Magazine article on the value of minority languages

I’ve written an article about the value of minority languages, which will be published in Aeon ( It’s still in a draft stage and is inspired by my experience of learning Welsh. It’s a philosophy article (I work as an academic philosopher) but aimed at a general audience, although currently the language is still a bit stodgy.

If anyone is interested in taking a look, I’ve included a link below - I would really welcome feedback about whether I’ve missed/confused anything about the value of learning Welsh or other minority languages.

I hope my posting about this doesn’t break any forum rules - apologies if so, and of course please delete this post!


Might be worth replacing American Indian with Native American - as I understand it, the former is not commonly used and some readers may take offence. Otherwise, it’s a good article.


Thanks! I actually used the same term as on the Wampanoag project website so deferring to their preferences… but this is something that may come up when it gets edited.

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I couldn’t access this on my iPad. I’ll try later or yfory on my laptop!
Edit: got it on iPad eventually! Scots in various forms is still alive and well. I am forever needing translations! Scottish Gaelic is taught in schools where it is spoken, e.g. Hebrides. A friend who used to live in Dundee and retired here to mid-Argyll, tells me she had some lessons. One teacher was from the Outer Hebrides and one from elsewhere (mainland Scotland, I presume) They used very different words for things. Her example was Thank you. I guess it is all dialects which, with time and lack of connection, become closer to Languages, as for Italian, Venetian vs Sardinian or Sicilian! North and South Wales were heading that way before TV told us all how both talk! Have you, @rebecca looked at the effect of TV?

Very interesting read Rebecca, thank you for sharing on the forum. Adding to your conclusion about the value of languages, I heard a strong rationale for minority languages to be preserved at a recent Anaiwan language revival meeting here in New England, New South Wales. I paraphrase what was said: language belongs to country (here indigenous tribal country), it links its speakers to country (because it codifies and conveys knowledge about country) and everyone living there has right to learn it.

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Thanks for this!

My sense is that people who disdain the learning of other languages are experiencing some silly mixture of jealousy and defensiveness.

On a different note, I’ve been talking with an Italian friend lately about the many “dialects” (many would think of them as different languages if they had an army and a navy) of Italian. She indicates to me that there is very little effort/desire to maintain these languages. People don’t seem to identify with them particularly. It makes me curious. Just one person I’ve talked to though.

BTW, I’m not familiar with “Amartya Sen” so that bit comes off as only for the initiated. :slight_smile:

Thanks again! Great read!


Thank you so much for these helpful comments, guys! I really appreciate it.

@henddraig I haven’t looked at the effect of tv (I don’t do empirical research), but it would make sense that tv would help move things towards standardisation, I think. A bit like how BBC English was viewed as the correct form of English until a decade or so ago, when we started to see a greater diversity of accents among newsreaders etc …

@Bobi Amartya Sen is a philosopher/economist - you’re right that I should make that clear!

My Italian grandfather would agree with your friend. He never spoke Italian to me as a child, saying his Italian wasn’t ‘proper’. When he went back to Italy recently, he was told how nice it was to hear dialect again because hardly anyone speaks it now.


I watched the TV Series ‘Montalbano’ about the policeman in Sicily and noted all the comments about his possible move and how he would have to learn - I forget which ‘language’, but whichever version of Italian was spoken there! I had noticed differences in the Italians I met in different places - (well, I noticed that Romans chat up any girl they see and Venetians are much less pushy) - but my Italian was never good enough to realise they talked differently too!


I’m going to chat to my Italian friends about the dialects there - thanks for the pointers!

The most interesting thing from my point of view is that this confirms something I discovered on a trip to Napoli - speakers of the regional languages of Italy tend not to write them down, so, like informal Welsh, spelling is irregular and flexible and based on transcribing local pronunciation.

However, I’m not sure that the main languages of Italy (besides Italian) can be described as minority languages. Catalan (in Sardinia) and Greek (in the far south) certainly are, but I don’t think Neapolitan is.

Edited to add: That comes across as ambiguous. Sorry. What I meant was that the regional languages are not dialects of Italian and not minority languages either. They are the majority language of their region.


I watch (and enjoy) the Montalbano TV series, and have also read several of the books in English. The translator has kindly included copious notes to the ones I have read, often explaining aspects of the dialect (even though this is an English translation). Anyway, the author of the original books, Andrea Camilleri, made a point of using Sicilian dialect in them, more so for some characters than for others. Being an island, I imagine the dialect has had more chance to survive than those in mainland Italy.

It’s possible that Camilleri is writing about the Sicily that he remembers from boyhood (born 1925), and in the dialect he remembers from his youth, and that the dialect situation there might not be quite the same today.

