Has a Welsh Knot replaced the Welsh Not?

David Williams says a television study of two Welsh-speaking families has exposed serious obstacles on the path to a bilingual Wales

A journalist and broadcaster working in the English language in Wales faces few more daunting experiences than being commissioned to write and present a television programme on the Welsh language – in English.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the subject but when they air their  views the hearer is usually no wiser and in any case unlikely to be willing to listen to anything which challenges their own preconceived ideas.

What is it about a language which so inflames the senses and causes such deep feelings of resentment and loyalty? Over the centuries the arguments have raged and subsided and now seems as good a time as any to take stock.

The days of the Welsh Not – when teachers would try and kill off the language by hanging a piece of wood around the neck of pupils who spoke Welsh – have long gone and a new spirit of understanding and tolerance, reinforced by a very different approach to education and the language has replaced it.

But is it working or has the old Welsh Not been replaced by a very different, more subtle, and almost invisible Knot – the knot of complexity and argument which still surrounds the Welsh language and never seems to go away?

In an attempt to unravel the knot and see for ourselves whether the new enlightened approach to education and language is working we arranged to spend a week with two very different families from two very different parts of Wales.

There was the Lewis family from Pontardawe: Mum is from London; Dad a Welshman who does not speak Welsh; and their children, 16 year old Bethany – one half of the focus of our programme – and little brother Rhys. We chose the Lewis family because they are typical of so many parents in Wales today, who, irrespective of their own linguistic background, choose to send their children to be educated in Welsh medium schools. Why do they do this when they cannot understand what their children are saying?

We wanted to contrast our family from an anglicised area of south Wales with one from the Welsh heartland of north Wales – the Muse family from Carmel in the hills above Caernarfon.

Dad is a university lecturer. An American who learnt Welsh, he decided to speak nothing but that language to his children. There’s mum, a Welsh teacher, and their three children. The eldest is 17 year old Grug, the other half of the focus of our attention.

The combination and contrast between our two families makes for a unique experiment. During the programme we introduce the two girls to one other and see what happens when Bethany, who speaks Welsh only at school, is introduced to Grug’s Wales where Welsh is the everyday language. The result is a close-up of two worlds colliding.

In an attempt to see whether our intimate portrait of the two families – they let us into their homes, their children’s schools and their social lives – reflected a bigger linguistic picture we commissioned a survey especially for the programme. It is one of the biggest of its kind involving 1,000 children in ten schools – five in the North and five in south Wales. The results are an important snapshot of today’s teenage attitudes to the Welsh language.

Overall, there is general recognition of the importance and worth of being educated in Welsh but once they move outside the school gates the majority of children educated in Welsh prefer to use English on Facebook, in text messages or just talking to their friends.

Only in the Welsh heartlands is the reverse true with pupils there saying they prefer to use Welsh but even in those places there are those who opt for English. It is a mixed message, but we had better listen because what they’re saying may determine the fate of the Welsh language – dyfodol yr Iaith Gymraeg.

Twenty years ago an expert in the bilingual studies department at Bangor University, Professor Colin Baker, warned that education alone would not be the salvation of the language. Since then the numbers attending Welsh schools have exploded but our survey results and our real-life experiences with our two families suggests nothing much has changed and that in large parts of the country the Welsh language is now imprisoned within an academic cocoon.

Dr. Gwyn Lewis, from the same educational department as Professor Baker, and one of the experts who analysed our survey, disagrees. He says attitudes have changed. I agree with him about that but is it enough?

Towards the end of the documentary and after seeing something of home and school life in north Wales, Bethany Lewis, a fluent Welsh speaker, reflects on her experience and wonders aloud about what speaking Welsh actually means. She does so in a very honest and a very profound way admitting that, for the first time, she has experienced speaking Welsh ‘naturally rather than being the centre of attention as a Welsh speaker’.

Until her visit to the Welsh heartland she had always thought of Welsh as the language of the classroom. In south Wales she prefers to speak English because it is the language of the home and she says there is little opportunity to speak it outside the school gates.

There’s the rub! In the absence of opportunities to speak Welsh ‘naturally’ the first language of choice of children educated in the Welsh language will be English. I put this  point to the education minister, Leighton Andrews, on the day the Assembly Government announced changes to its flagship language legislation, which, they said, would confirm that Welsh would have equal status with English.

Critics immediately weighed in saying it would do nothing of the sort. As always with the Welsh language the arguments had begun. Against this background, I suggested to the minister that a Government with a policy to create a ‘truly bilingual Wales’ was  in danger of marching our children up to the top of the hill only to march them down again.

