S4C and Cymraeg 2050

by Suw on August 13, 2017

The Welsh Government recently released a strategy, Cymraeg 2050, to increase the number of Welsh speakers to one million by 2050.  The strategy focuses predominantly on children’s education, which is sensible and obvious, and on Welsh speakers in Wales, which is also sensible and obvious. But there are two groups that could do with a little bit more love and attention, and S4C is in the perfect position to do that.

The first group are adult learners or near-fluent speakers who, for whatever reason, aren’t in formal Welsh language education and/or who don’t have easy access to Welsh speakers to practice with, but who need a little extra help reaching fluency.

As it happens, I fall into that group. I started learning Welsh about 20 years ago, and I ought to be fluent by now, but a lack of regular access to the Welsh language, whether regular lessons or people to talk to, has really hampered my progress. I’m now stuck in this kind of linguistic no mans land, where I know too much Welsh for things like Duolingo or Memrise to be enjoyable, but not enough to be able to easily understand the spoken language. I’m a bit better with the written language, but again, not quite good enough to be able to just sit and read a book.

Welsh TV is an essential tool for developing comprehension skills, expanding vocabulary and refining understanding of grammar. For my money, there’s nothing better than watching a documentary on S4C with subtitles to help me marry words and sounds together, and to help me learn more words and improve my grammar. Like all learners, I need regular interaction with the language to help me cement what I learn, and TV is by far the easiest and most interesting way to achieve that.

Rightly, S4C’s subtitles focus on assisting the hearing impaired, which is what they were invented to do and it’s a massively important role. Subtitles for the hearing impaired are written to be easily and swiftly read, and to give the gist of what is said rather than a verbatim transcript, and are far too valuable to mess with.

But subtitles are also an important and valuable tool for intermediate learners, and with a little extra work new types of subtitles for learners could be much more effective. In an ideal world, I would like a selection of subtitle options for learners, in addition to subtitles for the hearing impaired.

Learner subtitles should include:

  • English subtitles, as close to a direction translation as possible, to help learners understand what’s happening and marry Welsh sounds with English meanings.
  • Dual language English/Welsh subtitles, with both languages on screen at once. It’s a bit hard going to read both at once and you really do have to focus, but it helps to improve understanding.
  • Welsh language learner’s subtitles, which would be Welsh language with English prompts for difficult words.
  • Welsh-only subtitles, which should be as close to verbatim as possible.

I quite like watching Welsh-language documentaries multiple times, not only because S4C really does make some fabulous ones, but also because I can positively feel my understanding of Welsh improving as I do so.

The problem is that firstly, the most useful subtitle options, the dual language subtitles and the learner’s subtitles, don’t exist. Sometimes there aren’t even any Welsh subtitles, just English ones*. That seems like an omission that should be at the top of the list of things that S4C could do to support the Welsh language.

Now, I know that the argument against providing these services is that they cost money, but that’s a given for the recommendations of the Cymraeg 2050 report. It’s going to cost money to do this stuff, but if the government wants 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, they are going to have to reach down the back of the sofa and come up with some cash to spend. That said, subtitling is cheap compared to the cost of making the program in the first place, with online freelance subtitlers charging less than £1000 per hour of video.

The second problem is finding the time to watch and rewatch the same program before it falls off S4c’s catch-up service**. That wouldn’t be an issue if I could buy S4C’s shows, but, despite the fact that it’s 2017, it’s still impossible to buy Welsh TV on iTunes or any other digital service. I know that S4C would, at this point, bang on about rights, but good grief, it’s 2017! Rights issues should have been solved by now, and S4C should be selling shows online to anyone who wants to buy them regardless of where they live***.

Which brings me to the second group of Welsh learners/near-fluent speakers that could do with a little respect and support: Those who do not live in Wales. Welsh learners don’t just live in Wales, they also live across the rest of the UK and, indeed, around the world. You might think that those people are irrelevant to the future of the Welsh language in Wales, but that’s very 20th century thinking.

