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The bilingual backlash (or why unpopular hypotheses can be legitimate)
After my last post on risks associated with bilingual road signage in Wales, waters got a little choppy on Welsh Twitter! The great majority of comments disagreed with my argument and I achieved the so-called Twitter ratio (when critical comments heavily outnumber likes). Fortunately, the vast majority of comments were in good humour and I enjoyed being called ‘bach’ (a Welsh term of endearment). And having just passed my driver test, at the grand old age of 39, I will not claim to be a good driver.
Seriously, I regret the sensational headline (‘bilingual road signs probably kill’). All bloggers must promote their work, yet there is a fine line between promotion and clickbait; unfortunately, my headline was too close to the latter. Given historic repression of the language, we Welsh speakers are sensitive to slights and, unfortunately, bad faith attacks on our wonderful language appear in the English press. Given the headline, some presumed that the piece was in this genre; this was not my intention.
There were good critiques of my argument. Some thought that I was too dismissive of a 2012 study which investigated the introduction of bilingual signage in Scotland and found no rise in deaths and serious injuries (DSIs). Yet there are problems with this study. Aside from confounds such as new and larger signs, it uses a methodology which was developed in 1997, methods for studying observational data progressing markedly since then. In the original piece, I noted that a quasi-experimental method might be more suitable; alas, such a study would take years to conduct. I shall not undertake it, transport policy not being my area, but I would love someone else to do this.
But if there is a lack of good data, how could I make such a hypothesis? As a preliminary, we may note that there are challenges with evidence in every policy area; this reflects the complexity of reality, the unfeasibility of obtaining experimental evidence and the time and money that it takes to conduct good research. Given these gaps, the use of hypotheses is a ubiquitous part of politics and academia. Arguments for Welsh independence rest on hypotheses and one should not engage in partisan demands for rigour.
I still maintain that hypothesizing a link between bilingual signage and increases in DSIs is reasonable. In most studies of bilingual signage - including in China and Finland - researchers find that the signage can distract drivers. See, for example, the summary of international research on p. 20 of this report.
Therefore, we might conclude that bilingual signage is one factor – mobile phones, talking in cars and alcohol are other factors – which diminish the ability of drivers to concentrate on the road. Such variables seem to entail greater danger the more that drivers are treated with them, alcohol being an obvious example!
If road signs had four languages, as on certain airport signage, would that involve risk? If you acknowledge that this is so, when does the risk appear? It seems unlikely that the risk starts after the (say) third language. Rather, as with alcohol consumption, risks probably start at lower levels.
The risks of bilingual signage might be small – for example, equivalent to drinking coffee whilst driving - but they may be more considerable. Certainly, politicians should not scoff when a council expresses concern about effects on ambulance responses. If ambulances are getting lost, this might be a life-or-death matter.
Toleration of risk is a different question. In the area of road safety, legislators balance risk against practicalities and civil liberties, banning (say) mobile usage yet permitting (say) driving after a pint of lager. Given the seemingly modest risks of bilingual signage, I think that the goal of promoting Welsh justifies these signs. This should have been made explicit in the original article.
Other comments were less sophisticated. For example, some objected that they had driven on the continent, returning safely. This resembles certain arguments in favour of Brexit - ‘I never go on holiday in Europe!’ - which I encountered as a Remain campaigner. Hearing these comments during the referendum campaign, I laughed with fellow campaigners, some of whom were also Welsh language campaigners.
Welsh language activists seem to be less troubled when their side uses arguments of this calibre. Indeed, senior Welsh language campaigners employ such reasoning, maybe anticipating support from those who appreciate these arguments. If language campaigners wish to engage in this, they may. Yet they can scarcely ridicule the populist rationales of certain Brexiters or expect those who prefer reasoned debate to remain silent.
Language campaigners should lead careful discussion of trade-offs, not indulge uncultivated discourse. Judging from Twitter, many regard such reasoning as patriotic. Yet I am a proud Welshman and believe that developing sophisticated public debate, not to mention promoting road safety, is a more patriotic response.
Anyway, that is enough on road signs. Happily, all this has encouraged me to work even harder on my Welsh. In a few years, I aim to lecture through the medium of Welsh (but not on road signs!). Hwyl fawr!
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