Mr. Andrews looked me straight in the eye and said: “I’m an optimist David, just like the children in your survey.” I hope he is justified in his optimism and that the trust placed in the education system by parents in Wales is realised in a practical way, otherwise Bethany’s revelation will be nothing more than something experienced on a television programme.

The Welsh Knot is a Presentable Production for BBC Wales. David Williams, who both presents and produces the programme, is a Welsh speaker. In this article he is expressing his own personal views.

2 thoughts on “Has a Welsh Knot replaced the Welsh Not?

  1. Programme just confirms what has been known for years. Rightly or wrongly the majority of us communicate and think through the medium of a world language, English. When you have universities in European states such as Holland now running courses in English what chance has a minority language got. EU meetings are increasingly being conducted throught the medium of English. Given mobility how many of those who attend Welsh medium education from English speaking homes will also end up living not just in other parts of the UK but in a modern world other partsof Europe? Perhaps your next programme should look for someone who went to Rhydfelin 20 years ago ,left at 16 to work in a manual occupation in the Rhondda and has hardly used Welsh since leaving school. Having a conversation in Welsh with them would be an interesting experience. Wales isn’t Bohemia in the 19 th century where Czech nationalists from Prague which was a city dominated by German could immerse themseleves in a rural countryside dominated by Czech speaking peasants. Wales will never become bi lingual but it isn’t politically correct to say this as Leighton Andrews’s comment shows. There is also the real danger that whilst Welsh continues to decline as an everyday language in its heartland it becomes the language not just of the classroom but also of an elite which dominates senior posts in the public sector, the media and devolved politics. Then just watch the backlash if the majority English speaking population produces a charismatic politician who can exploit the growing gulf that in my opinion is already developing between ‘Real Wales’ and ‘Political Wales’.

  2. David Williams completely misses the point. It’s not about turning kids from monolingual English-speaking families into Welsh-first speakers. It’s about the dynamics of language.

    Let’s say Bethany Lewis went to an English school and spoke only English. What would have been Grug’s option in speaking to Bethany? Of course, like with many of her countrymen, she would have been forced to speak English. But Bethany, having gone to a Welsh-speaking school, can understand Grug in Welsh and Grug can speak Welsh if she chooses, or also English, or a combination of both. It gives Grug, as a person with a preference to speak Welsh the ability to speak her native language. Bethany is always free to speak nothing but English to Grug and Grug nothing but Welsh in return, and they’d understand each other fine.

    Now let’s assume Bethany mets a nice boy from a Welsh-speaking family. If she only spoke English, they would speak in English, she’d force her in-laws to speak English in her presence and she’d speak English to her children. In front of her children she’d speak English to her husband and in-laws. There’d be tremendous pressure on dad not to speak Welsh to the kids in front of mum because she doesn’t understand.

    But Bethany speaks Welsh. She can speak to her kids in English, to her husband in English, to her in-laws in English. But her husband and in-laws are free to speak in Welsh back to her, and dad can speak to the kids in Welsh happily because mum understands Welsh.

    When Bethany goes to work, her Welsh-speaking colleagues can speak Welsh to her, they don’t need to be forced to switch to English to include her. Bethany can watch TV in English and Welsh, can read books in either language, can listen to music in either language. As an added benefit, as a bilingual she has a higher aptitude for third and subsequent languages, as well as several other cognitive benefits.

    Welsh medium education is not about turning English speakers into Welsh speakers. It’s more about levelling the playing field so Welsh speakers aren’t continually marginalised in their own country and forced to speak English, or at least being forced to be seen as being rude for speaking Welsh in front of non-Welsh speakers. It’s all about choice.

    It might come as a shock to English speakers, but Welsh speakers have every right to use their language in public and private in Wales. However, they are required to subordinate their rights to monolingual English speakers who can’t and won’t learn to speak their language. Welsh Medium Education takes away that issue. In 50 years all kids raised in Wales will be bilingual, some will prefer to speak in English, some in Welsh and everyone will cope fine. I’ve lived in Quebec and Johannesburg, millions of people live, work and play in two languages.

    @Jeff Jones, you speak like a true monolingual English speaker. If you spoke two or more languages, you’d understand the accretive benefits of speaking other languages. Speaking Welsh doesn’t preclude speaking English, or French or any other language. Believe it or not, outside your little monolingual world, the majority of human beings speak at least 2 languages daily, many speak 3 or more. Language isn’t just about utility, it’s about identity, it’s about family, it’s about culture, humour, values, perceptions and a host of other things. The fact that I can say, perceive and express things in the languages that I speak than can’t be said, perceived or expressed in any of the others enriches me and my perception of the world.

    When it comes to language, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

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