Prof Colin Williams – Why I support the POBAL proposals for the Irish Language Act – Language Rights

Professor Colin H. Williams

Professor Colin Williams, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, has been active in the promotion of minority rights for over thirty years. He is Research Professor in the School of Welsh at Cardiff University, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geography, the University of Western Ontario and Hon. Professor, Celtic Studies, University of Aberdeen and the University of Highlands and Islands.


Language Rights – Relevance for the speaker

For individual speakers the two most fundamental language rights tend to be the right to receive a proportion of one’s statutory education through one’s mother tongue or language of choice, and the right to receive certain public services through a designated language. The three pillars of language maintenance are the family and community, the educational system and the local state. When all three act in concert to reinforce the lesser used language there is obviously a much greater chance of strengthening that language over the long term and of securing a very useful public role for the language in society. When one or more of these supporting pillars is weak it can threaten the long term vitality of the language. In advanced societies, language legislation has come to be seen as an essential adjunct to these pillars so as to guarantee, or at least facilitate, the use of the former discriminated language within new domains. A sympathetic legal framework can improve the socioeconomic situation of lesser used language speakers by ensuring that they have increased opportunities to exercise their language of choice in specific contexts. The law, thus regarded, can be seen as an empowering instrument. When allied with progressive social policy, language rights and statutory language plans can make a significant difference to the actual use and hence relevance of promoting bilingualism within the community.

For individual speakers the most fruitful way of increasing competence in the target language is to experience a significant amount of one’s formal education within a bilingual or multilingual milieu. However, there is a general tendency to assume that unilingual or monolingual education is the norm in the world. In many circumstances, bilingual or multilingual education has been used by government as a means of promoting fluency in the state’s dominant language, rather than promoting greater usage of the minority language. This is particularly true where children come into the formal school system with little command of the dominant language. In this context, education in the mother tongue or in the minority language is used as a mechanism through which the dominant language can be more effectively introduced, and, ultimately, full competence in that language can be promoted. Thus, early mother tongue education tends to give way to education in the state language as the child progresses through the school system. Specialists describe this tendency as ‘subtractive bilingualism’ because the first language will almost inevitably provide a bridge to full competence in the second or target language and because instruction in the mother tongue ceases once such competence is achieved, maintenance of the mother tongue is actually discouraged. However, a second policy option is ‘additive bilingualism’, where two languages are promoted throughout the child’s education and are treated as related elements in the child’s cognitive, social and educational development. It is this second type of bilingualism that is favoured in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Advocates of bilingualism in society and in formal education argue that there are several advantages that tend to characterise most cases. These would include:-

  • Cognitive advantages – bilingual children tend to think more creatively and flexibly because they have more than one word for every object and concept
  • Educational advantages – research evidence from several countries (Canada, the US, the Basque country, Catalonia, Wales and Scotland) show that bilingual children tend to do better in the curriculum and to show slightly higher performance in examinations
  • Economic advantages – two languages offer a wider range of employment opportunities; many jobs now require bilingual skills
  • Social and cultural advantages – speaking two languages leads to a wider range of social activities and gives access to two cultures
  • Easier to learn a third language – there is growing evidence from European research that bilingual children tend to find it easier to learn other languages.

(Extract from POBAL document, The Irish Language Act Issue 11)

Contact Us

13-3rd Floor
Blackstaff Mill
81 Springfield Road
Belfast BT12 7AE

Tel : 00 44 (0)77 13 630325


POBAL is a company limited by guarantee.
Charity Ref. XT27908