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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

States, Languages and Behaviour Change

Professor Rhys Jones

States have always had somewhat of a contradictory relationship with languages.  For much of the modern period, states were concerned with promoting a homogeneity of form and function, not least in relation to language.  The attempt made by the French state to promote the langue d’oil of the Ile de France, at the expense of more vernacular or minority languages such as the langue d’oc, is often viewed as the classical example of an attempt to standardise the languages spoken within the state’s boundaries (although other similar examples abound).

The twentieth century, however, witnessed a far more ambivalent attitude towards vernacular or minority languages within many states.  Perhaps reflecting many states growing political and cultural self-confidence, there have been attempts made to promote these kinds of language.  In Wales, where I am based, for instance, there has been a growth in the state support provided to Welsh as a minority language, most significantly in the form of Welsh-medium education at all levels.

These kinds of developments raise interesting questions about the possibility of using insights from behaviour change as a way of promoting the actual use of minority language such as Welsh.  How can one design choice architectures in a way that encourages individuals to choose to speak in Welsh as opposed to English?  How can one encourage young people to view speaking Welsh as a fun thing (drawing on the many arguments that are arising in relation to a philosophy of fun), rather than being something that one is forced to do in boring school lessons?  The growing interest in these kinds of questions is illustrated by the fact that two PhD students have just begun their studies into the potential use of behaviour change as a way of influencing the language choices made by people in Wales.  I await the results of their studies with interest, not just in order to see how behaviour change can be used in a sphere of human activity that has not received much attention to date, but also as a way of seeing whether experimenting with behaviour change in relation to language use can feed back new understandings of the limits of behaviour change as a policy tool.

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