21 August 2017

  |  CBI Wales


Goodwill in the private sector can boost Welsh language

CBI Wales director, Ian Price outlines the opportunities and challenges in increasing Welsh language use in the private sector.

Goodwill in the private sector can boost Welsh language

I am sure we all raised a collective eyebrow at the regrettable treatment of the Welsh language by Sports Direct in Bangor. 

It would be unfair, however, if we allowed it to overshadow the work companies from across Wales have done - and are doing - to encourage the use of the Welsh language. 

Business clearly has a powerful role to play in making the language relevant to people’s everyday lives.

Despite generally low usage levels, you can now receive a number of private sector services through the medium of Welsh. In addition to utility bills, you can speak in Welsh to several major banks and mobile phone providers and, of course, choose Welsh at cash machines and, increasingly, self-service checkouts.

In addition, through volunteers, the public sector and the private sector working together, a number of ICT solutions have emerged.

Microsoft provides Welsh language versions of Windows, Office and SharePoint. Apple, Firefox, Google, Facebook and WordPress also provide services in Welsh.   

Are all these services perfect? No but we should take a moment to recognise the considerable effort many firms have made to voluntarily provide services in the language preferences of a minority of their customers. 

The CBI welcomes the Welsh Government’s goal, set out in their new language strategy “Cymraeg 2050”, to increase the number of Welsh language users to 1 million by 2050.  

According to the 2011 census, 2.3 million people in Wales are not able to speak Welsh but there are at least 562,016 Welsh speakers across Wales, this equates to 26% of households with one Welsh speaker – down from 28% in 2001.

As you would imagine, these figures vary greatly across Wales, ranging from a high of 65.4% of residents of Gwynedd able to speak Welsh to 7.8% in Blaenau Gwent.   

Meeting the Welsh Government’s target of almost doubling the number of Welsh speakers by 2050 is an ambitious goal and the private sector will have an important role to play; we must ensure the language continues to be seen as an asset by firms that choose to operate in Wales.

We must also do more to consider innovative ideas within the private sector including more promotion of the language among our employees and customers.  

While some firms expect to invest in Welsh language provision in line with demand, others see investing in bilingual provision as a recognition of the local communities they serve as many people who work for companies large or small are proud that their company supports the language.

The decision to introduce a law requiring a small number of firms to abide by complex Welsh language standards have prompted some to question whether or not you can achieve a sustainable increase in the use of Welsh language services in the private sector via legislation or is it best achieved through persuasion and the provision of more comprehensive language support.

As “Cymraeg 2050” states “there are different models for promoting and facilitating provision of bilingual services” and each approach will have its benefits and drawbacks.

As there is clearly no one-size-fits-all approach with different methods working better with firms of different sectors, sizes and parts of Wales, it’s hard to see how you can seek to truly meet these varying needs via a predominantly legal approach.

Meirion Prys Jones, ex-Chief Executive of the Welsh Language Board, highlighted the challenges of adopting language standards earlier this year.

The Minister for the Welsh Language, Alun Davies AM, also highlighted the challenge when he said: "They can be too complicated at times, both the process of designing and implementing."

Despite this, firms remain committed to the standards and are keen to understand how the innovation of bilingual services (that was encouraged through a voluntary approach) works within the more controlled legislative context.

It is clear, however, that a finer balance needs to be achieved with enforcement of standards taking place in parallel with more support for marketing and promotion.

The Welsh Language Commission’s report, “Welsh in the shopping basket” has usefully identified some challenges and opportunities of increasing the use of Welsh in the retail sector. 

Welsh language services in retail - from bilingual shop signs, to Welsh speaking staff, websites and tills - are all currently provided voluntarily. 

The report included a survey on customer attitudes to the provision of welsh language services and, surprisingly, 71% of those who responded disagreed with the statement that “I am more likely to shop at a supermarket if it uses the Welsh language”.

In addition, 40% agreed that “seeing supermarkets use Welsh doesn’t mean anything to me.”

These results highlight a problem for retailers when they consider the hard-headed business case for investing in the provision of Welsh language services.

At the same time, the same survey revealed that 68% liked seeing the Welsh language used in supermarkets and 59% of respondents wanted Welsh used in supermarkets “as standard practice”.

Though this phrase does not appear to be defined, the survey results highlight a conundrum that is often at the heart of the provision of bilingual services in the private sector.

So, what is the best way forward? We know most businesses value the Welsh language, are proactive in voluntarily providing a range of services - often despite of low usage.

We also know that, to date, the legislative route has been far from perfect. It is clear lessons need to be learned from the approach taken in the past to the development of Welsh legislation.

There is a massive amount of goodwill within the private sector for the reasonable provision of a range of bilingual services.

The challenge is how best do we capture that goodwill and channel the considerable time and resources proffered by companies to efficiently deliver valuable and valued bilingual services.

As technology changes the preferred methods for engaging with firms in all languages will alter, with some communications being automated to some degree. 

We need to start to consider now what bilingual services will be most valued by customers of the future and tailor that to the different support packages to key sectors of our economy. 

While many Welsh language users value the provision of services and actively seek out options to have services in Welsh, more of Wales’ 562,016 Welsh speakers need to follow their lead.

If this was achieved and maintained as we reach the target of 1 million speakers, demand could potentially spur on additional investment and a new wave of modern Welsh language services could emerge - that has to be a goal worth aiming for.