Census debate 1: Seeking an oasis amongst a mirage of statistics

Simon Brooks says ticking a box is a subjective and notoriously unreliable way of measuring the health of the Welsh language

Censuses are emotional things, not best suited to measure the realities of real-lived experience, especially on matters of personal identity, such as religion, language and ethnicity. And so it is every ten years with the headcount of Welsh-speakers, or at least those who state that they speak Welsh.

Future of the Welsh language

This week we are running a series of articles reflecting on the 2011 census results, reported on here. Tomorrow: Robin Crag Farrar and Toni Schiavone say, confronted with staggering complacency by the Welsh Government, the language needs a stronger economic base and effective community planning. Thursday: Cynog Dafis

In one sense, we are all Welsh-speakers. We know the meaning of ‘Nos da’, ‘Diolch’ and ‘Ysgol’ and are able to use them. In another, none of us can have a perfect hold on language. Language competence is a spectrum, not an absolute. Ticking a census box is a subjective, not an objective, exercise.

This is what makes census language figures notoriously unreliable, and why we should be careful not to rush to pronounce the death of the Welsh language following headline figures. For one thing, we are yet to receive the breakdown for individual communities, due to be released in January. Like Bank of England economic output estimates, and presidential election counts in Florida, the meanings of the 2011 census figures may have to be revised.

However, as they stand the statistics do not make for pretty reading. Like almost every other aspect of Welsh performance since devolution, the indicators are down. And down too in every part of Wales, bar a very small rise in Cardiff, and a larger one in Monmouthshire – which is to be welcomed, but probably has more to do with the proper incorporation of that county in the Welsh body-politic rather than any linguistic shift.

Of course, a lot of the census figures reflect demographic changes which have little to do with language. The drop of 19,000 in the number of school age Welsh-speakers (5-15 years old) reflects the fall in the size of the age cohort. It maps almost perfectly onto the 20,000 drop in the absolute numbers of Welsh-speakers since 2001. It is not impossible therefore that the supposed decrease in the number of Welsh-speakers is something of a mirage.

Similarly, the fall in Welsh-speakers in Carmarthenshire from 50 to 44 per cent (which followed a similar precipitous fall in 2001) is in part a result of the failure to pass on the language in Llanelli and the Aman Valley a generation ago. It is not the result of some policy decision made yesterday. Nevertheless Carmarthenshire must get a grip on its largely English-medium secondary school system (only 3 out of 14 secondary schools are Welsh-medium) or the language is doomed in the county.

This leaves the tricky question of the decline of Welsh as a community language in other parts of rural, semi-rural and small-town north and west Wales. In northern Gwynedd, and much of Ynys Môn, and in pockets in other parts of the country too, Welsh does still remain as a strong community language: here ‘Y Fro Gymraeg’ continues to exist. We must not lose sight of this fact. In Gwynedd, some 70 per cent of adults in the critical age group for raising children (25-39 years olds) speak Welsh; as do 93 per cent of 10-14 year old children.

Nevertheless there has been a general weakening in the north-west. Given that the major driver of anglicisation has been population displacement (migrants from England in; movement of young Welsh-speaking professionals out), this has proved ideologically difficult for various Welsh Governments to tackle. Yet without acknowledging the central role migration plays, interventions are bound to be ineffectual.

Ethnicity and language are not irrevocably intertwined, and previous in-migration into rural Wales has already made the Welsh-language community itself quite multi-ethnic. Indeed ‘Saeson Cymraeg’ (the Welsh-speaking English) might properly be regarded in parts of Wales as an ethnic minority in their own right. In protecting the Welsh-language community against further huge demographic change, we are not pitching the ‘Welsh’ against the ‘English’. Rather the attempt is to maintain a multi-ethnic Welsh-language community with enough linguistic weight to be able to continue to linguistically assimilate newcomers and maintain its open, multi-ethnic character.

There is a significant body of political philosophy, by Will Kymlicka and others, which has argued for the protection of minority language communities on such explicitly liberal lines. Indeed, a commitment to liberal and democratic values requires communities like those of the north and the west to pull through in the name of diversity and the respect of difference. This may all sound a little academic, but the point is essential, for it is the smell of ethnic exclusivity which has meant that little has been done for ‘Y Fro Gymraeg’.

The way forward is to frame the argument in the context of sustainability. The Welsh Government’s White Paper on its proposed Sustainable Development Bill refers loosely to heritage, but avoids direct reference to language, and would be a good place to start. The excessive house-building projections forced on County Councils by civil servants from Cardiff offer another opportunity for ministerial intervention. These have been devised by extrapolating for the future population projections based upon migration patterns in the past, which in turn were only made possible by speculative housing developments far in excess of local need. The whole house-building programme needs to be scaled down.

We must also embed the Welsh language in local economies, in obvious and symbolic ways (perhaps by moving a large Welsh-language body such as S4C out of Cardiff), but also by making Welsh the internal language of administration in counties like Ynys Môn and Ceredigion. Plaid Cymru currently control Ceredigion County Council and so responsibility for political action cannot be laid at the door of a Labour-run Welsh Government alone.

Dr Simon Brooks is a Lecturer at the School of Welsh, Cardiff University.

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