Over the past 18 months I have been chairing a Welsh Government policy group tasked with producing a plan for increasing the number of communities where Welsh is spoken as the main language. The key recommendations, announced in our report published last week, and the membership of our group, are detailed in the panel below.
Defining the term ‘main language’ is problematic to say the least. Could the definition be based soundly on Census results (self-reported ability rather than language use)? Was 70 per cent a relevant ‘threshold’ as referred to in the Welsh Government’s previous strategy, Iaith Pawb (2003)? Perhaps 50 per cent is indicative of ‘most people’, or could 30 per cent provide a basis for the Welsh language as a key part of the social fabric as it did a decade ago for the University College London’s extensive study on the Planning System and the Welsh language.
In recognising the diversity of opinion, along with appreciating the fundamentally dynamic nature of our communities and their social and other networks, the Group held that it would be wrong to create a Plan relevant only to a very limited cluster of Electoral Divisions. ‘Cop out’ you might say, but our aim was to be inclusive and ambitious and to provide a means for growing the use of the language for as wide an area as possible based on the demographic challenges in west and north-west Wales in particular.
Promoting Welsh in the heartlands: main recommendations
Working Group membership
The models and precedents for our work were few and far between. Understandably most policies and strategies refer to the entire country/state. Of these, particular note should be taken of the successes of communities such as Quebec, Catalonia and the Basque Autonomus Community. If we take increasing the number of speakers as a key measure, these prove that progress can happen. Interestingly, in these cases the main emphasis has been on raising status through legislation twinned with progressive education policies.
What are the main challenges for us in Y Fro Gymraeg? The situation is not some fiendish mathematical puzzle at all, but a consistent pattern. The evidence proves that the number of Welsh speakers is decreasing in the areas of higher percentages. Generation after generation of new Welsh speakers come along – born and bred in Welsh speaking homes or gaining bilingualism through the education system. However, a third of these Welsh speakers leave those areas to study or find work.
Another underlying fact is the reduction in the number of children born and brought up in higher percentage areas. Clearly this undermines the ability of a language community to develop and thrive. In these areas, this is coupled with the impact of incomers who, for whatever reason, do not learn the language.
If these are the main symptoms what are the causes? The three main causes are the relative weakness of the economy, the lack of progress and continuity in Welsh-medium education, and lastly the weak impact in the west and the north-west of legislation intended to promote the status of Welsh.
Economic weakness feeds out-migration and over-dependence on public sector jobs does little to spur growth. In education, the data reveals that virtually no growth has occurred in Welsh-medium education since the adoption of the quite divergent language policies of Gwynedd and Dyfed in 1974. In terms of the status of Welsh, the Acts of 1967 and 1993 have made their mark in some ways in the east of Wales but have failed to make more than a superficial impact in the west. Indeed, it is a local authority initiative that has delivered the greatest impact by some distance when Gwynedd in 1974 adopted Welsh as its main internal language of business.
While we await further progress on implementing the Welsh Language Measure (2011), the Group focused on the major soci-economic challenges and by our recommended Plan sought to enable significant change to the demography of the Welsh language in the higher percentage areas. The necessary change would include growing the economy, facilitating attractive family life, and providing the best opportunity for the younger generation in particular to be bilingual and able to choose to live their lives in Welsh.
In the main we encourage a dual approach: planning ambitious economic growth that is informed by equally ambitious language growth. This is largely based on the strategic development of Bangor, Aberystwyth and Carmarthen as city regions for the higher percentage areas. Secondly, we call for significant progress on the education front across the higher percentage areas so that all young (and older) people can become fluent and confident in using Welsh as well as English. Other proposals relate to increasing the use of Welsh in the workplace in major public authorities across the area as well as social opportunities for young people to use their Welsh informally and so gain the necessary confidence in using the language.
With the exception of Caernarfon, one significant feature of the Welsh language in the west is the divergence in the proportion of Welsh speakers between the main urban centres and their surrounding areas. The numbers of Welsh speakers are high but the percentage in Bangor (36.4 per cent), Aberystwyth (30.9 per cent) Carmarthen (37.6 per cent) and Llanelli (23.7 per cent) is significantly lower than in the rest of Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. The effect of higher education institutions and hospitals is an obvious factor but their importance as areas of employment, commerce, leisure and services gives these places particular significance.
Let’s finish with some examples of good practice. In terms of economy and housing there have been good efforts to ally development with positive language planning. These include Congl Meinciau in Botwnnog, Pen Llŷn, an affordable housing scheme and thriving Enterprise Centre set up by Cymdeithas Tai Eryri.
On a strategic level the efforts a decade ago by local authorities and Welsh Government in creating the Môn-Menai Action Plan seem to be bearing fruit in terms of Enterprise Zones status and the Menai Science Park. In education the Gwynedd Canolfan Iaith model is delivering a well-established Welsh language immersion course for children that have recently moved into the area with little or no Welsh and enabling them to integrate into their local schools. We also learnt about the success of Theatr Felin-fach’s youth and community work which, through particiapative arts activities, gives young people from all backgrounds confidence in using their Welsh. At a community level Dyffryn Nantlle 2020 gave the Group added confidence that that there is plenty of desire and ability out there to bring people together and use the language as a key feature of community development.
When the right things are happening they’re working. The challenge is to get more happening across the area and for their effects to be integrated and cohesive.
The Welsh Government is due to respond to the Plan shortly alongside its responses to several reports relevant to future Welsh Language Policy. Our hope now is that we move on from the Big Conversation into a period of Big Action.