Monday, January 12, 2009

Multilingualism, Trains and Train Companies

I recently visited Belgium, making the most of the fact that the Eurostar ticket was cheaper than a weekend return to Barry and that, unbelievably, the journey is shorter.

Unusually for London the signage at the new international station is bilingual in English and French, and when you get through customs there’s even the odd sign in Dutch as well.

On the train, announcements were made in English, French and Dutch, with onboard signage also in German.

How different from a First Great Western service between South Wales and London where everything from on-board announcements to safety instructions are in English, or in Braille upon request.

Contrary to popular myth, Belgium is not a bilingual country.

It is a country with three languages (Dutch, French and German), with two effectively monolingual areas (Flanders, where everything is in Dutch, and Wallonia, where everything is in French) and a nominally bilingual Brussels where many signs are bilingual in French and Dutch but, in the city centre at least, everyone spoke French to me as a first resort and English as a second, and only the odd menu hinted at ‘real-life’ Dutch use.

Nevertheless, almost all trains, platforms and announcements were made in both of the main languages, leaving no-one at a disadvantage, with staff able to communicate in rudimentary but effective terms in both of the national languages.

There are some people who think that language should be left to the market. “If there are enough Welsh speakers who care enough about the service then it would happen, wouldn’t it?” they sniff.

But where there is only one provider, or an effective monopoly, as in the case of the railway service then the market cannot dictate.

Arriva Trains Wales have made great strides on their bilingualism in recent years, with bilingual announcements and signage at Cardiff Central and Newport being especially worthy of praise, but the problem with creating a bilingual environment is that it also creates the expectation of opportunity of usage.

As most Welsh speakers in south Wales will tell you, after the first awkward embarrassing moment when you ask for a service in Welsh and then have to ‘apologise’ in English for expecting them to understand you, it becomes second nature to speak in English to people you don’t know in order to avoid the embarrassment and mis-understanding.

This creates the odd situation where everything on the station is in two languages, but all conversation between staff and customers is in English.

I’m not naive enough to expect or to try to force all railway staff to speak Welsh as if they stepped out of a university degree, but most customer interaction is simple enough (just think of how you order a beer or food with a non-English speaker when you're on holiday!) that a handful of phrases and some basic understanding would go a long way to creating a genuinely bilingual space.

After all, a realistically bilingual Wales is not one where everyone speaks both languages, but one in which most communication can be carried out in the language of your choice.

As for First Great Western, for my 60-odd quid return every few weeks I’d have thought they could invest in a tape that announces the station destinations and that the buffet is open.

Or should I just be grateful that there aren’t any leaves on the line?

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