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The endangered languages of Britain

Research has shown that, for the last 40 years, a language has died every 4 months. And native British languages like Welsh and Gaelic are at risk of becoming a part of this unfortunate statistic.

So how have these languages declined so drastically, and what do we stand to lose if they do die out?

What it means when a language is endangered

A dying or endangered language is a language that is at risk of falling completely out of use.

In a document entitled ‘Language Vitality and Endangerment’, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) outlines 9 characteristics of endangered languages:

  1. Intergenerational language transmission
  2. Absolute number of speakers
  3. Proportion of speakers existing within the total population
  4. Trends in existing language domains
  5. Response to new domains and media
  6. Materials for language education and literacy
  7. Governmental and institutional language attitudes and policies, including official status and use
  8. Community members’ attitudes toward their own language
  9. Amount and quality of documentation

Why languages become endangered

There are many different factors that can lead to a decline in a language’s use.

The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered Languages identifies four primary causes of language endangerment: natural catastrophes; war and genocide; overt repression; and cultural/political/economic dominance.

For example, Gaelic was banned by the crown in the 1600s, and continued to be suppressed following the Jacobite rebellion. According to the Guardian, children were still “being beaten into speaking English” less than 100 years ago, while the use of Welsh was “actively discouraged” in 19th century schools.

Indeed, the status of Welsh as an endangered language was firmly established 5 years ago, when the UK Census found that 73% of residents of Wales had no Welsh language skills.

For years it was feared that the Gaelic language too may be beyond saving, until 2014 when the under 20 age group finally saw a rise in the number of speakers as a result of Gaelic’s reintroduction in schools. The drive to promote the usage of Gaelic continues, in compliance with the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act of 2005. Meanwhile there has also been a significant government funded effort to promote the Welsh language, which is showing promising signs of resuscitation.

Whilst the prognosis for British minority languages is looking better, further afield the picture is bleaker. The internet and particularly the prominence of English on it is accused of marginalising other languages. This “western bias” is difficult to ignore given that 55% of the 10 million most popular websites are written in English.

But it’s not just English’s stranglehold that is to blame. In the UK Brexit may rock the Welsh and Gaelic revival, if funding which the EU currently provides for minority language promotion schemes in Britain is no longer be available.

What can these languages offer business?

Just because they’re a minority language doesn’t make them unprofitable. Companies who do business in Wales, Ireland and/or Scotland, will know that in many industries having someone in your company with Welsh and/or Gaelic language skills can set you apart from other businesses which do not.

In fact, in 2011, businesses began “increasingly” using the Gaelic language for marketing purposes. In 2014, Neil Ross, Head of Community Growth at Highlands and Islands Enterprise said that the use of Gaelic is “an asset as already contributing, and having huge potential to generate further economic and social impacts”.

While in 2013, the Welsh Language Commissioner Meri Huws wrote that businesses ranging from retailers to service providers were “realising that using the Welsh language is part of good customer care.” Use of the language can also strengthen your brand and attract new customers and clients by showing your respect for Welsh culture.

So if your business is looking into breaking into Welsh, Irish, and or Scottish markets, making use of their native languages can give you a leg up on the competition.

Professional translation agencies can offer your business access to these languages on an ad hoc basis. This way you won’t have to invest the time and money it would take to either train existing staff, or to hire someone new full time. London Translations covers all languages, so we have you covered for minority British languages like Welsh, Gaelic and even Cornish.

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