The position of the Welsh language – challenges and opportunities

Despite a lack of growth in the Welsh language in recent years, Meri Huws believes conditions are in place to allow for greater use in the coming years.

Meri Huws is the Welsh Language Commissioner

At the National Eisteddfod in Abergavenny I published the first 5-year report on the position of the Welsh language. Preparing and publishing the report is one of my statutory functions as Commissioner, under the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011.

It includes a summary and assessment of the 2011 Census results as far as they relate to the Welsh language. I have also included an analysis of the population’s Welsh language skills, the success of the efforts to create new Welsh speakers and the use of the language in specific contexts.

The context in which this report has been produced is that the Governments in Cardiff Bay and Westminster have stated that they are committed to maintaining and increasing the use of the Welsh language. This reflects the high level of support for the Welsh language amongst the Welsh public. A survey conducted in 2015 found that 85% of people in Wales believe that the Welsh language is something to be proud of, whilst 77% believe the language is an asset to Wales. One of the aims of this report is to provide a robust evidence base for planning growth in the use of the Welsh language over the coming years.

It is a lengthy report and there’s plenty to digest. Some of the findings will already be known to readers, but it is worth reflecting on them for a while to remind ourselves of the magnitude of the challenge ahead and also of the opportunities available. The data encompassing people’s attitudes towards the language is very positive and clearly shows that there is strong support for the language, and that the people of Wales, whether they can speak the language or not, see it as a source of pride. This goodwill provides a strong foundation to build on.

Here are some key statistical points:

  • The percentage of children aged 5-15 who can speak Welsh has doubled since 1981.
  • There has been a decrease of over 20,000 in the number of Welsh speakers between 2001 and 2011 (but an increase of 20,000 overall since 1971).
  • The number of communities where 70% or more of the population can speak Welsh has fallen from 53 in 2001 to 39 by 2011.
  • There are a total of 866 communities in Wales.
  • 13% of people in Wales use Welsh on a daily basis. 11% are fluent Welsh speakers.

The period of establishing a new Government and Fifth Assembly is an opportunity for politicians and civil servants to take a close look at how public policy can support the Welsh language. During the Eisteddfod week, Alun Davies, the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Welsh Language published a consultation on a long-term vision for the Welsh language. The consultation states the Government’s ambition to reach a million Welsh speakers by 2050, which would mean nearly doubling the number of people who can speak Welsh over the next 33 years or so. The big question is, how can this be done?

Welsh used to be attained or learned at home mostly but this has changed over time. Four out of five 5-15 year olds now mainly learn to speak Welsh at school. There is ever greater demand for Welsh medium education, and it’s had a huge impact in terms of how, where and when people are learning to speak the language. But the shift to education as the main source of new Welsh speakers does pose challenges. Are we able to meet the demand for Welsh medium education? Is education producing speakers confident enough in their Welsh language skills to use them socially, in the workplace or at home?

The evidence available seems to indicate very little if any progress over the last few years in the number of children receiving early years education and care through the medium of Welsh, and there appears to be significant gaps in the provision in some geographical areas. The report also identifies  that progression in Welsh medium education from one stage to the next continues to be a problem, and is particularly evident from one key stage to the next in schools, and when pupils transfer to further and higher education.

These issues will need to be addressed promptly if the Government’s target to increase the number of Welsh speakers is to be achieved. This will require firm action by the Welsh Government and support by all the authorities and organisations with a role to play in the delivery of education in Wales at all levels.

As well as analysing success in creating new Welsh speakers, the report provides data and information on the use of the Welsh language in various contexts.

Although the use of the Welsh language is not easy to measure accurately, especially in some contexts such as the home, the data available shows considerable use of the language today. For example, about 361,000 people in Wales use the Welsh language on a daily basis, which is higher than the number of fluent Welsh speakers in Wales. The new statutory duties on organisations in Wales to use the language and provide services in Welsh will increase the demand for a workforce able to service an increasingly bilingual population, and using Welsh at work should become more common as a result of these duties.

The report looks at the opportunities that exist to use the Welsh language in various contexts and in daily activities, and some of the possible reasons why Welsh speakers take advantage of these opportunities or not. It finds that people’s desire to use the Welsh language is sometimes hindered by practical and psychological factors which impede the use of Welsh, such as a lack of opportunity or a lack of confidence.

Though the Welsh language has not seen much growth in recent years, the conditions are in place to allow for greater use in the coming years and decades. There is support for the language amongst the public and Governments. There is legislation and infrastructure to support the use of Welsh. With robust measures, careful planning, proper investment and effective implementation I see no reason why the Welsh language should not flourish and become a completely natural part of everyday life, in all parts of the country.

To read the full report click on this link to the Commissioner’s website.

Mae’r cofnod hwn ar gael yn y Gymraeg. Cliciwch ar y ddolen gyswllt hwn er mwyn darllen y fersiwn Gymraeg.

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