Getting to Wales is no easy task. Despite being neatly nestled in England’s bosom, it took us no less than four trains to get there. Mists became heavier, and place names wildly more exotic, as we approached the legendary birthplace of Merlin. Upon boarding the last train we were greeted by this:
Now, many an Englishperson had told us that Welsh was basically a dead language. But as we passed signs bidding us ‘Croeso’ to places such as Lladundon and Gwynydd, it became clear that we were in a very bilingual country…more bilingual, even, than Canada!
This comparison between Welsh and Canadian bilingualism got me thinking. It’s not a fair comparison, because Canada’s two languages are both colonial, whereas Welsh is a native (in the most general meaning of the word) language that survives despite the presence of English. A more appropriate comparison would be between English (or French, in Quebec) and the multitude of First Nations languages that have been present for thousands of years.
What has allowed Welsh to survive while less than 1% of Canadians still claim a First Nations language as their mother tongue? And what can Canada learn from the Welsh success? As Canada tries to recover from centuries of colonization, these are definitely things worth addressing (though this applies to the nation as a whole, I will speak only to my own experience, which is in Manitoba).
The obvious answer to this question is financial support. The UK government pours significant amounts of money every year into keeping Welsh alive. All official signage and documentation are in both Welsh and English, with Welsh usually being more prominent. The majority of schools in Wales are taught in Welsh, and basic Welsh is mandatory throughout all grades even in English-language schools.
Meanwhile in Manitoba, public text does not include First Nations languages until the 58th parallel (which is basically Churchhill and that’s it), and schools must design their own curricula and materials if they want to teach a First Nations language.
The most common objection to the use of First Nations languages in public institutions (including schools) is that there are simply too many of them. In some respects this is valid: it would be impossible to choose a single language to represent the diversity of a land this massive. But considering that 30 Waleses could fit into Manitoba alone, it is not unreasonable to propose that the Wales-sized plot of land around Winnipeg could include Anishinabe in its public texts while the Wales-sized plot of land stretching from The Pas to Gillam could include Cree, etc.
The next anticipated objection is that a country cannot function when divided into so many linguistic groups. To counter this, we jump ahead in our voyage to Switzerland. Quite possibly the most stable country in all of history, it is split into four distinct language districts. Street signs, schools, and even food labels switch languages entirely within the same country. In fact, while visiting the Italian-speaking canton, our Swiss German cousin had to speak to the gas attendant in English to be understood. Yet the Swiss are undoubtedly Swiss, and have been for 800 years.
It’s sometimes tempting to believe that language extinction is just a Darwinian fact of life, and that any attempt to fight natural selection is just prolonging the inevitable. In the case of Latin, for example, this is very true. In the case of First Nations languages, however, their pending extinction is entirely unnatural. The systematic destruction of these languages was never inevitable, but rather was artificially imposed in the relatively recent past. This suggests that it is entirely possible to reverse the disappearance of these languages if we support their use in public institutions. Obviously this would not entirely resolve the centuries of distrust between Canada and First Nations communities, but it would be a significant step, and would ensure that the unique perspectives offered by those languages are not lost.