Language Policy and Social Work

By Pugh, Richard | Social Work, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Language Policy and Social Work


Pugh, Richard, Social Work


In Britain the debate about equal opportunities has focused almost exclusively on the issue of race, with language and culture simply being ignored or treated as secondary in significance. The Code of Ethics for Social Work of the British Association of Social Workers (1986) makes no specific reference to language at all. This deficit derives partly from an assumption that language can be subsumed under other categories and from complacency about its potential significance. For many English-speaking practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the naturalness of their own tongue is such that they rarely appreciate the significance of other languages to minority groups.

Because many immigrants to Britain came from former colonies where English was the dominant language, it has been widely assumed that most immigrants spoke English or would learn it. Hence, there was little need to develop a language policy. This assimilationist assumption has been widely criticized (Dominelli, 1988; Ely & Denney, 1987) and has been challenged by Muslim activists who argue that although Anglicans, Catholics, and Jews receive direct state support for their schools, such aid is denied to them.

Further evidence that the assimilationist assumption is mistaken is the example of the Welsh language. The Welsh language has been the focus and the symbol of Welsh dissent and protest against English colonialism for centuries. The most remarkable feature of this language is its continued existence, a testament to the tenacity of language and an indicator of the significance that language can have for an oppressed group.

Historical Background

The Welsh are a people squeezed by invasion and economic domination into the western fringes of mainland Britain. They are the descendants of the original Britons, speaking a language derived from Brittonic. During the Roman and later Saxon and Viking invasions, this language was a unifying and enduring element of culture.

Like many small nations the Welsh have had to define and redefine themselves in response to the actions of other, more powerful people; consequently, they admire dissent and respect nonconformity (Jenkins, 1978; Morgan, 1982). Resistance to oppression has at times been very fierce, with extensive and prolonged strikes, rioting, demonstrations, and sabotage (Stephens, 1979; Williams, 1985). Welsh culture has two recurring themes. The first is a strong sense of community and equality; the second is a fierce individualism expressed through resistance to the disputed actions of others (Williams, 1988). The Welsh language has been both the subject and the means of protest (Aitchison & Carter, 1990). In common with other minorities, the construction and reconstruction of Welsh history and identity can be viewed as a response to external pressure.

Today the population of Wales is 2.8 million, of whom 19 percent still speak Welsh. The proportion of Welsh speakers is highest in the two counties of North Wales. In Clwyd it is about 30 percent, and in Gwynedd it rises to over 85 percent in some parishes. After decades of decline, there are signs that the numbers speaking Welsh are rising. It is possible to use Welsh in dealings with the government; to hear it on radio and television; to buy Welsh newspapers, books, and records; and to attend Welsh high schools and colleges. This increase in use of the language in the public domains reflects growing pride in Welsh and further legitimizes its use.

These advances have neither removed the economic problems nor eliminated the political resentments that fueled the language movement. Despite the rejection in the 1979 referendum of limited home rule, a significant minority of Welsh people continue to be active in nationalist organizations such as Plaid Cymru. The illegal activities of other groups like Meibion Glyndwr (literally Sons of Glendower, the last Welsh prince to rule in Wales), who destroy English-owned businesses, holiday homes, and realtors' offices by arson, although not specifically endorsed, nonetheless arouse some sympathy among the Welsh public (Aitchison & Carter, 1990). …

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