On 13 February 1962, Plaid Cymru’s founder Saunders Lewis warned the people of Wales that the Welsh language was headed towards extinction. His famous radio lecture Tynged yr Iaith (Future of the language) sparked in many the desire to fight for Welsh, a fight that continues to this day. Numerous policies have since been implemented to create a bilingual Wales, and the number of children attending Welsh-medium schools has increased significantly.
For a long time, it seemed as if this progress was enough to protect the language. The 2001 census results seemed to support this since it showed an increase in the percentage of Welsh speakers for the first time in over a hundred years. Because of the promising increase in 2001, the most recent census results have come as a bit of a shock. Despite an increase in the Welsh population, the number of Welsh speakers has decreased from 576,000 (21 per cent) to 562,000 (19 per cent). The fate of the Welsh language remains uncertain, and Saunders Lewis’ warning appears to ring just as true today as it did fifty years ago. Unless the methods of promoting Welsh are revised, future census results are likely to be just as disappointing.
If the Welsh language is to live on, the Welsh people must see the importance of learning and using Welsh. No amount of policy or money spent will be enough to preserve the language if no one is willing to learn and use it. Even teaching Welsh in schools does not guarantee the language’s survival. Eventually school ends, and without practice, a language is easy to lose. The most important factor in the survival of the language is whether people are willing to speak that language. Getting people to speak Welsh in their daily lives continues to be the biggest challenge to the preservation of Welsh.
To address this challenge, the movement needs to most overcome the prejudice against the language that many continue to harbour. Historically, Welsh was considered a lesser language than English, and still today many see it as belonging to an outdated and less educated group of people. Unless there is a campaign to provide the language with a clear place in the present, increasing the number of speakers will be impossible.
An imperative step in overcoming this prejudice is to focus more on promoting Welsh with adults. If adults do not make Welsh a priority, there is no reason that their children will do so. Since the most important factor in keeping a language alive is the continued use of that language, Welsh speaking parents have to encourage the use of Welsh in their households. More adults need to learn Welsh so that an even greater number of children can be encouraged to learn and maintain the language.
One way of convincing adults to learn and use Welsh is by making clear the importance of Welsh to culture and the importance of culture to one’s identity. People need to see that protecting Welsh is about more than just having to take an additional class in school. Inspiring people to learn Welsh because it is an integral part of who they are will be more effective at increasing the number of Welsh speakers than any amount of policy change.
Additionally, potential Welsh speakers need to be aware of the benefits of bilingualism that accompany learning Welsh in addition to English. For example, knowing Welsh can provide people with job opportunities that otherwise would not be available to them. Knowing multiple languages has been proven to improve cognitive skills, an ability to focus, enhance memory, and promote multitasking skills. In later life spin-off benefits include fewer symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Getting people to see Welsh as a valuable skill rather than as a burden will guarantee an increase in the number of people wanting to learn and use the language. There needs to be a campaign to make the people of Wales aware of the importance of Welsh to them as individuals as well as to Wales as a whole. If people understand why Welsh is important, they will be much more willing to learn and use it in their daily lives.
Supporters of the Welsh language have fought a long fight, but the recent data shows that it is far from over. The continued passion of these fighters, even after hundreds of years of struggle, serves as the best indicator that the Welsh language will continue to survive for many more years. Now is not the time to become complacent. The 2011 census results are disappointing, but must be used to ignite the movement. The passion that these supporters continue to possess must be focused into new methods of language promotion. If these changes are correctly implemented, disappointing census results can become a thing of the past.