Census debate 3: Welsh can find confident place in changing world

Cynog Dafis argues that the language’s advocates need to snap out of their angst-ridden crisis mentality

The well-nigh universal wailing and gnashing of teeth which greeted the information about the Welsh language in the 2011 census figures has been both extraordinary and depressing. With successive censuses since the late 19th Century showing the language in free-fall, one might have expected a more positive response to the proportion of the population speaking Welsh now stabilising at about 20 per cent. This is an extraordinary achievement for those who have worked and campaigned for the language over the past 50 years in the face of the formidable global influences of Anglo-American culture, continuing outmigration of the young, unremitting in-migration to rural areas, and unprecedented socio-economic change.

Instead, however, we had Cymdeithas yr Iaith warning of a ‘crisis’ and predictably blaming the Welsh Government. The Language Commissioner heard “alarm bells ringing”. Plaid’s Llyr Hughes Gruffydd (normally a model of balanced good sense) referred to the “frightening information that the Welsh language is losing ground in its fortress areas”.

Future of the Welsh language

This week we are running a series of articles reflecting on the 2011 census results, reported on here. Tomorrow: Heini Gruffudd finds encouragement in the number of genuine young Welsh speakers being higher than the overall percentage.

In such a febrile atmosphere it was to be expected that the usual unexamined platitudes would come tumbling out: the need for ‘strong policies in planning, education, housing and employment’ and a ‘firm economic base that keeps young people in their communities’, together with strict controls on housing development along with increased provision ‘for local people’. And, of course, the usual whinging about Cardiff sucking the talent away from the ‘Welsh-speaking heartlands’.

What a relief, what a tonic, it was then last Friday to attend a seminar on ‘How to Interpret the Census’ by Language Planners Wales, a network of professionals in the field facilitated by IAITH: the Welsh centre for language planning who are based at Newcastle Emlyn and St Asaph.

First, we were given a proper analysis of the statistics by Director Gareth Ioan, who argued that there are sound reasons for believing that the 2001 figures were overoptimistic . Comparing 1991 and 2011, we find a small increase from 508,098 (18.7 per cent) to 562,016 (19 per cent) – this with a population rising largely as a result of in-migration. Among 3-4 year-olds we find 16.1 per cent (1991) rising to 18.8 per cent (2001) and 23.3 per cent (2011). The proportion of Welsh speakers among 15-19 year-olds are up slightly from 27 per cent to 29.3 per cent, with 20-44 year-olds well-nigh stable at 15.6 per cent. There were 4,000 extra Welsh-speakers in Cardiff and 1,000 in Monmouthshire.

Whence the panic therefore? The answer is in rapidly changing demography of Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, which for those of us living west of Swansea and Wrexham, is utterly unsurprising.

The seminar’s experts then looked at the situation from the geographical (Professor Rhys Jones), sociological (Dr Kathryn Jones) and political (Dr Elin Royles) perspectives. At the risk of oversimplifying, it is fair to suggest that these sophisticated, nuanced contributions pointed to four main conclusions:

  • The remarkably intricate nature of linguistic interaction and the rapidly-changing nature of ‘community’ in post-modern Wales.
  • The need for language policy to be underpinned by far more rigorous research.
  • Promotion of the Welsh language should be mainstreamed in all policy areas.
  • Advocates of the language need to be more effective in influencing policy.

From the floor Cymdeithas yr Iaith argued that those localities (termed ‘communities’) with a 70 per cent+ Welsh-speaking population were vital and that planning, housing, education and economic policies must be integrated in order to maintain them. However, I came away with a radically different take on things, as I believe did many others. The following are some aspects of our perspective:

  1. We need to drop the notion of ‘traditional Welsh-speaking areas’. There are in fact few areas of Wales that are not traditionally Welsh-speaking and the growth of the Welsh language needs to be a national, Wales-wide process.
  2. It may, indeed, be possible in certain circumstances to strengthen the position of Welsh in the few remaining 70 per cent+ localities, but the main thrust of strategy needs to be on how to increase the number of Welsh-speakers and active use of the language in the bi/multilingual situations which are the reality of life for the great majority.
  3. Key to such a strategy is Welsh-speakers forming social networks locally, nationally and indeed internationally, open to all and making use of both face-to-face and electronic means of doing so. The creativity of this networked community will be crucial to its attractiveness and growth.  It will need to acquire its own momentum, not constantly wait upon the support of government
  4. The rapid but sustainable expansion of Welsh-medium education, from pre-school through to higher, should be at the heart of the revival strategy. ‘Sustainable’ here refers to the need for emphasis on workforce development and high-quality training to ensure high-quality provision.
  5. The Welsh-medium education system needs to be linked into a wide range of social, cultural and community activities. In order to play an effective role in this the Mentrau Iaith (local Welsh-language initiatives) should be strengthened and their staff effectively trained.
  6. Transmission of the language from parents to children should be a key area for investment.
  7. Promotion needs to be based on qualitiative research to identify the factors, both positive and negative, that influence language choice.
  8. Understanding the key role of the Welsh language and bilingualism in our national life should be widely disseminated, for example through the school curriculum, but also among public and civil servants and throughout civil society.
  9. The language should be linked to career-development and there should be plentiful opportunities for its use in the workplace.
  10. Language impact assessments needs to be positive in nature and have due regard to the complexity of the process. It would be tragic if the promotion of the Welsh language came to be seen as inimical to development and change. These are both vital to the economic transformation of Wales. They are necessary to provide a broad range of stimulating career opportunities in Wales for all our young people, including Welsh-speakers.
  11. It is idle to imagine that these career aspirations can always be met within young people’s ‘local communities’.  We need to think regional and national, and not just in terms of local.
  12. Equally, to tie planning policy to the protection of existing communities and lingusitic patterns is easier said than done and may have unintended consequences. Housing supply, affordability, the danger of over-development and their possible impact on our national identity need to be considered in their own right, and not just as language issues.

Implicit in the above list of policies and proposals is the principle that we need to understand where investment, effort, and creativity can best be concentrated to achieve the greatest effect and to act accordingly. There is every reason to be optimistic about the outcome of such a strategy and that it could attract a broad consensus of support.

What is certain though is that the language’s supporters and advocates need to snap out of the angst-ridden crisis mentality of which we have heard too much over the last week. Many will see it as symptomatic of a failure to come to terms with the rapidly-changing world in which the Welsh language, and indeed Wales itself, must find a confident place.

Cynog Dafis is the former Plaid Cymru AM and MP for Ceredigion

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