The world is united by the web, and anyone from anywhere can contribute to the health of a language and culture. Indeed, in many cases it is the internet that is saving languages and cultures. No matter where you or I live, we can use the Welsh language in our everyday life, we can create new cultural artefacts in the Welsh language. Were I fluent enough, I would for sure be providing various Ada Lovelace Day materials in Welsh. I would blog in Welsh. I would write books in Welsh. That would be contributing to Welsh language life, even though I’m not in Wales (and even though I’m not Welsh).

If the Welsh Government wants 1 million Welsh speakers, it has to not just teach them Welsh, it needs to give them a reason to use their Welsh, and that’s not just about the Eisteddfod and cynghanedd and calling up the local council in Welsh, it’s about just doing whatever you fancy in Welsh. Science. Chatting to your mates. The latest tech reviews. Music. Reading about women in STEM. Writing comics. Talking to people in a totally different country.

There’s a whole blog post to write about the position of digital in the Cymraeg 2050 strategy, but that’s for another day. The point is that if you want 1 million Welsh people in Wales to use Welsh, help Welsh people outside of Wales to do so too, because often, those people outside of Wales are related to or friends with those people inside Wales and they use the internet to keep in touch. In Welsh.

The web helps the Welsh diaspora and Welsh learners retain and expand their language, and S4C should be a fundamental part of that process.


* I am not familiar enough with Welsh language service provision for the hearing impaired to make a judgement on how well S4C does, but logic dictates that more Welsh language subtitles would be a good thing, assuming other provisions remain the same.

** It would also be super helpful if S4C Digidol’s subtitles didn’t routinely stop working when I’m watching online, and if they’d actually work in all browsers. For some reason, S4C’s video player is incompatible with Chrome on my Macs. And in Safari, the subtitles tend to crap out halfway through, so I keep having to reload the page.

*** And whilst I’m at it, S4C needs to do whatever it is required to get rid of geoblocking. Yes, yes, rights, yes, yes. Please explain to me which large secondary Welsh-language market are they holding their rights over for? If I need to buy access to S4C, I will, I’m absolutely happy to pay my way, but the current geoblocking without the option to pay for access is ridiculous. Ultimately, though, if S4C is about supporting the Welsh language and Welsh culture in a web-enabled age, geoblocking makes no sense at all, because they should be supporting Welsh learners and speakers wherever in the world they are. The language is far more important than geographical boundaries.

Carl Morris August 15, 2017 at 11:17 am

Hoffwn i weld isdeitlau Cymraeg ar bob rhaglen S4C hefyd. Dw i’n cytuno bod gwerth i wylwyr yn cyfiawnhau’r cost.

Mae hi’n sefyllfa druenus iawn bod sut gymaint o doriadau wedi bod i’r gwasanaeth yn y blynyddoedd diweddar, nid yn unig i’r isdeitlau. e.e. mae 57% o oriau allbwn S4C yn ailadroddiadau o raglenni bellach! 5% yw’r ffigur ar gyfer BBC One.

Mae eisiau canfod yr arian yma. Yn ffodus mae technoleg llais-i-destun wedi gwella yn sylweddol felly dylai hi fod yn rhatach cael cynhyrchu isdeitlau. Byddai hyn yn ei dro yn cyfraniad gwerthfawr at gorpws llais-i-destun hefyd.

Gyda llaw cwmnïau cynhyrchu sy’n biau hawliau rhaglenni yn yr hir dymor, nid y sianel. Stori arall ydy hynny. 😐

Paws August 18, 2017 at 8:57 am

Well as one of your second group, who is trying to learn Welsh despite not living in Wales (which I’m aware seems like a crazy thing to do to most people), I’d love to get more fluent.
Mind you, I’m still very much at the Duolingo stage and find S4C a bit too difficult. Even Sam Tan is too complicated to understand. So I’m interested, do you think watching Welsh programmes with English subtitles would help at all? I figured I’d end up tuning out the speech because I read English so easily and quickly, like watching foreign films.

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