story of a people working to preserve their threatened language; a CNN article written in 2019 claims that in fighting to save their language, the people of Wales created a blueprint with which others could do the same. This is certainly true to an extent; the Welsh language withstood persistent and concerted efforts to eradicate it, and emerged from the 20th century stronger than it had been for some time, and with a level of recognition that it had not previously enjoyed. 1993 saw the passing of a law giving Welsh equal status to English with regards to its use in public services. In addition to this, the establishment of more Welsh-medium schools, the encouragement of Welsh lessons in English-medium schools, and services such as S4C have also been key in reviving the Welsh language. 

Within Wales, however, many still question the extent to which efforts to protect the Welsh language have been successful. In January, hundreds of protestors turned out in Carmarthen to call for more action to be taken by the government to protect the Welsh language. In 2014, the campaigner Heini Gruffudd, speaking in a lecture at the Learned Society of Wales, claimed that campaigners over the previous 50 years had been distracted by “easy victories” such as language rights rather than focusing on increasing the number of Welsh speakers, and advocated a greater degree of proactivity on the part of the government in protecting the Welsh language. Census data shows that whilst efforts have been successful to increase the use of Welsh since the 1980s, the number of Welsh speakers as of 2011 was lower than it was in 2001, and lower again in 2021.

The Welsh government has a goal of reaching 1 million Welsh speakers by the year 2050, and, in keeping with UNESCO’s emphasis on multilingual education, the education sector is one of the key areas that will be targeted in order to do this; the Welsh government has committed to creating 23 new Welsh language primary schools across Wales within the next 10 years, for example, and providing £3.8 million for schools and other childcare services to develop Welsh language services through programmes such as after-school clubs and Welsh lessons for teachers. Historically, advances in Welsh-medium education have been vital in promoting Welsh language amongst the younger generations; it wasn’t until 1978 that the first Welsh language high school in Cardiff opened. Today, Cardiff is home to three Welsh-medium high schools along with fifteen Welsh-medium primary schools, which have no doubt contributed significantly to the increase in the number of Welsh speakers in Wales since the 1980s.

The Importance of International Cooperation

Both in Wales and Brittany, funding has been a key issue with regard to the preservation of the respective languages. In 2021, Breton campaigners started a petition asking that equal funding be given to Brittany to support the revitalization of Breton as it is to Wales, which they claimed has twenty times the amount of annual funding to support the Welsh language, for a population of a very similar size. In response to protests at the prospect of funding cuts later that same year, the French government passed a law increasing funding for regional language-medium schools in recognition of the contribution of these languages to France’s heritage. Despite the positive outcome, the very necessity of the campaign fighting for the survival of Breton demonstrates the importance of UNESCO International Mother Language Day in raising awareness of the struggle these languages face, and of the role that a multilingual education system plays in preserving endangered languages.

The campaign also points to a potential pathway for future efforts to protect these languages, which is to look outwards to the international sphere, as well as inwards within the language’s native country. One such example of this in action is the Interceltic Festival of Lorient in Brittany, which celebrates the cultures and histories of the Celtic nations through music and song, dance, literature, and art. The festival annually draws upwards of 750,000 visitors and spectators from around the world, attracting significant media attention, and is an invaluable means through which peoples come together to share their languages, art, and cultural traditions. Events such as the Interceltic Festival of Lorient not only provide an opportunity for the Celtic nations to showcase their mother languages to the world through the arts, but also facilitate closer relations between the countries involved; in 2018, Wales was declared “la nation invitée” – the country of honour – and saw the then first minister Carwyn Jones attend the festival. It was in the same year that representatives from the Welsh and Breton governments renewed their Memorandum of Understanding, promising to pursue mutually beneficial projects together and to celebrate their shared cultural heritage. 

Parade des drapeaux, Festival Interceltique de Lorient by Etienne Valois, available under a Creative Commons License 2.0 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/etienne_valois/2780357623

Whilst this by no means constitutes a blueprint for the continued preservation of languages such as Welsh and Breton, it does point to a very real possibility of helping preserve these languages through international cooperation. Netflix’s recent acquisition of the Welsh language drama Dal Y Mellt (Catch the Lightning) demonstrates that there is potential for minority mother languages to attain widespread international exposure when given the right platform, generating both awareness of and interest in the threatened language.

UNESCO International Day of Mother Languages reminds us that just as a conscious effort was made to eradicate languages such as Welsh and Breton in centuries past, so must a conscious effort be made today in order to ensure their survival for generations to come. It seems that the battle to not only preserve but to expand the use of endangered languages such as Welsh and Breton is to take place on two fronts: at home in the classrooms, and abroad, through the arts. 

Article by Ethan Evans.










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