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'You need a community to speak the language'

LEGISLATION is useful but on its own does not make much difference to the regeneration of a minority language, Meirion Prys Jones, deputy chief executive of the Welsh Language Board, warned the conference.

The essentials were education and the use of language in the community and at work. "The education system is the factory that produces the speakers but that cannot be enough," Mr Jones said.

After years of campaigning, the Gaelic lobby has persuaded Scottish ministers to introduce a Gaelic language Bill this autumn that will finally secure legal status. Ministers have set up a Gaelic board, based in Inverness, to push developments after responding to the recommendations of a review group.

Mr Jones said Wales was 10 years ahead in its legal position and structures. Since 1993, the board had tried to develop a context for the language and an identity.

"You need a community to speak the language. You need political and legal support and you need to be able to talk to the modern world. The language has to be cool and certainly financially rewarding. One of the main incentives has to be to get jobs and get on," he said.

As growing numbers of Welsh people became bilingual, people had a choice which language to use, Mr Jones said.

"We have to persuade them to use it but there is not much point of having 100 per cent of the population being able to speak Welsh if they are not actually doing so in a range of social and work-based contexts," he said Signs of progress were evident in the number of young speakers. Some 6 per cent of children at age three spoke Welsh at home and more than 20 per cent at age 11. The basis was a strong pre-school sector and continuity through the school system.

Those most likely to continue to speak Welsh were those who spoke it at home.

Mr Jones cautioned Gaels about pinning their hopes on the Bill. "Many minority languages seek legislation as a way of regenerating a language but I think it is safe to say it is not. It is a useful part of the tool kit in language planning but as an end in itself, it does not make that much difference," he said.

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