Recent changes in approaches to second language learning have meant that learning is increasingly seen as a social, rather than an individual activity, which involves negotiating membership of a new language community as well as technical mastery of the language. At the same time, the use of language as a boundary between different social and national groups means that aspiring “new speakers” may face challenges to their legitimacy. This may be the case when minority language speakers seek acceptance by a majority language community, but contestation may also be experienced when the membership sought is of a minority language group whose language is under threat.
Relatively few studies, and very few using a social identity approach, have been carried out in Wales, where the social context may be particularly difficult for new speakers given historical contestations between the minority and majority languages, especially since many aspiring new speakers speak the majority language. Most existing studies have investigated the barriers faced by “Welsh learners” but not the continuing negotiation of identities as previous learners seek to become new speakers of Welsh, or how the trajectories undergone may vary according to initial social position and setting.
The present study, carried out in North West Wales between 2015 and 2019, takes a biographical narrative approach with the aim of tracing how Welsh speaking identities are negotiated through time and in different social spaces. A purposive sample of 24 current and previous learners, several of whom also kept language diaries, were interviewed over 2015 and 2016. The data was analysed using a narrative ethnography approach (Gubrium and Holstein 2009) to map out how identities were negotiated in the various dimensions within which the narrative is framed – prior dispositions, life course orientations, close relationships, the Welsh class, wider community, and workplace. Trajectories were seen to be shaped by interaction between these different dimensions, with cultural capital, life course orientation, and social setting exercising a strong influence on participant experiences and on the speaker position negotiated. Interactions in the Welsh class were sometimes seen to be impacted by the external social context, rather than always being carried out in a protected “safe space”. Participants had choices regarding how to position themselves on encountering challenges to their legitimacy, which were particularly overt in “high stakes” situations such as civic participation or working through the medium of Welsh.
As an alternative to typologies which categorise speakers according to the level of competence achieved, for example “non speaker” or “semi speaker”, a more complex six-part typology has been devised using Weber’s construction of “ideal types”, with the aim of differentiating between and fully describing the varying “speaker trajectories” experienced by participants.
Finally, the implications of the findings for Welsh for Adults provision and Welsh language policy are discussed. It is argued that language policy needs to be re-conceptualised to factor in new speakers at unofficial as well as official, micro as well as macro levels.