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Tongue twisting: What Brexit means for minority languages

Uncertainty could have profound cultural and economic implications, says Maurice Smith - Credit: Archant

In what could be a perfect metaphor for the chaos unleashed by Brexit, the future of the British Isles’ minority languages has been thrown into doubt by the decision to leave the EU.

From street signs, to television stations, schools, music and literature, the British Isles is a linguistically diverse archipelago, home to various native languages, whose fortunes have always fluctuated through the centuries.

But with Brexit has come a new threat, to menace them all. The situation is politically acute in Ireland, where promotion of Irish Gaelic education is a key element of the peace agreement in the North, and has particularly strong overtones as a result. At Stormont, in recent months, the two main parties – Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Sinn Fein – have been at loggerheads over the latter’s demand that Irish becomes the devolved government’s second official language.

There may be a less abrasive political dimension in Scotland and Wales, but Scots Gaelic and Welsh have nevertheless become increasingly important in terms of preservation, education and broadcasting investment. But as Scotland moves towards another referendum on independence, we can expect more abrasion on this issue.

The politics of language funding is the politics of national diversity, and Brexit, and agitation for a vote on Scottish independence, are bringing such differences into sharp relief.

These minority languages, and others such as Cornish, have all benefited from UK and devolved government support. But that has been underpinned by their status as recognised minority languages within the EU. The fear is that Brexit will lead to less support, and especially less money, for education, promotion and cultural support.

An open letter signed by the European Language Equality Network and representatives of Scots, Welsh, Cornish and Irish organisations, described the indirect effects of Brexit as ‘potentially disastrous’. Several speaking areas across the UK benefit currently from a range of EU structural funds covering the period to 2020. They include PEACE IV in the Irish border areas, the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Growth Programme, West Wales and the Valleys and East Wales programmes, and various projects in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

The nub of the concern is how the removal of EU citizenship might affect minority language speakers as the UK exits the union. The signatories believe this will leave them ‘at the mercy of governments that have shown neither the interest nor the desire to protect and promote the rights of speakers of our nations and regions’ language, and have throughout much of our shared history conducted aggressive policies designed to eradicate our languages’.

Since the Brexit vote, the UK government has not addressed the issue. During the EU referendum campaign, Leave campaigners argued that any funds currently provided by Europe would be replaced by cash that the UK would no longer have to pay into the EU. Since then, however, those promises have not been confirmed. There is no guarantee that the UK government will have the money, and no promise that the funding gap will be bridged anyway.

Much of the funding is channelled via the devolved administrations, but they depend largely on Westminster for their funding. The question is whether the political will or understanding will be there to sustain support, especially for parts of the UK where the Conservative Party is historically weak.

The Welsh Language Society, for instance, is ‘very concerned’ about the consequences of losing rights as citizens of the EU, and the potential loss of funding.

Shona MacLellan, chief executive of the Scottish Government-funded body Bord na Gaidhlig, which exists to promote Scots Gaelic, says that attempts are being made to quantify the full range of support to the language. ‘The question is whether we will see the sort of support given currently by the EU, replaced by the UK and Scottish governments. Even if there is a will to do that, will there be the budget? We know there will be an impact, but we have still to understand what that might be.’

In each case, the languages are strongest in areas of fragile economic status. For example, the biggest concentration of Scotland’s 57,000 estimated Gaelic speakers are located in the remote Western Isles. Welsh-speaking Wales and Cornwall and south-west England are in poorer regions of the country.

Irish Gaelic speakers in Northern Ireland are predominantly nationalist, and while the language has a strong political under-current, there is an economic dimension too.

Minority language support is seen by its advocates as a key part of a broader economic and cultural commitment. Invest in the language, they argue, and you also promote stronger, more resilient communities. Throughout the Celtic language areas of the UK (and the British Isles as a whole), economic activity is intertwined with language. Key examples include the Gaelic College – Sabhal mor Ostaig – on the isle of Skye, or the Creative Industries and Media Centre at Stornoway in the Western Isles, a development bolstered with EU funding.

‘Both the Scottish and UK governments have been positive in the past. But it is certainly easier to have your voice heard in a multilingual environment, rather than in the UK alone. Within the Council of Europe, for example, some minority languages have big clout, for example Catalan and Breton, so our position is more understood in Europe,’ says Maggie Cunningham, chair of the broadcasting organisation MG ALBA, which runs the Scottish TV Channel BBC ALBA, a joint Gaelic broadcasting venture with the BBC.

In each case, minority language supporters argue that second languages are conducive to educational progress. ‘The benefits of bilingualism, or multilingualism, have been well documented and proven time and time again in a vast number of studies from around the world – especially early-age bilingualism,’ says Ciaran MacGiolla Bhein, of the Irish cultural lobby group Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League). ‘It’s a matter of cognitive development. Children with a second language do better at maths, they have more empathy and are more tolerant of others.’

Irish remains politically controversial because it is wrapped up in the social divisions of the North. A place for the language was found as part of the Good Friday Agreement and while there remain tensions – usually over funding and promotion – there is strong evidence that the so-called ‘respect agenda’ has had a positive impact. While Irish is understood by many nationalists, those from loyalist communities have been learning more about their own heritage, including the Scots-Irish dialect.

And this is where – as in so many walks of life – minority languages have become intertwined with the ongoing morass surrounding Brexit. In the Western Isles – home of Scots Gaelic – many speakers include fishermen who voted Leave. In Ulster, where the power-sharing coalition between the DUP and Sinn Fein fell apart months after the province produced a majority for Remain, language is one of many issues thrown up by Brexit.

‘In many ways the threat to minority languages is a metaphor for the mess that Brexit could leave behind. Certainly it underlines the law of unintended consequences, but if it isn’t resolved, our languages face being undermined and they may never properly recover,’ said one campaigner. ‘Nobody’s thought this through.’

One language is expected to survive Brexit unscathed: English. However it may not survive as the default language for the EU, as there is a strong lobby in support of adopting French or German instead. English will remain an official language however, thanks to the fact that it is the first language of two of the remaining 27 member countries: Malta and Ireland.

Maurice Smith is a journalist and award-winning documentary producer. Follow him on Twitter @mauricesmithtvi


Scots Gaelic

57,000 speakers

30,000 additional ‘some Gaelic’

Some also spoken also in Nova Scotia, Canada

Irish Gaelic

94,000 speakers

Many more use Irish language to some level (up to 1.3m in Ireland as a whole)


431,000 speakers in Wales

110,000 additional in England

Cornish (also known as Kernowek)

3,500 speakers in total

According to Mercator Research Centre there are 60 minority languages in Europe, spoken by a total of 55m people.

They are defined by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which is supervised by the Council of Europe.

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