I did presume it was ‘dated’ in the sense that it was written and time has passed since, but the chat on here rang bells. I had rather dismissed the language business when I first saw it on TV, but comments here implied the local ‘languages’ are alive, well and living! I am fairly sure I came across mention of Venetian in another Cop Drama on BBC4!

Some young Italians we got to know in the late 80s/early 90s said they always used dialect in the street with their friends, etc. Maybe not so much at home (with parents), and not in more formal situations. They were from the north (Liguria). But things might have changed even in that relatively short time period.

This is a great article, Rebecca - really interesting perspectives and beautifully written (not at all stodgy, IMO). (Postgrad student of Language Policy and Planning here, btw, so this actually useful for my own work as well - thanks!)

I have a couple of thoughts, which might not be of use, but are useful for me to try to express.

Re: ‘usefulness’ - this is one that bugs me every time I come across it. I learned French to fluency when I was younger. I have tried through my life to try keep it up by speaking it at every opportunity, continuing to read it, and so on. But my ‘use’ of the language is minimal. Don’t get me wrong - I love that I know the language, and being able to read Zola in the original and so forth has enriched my life. But I don’t use it much. But I use Welsh every day - to me, living in Wales, it is useful, and for communication. Yes, I can communicate with the people around me in English, but it is a different experience doing it in Welsh. For me, the usefulness of that medium of communication is that it strengthens the bonds of belonging and connection and group identity. To a monoglot English speaker, there is no difference to walking into the Mochyn Du in Cardiff and asking for two pints rather than ‘dwy beint o gwrw, os gwelwch yn dda’ - but to a Welsh-speaker the communicative experience is different. The refusal of so many English-speakers to consider communication through the medium of Welsh to be valid and meaningful is what upsets so many lovers of the language.

[More ramblings from me on similar aspects of Welsh-speakers’ identity will be published in the August edition of Planet Magazine … plug, plug]

Also, coincidentally, I came across this blog post today via Twitter - thought it was an interesting additional perspective:


Thank you for Huw Marshall’s article! It is very thought-provoking and true as well!! I am horrible aware of my lack of confidence in Cymraeg, a feeling that I need to check everything and not enough confidence to back myself against the dreaded Google translate!

Thank you @sarapeacock - those reflections on ‘usefulness’ are great and well worth drawing out. The Huw Marshall article is good too, and I think he’s right that foreign language teaching in the UK is based on an assumption that the main point of it is to be able to order food etc while on holiday (or at least, that was the emphasis when I was at school!). That itself presupposes a certain conception of ‘usefulness’, roughly: ‘getting understood’. But in that case, why not just shout at foreigners, or rely on their usually excellent understanding of English, as British people have been doing for years? :smiley:

So, basically, if this conception of ‘usefulness’ is the important thing, then there’s not much point in learning languages like French and German at all, because French and German people very often speak English and so it’s not that difficult to communicate with them. Anyone who seriously believes that Welsh is not useful but French and German are must be interested in something other than merely ‘being understood’.

Thanks for making me think harder about this.

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Unfortunately, curricula are still based on times past. France - enemy turned friend, Germany - relative to royalty turned enemy!

I started to learn German (as an adult - I hesitate to say “grown-up”) in the mid-1990s. This was the period of post-Mauerfall (fall of The Wall) and post-Wiedervereinigung (reunification) enthusiasm, and for a while, Germany (especially Berlin) and the German language received more attention than usual. This was when the Open University started running a German course as one of the first of its non-English language courses (the other ones were French and Spanish. Welsh came much later). They were not too expensive at first, which helped; excellent value, anyway.

Much, although by no means all, of its curriculum covered things like the differences between East and West Germany, and the history leading up to unification. (The courses that I did were as much about culture and history as they were about the language per se. They were cracking courses in their way, although in themselves, didn’t necessarily make you a speaker of the language).

I imagine that school curricula at about that time also included some of this (actually I also did GCSE and AS/A level in this period, and the latter course certainly did).

German has rather gone off the boil in the UK now, with several universities having closed down their German departments, and I think it’s lost out to Spanish in the schools. It has the reputation of being “hard” whereas Spanish has the reputation of being “easy”. A grain of very misleading truth there, I would say.

Foreign languages are no longer compulsory at secondary school, I gather. A very unfortunate decision by leaders with no vision.

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Ouch! Grovel! Mae’n ddtwg gen i! I meant choice of subjects and I didn’t realise German was being replaced on the back of holidays to Spain! I guess all these years in EU have done some good! I have to admit, I am a terrible example of learning Italian because I liked going there! French was school’s choice, but the reasons for that and German in my day were as I wrote above!