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

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

  1. A better analysis but I would warn aginst the sanguinity of the 1991-2011 comparison of the numbers of Welsh speakers. The question asked in the 1991 census was “DO you speak Welsh?” and the question in 2001 and 2011 was “CAN you speak Welsh?”. This more or less accounts for the increase in Welsh speakers in 2001 but the same consideration applied to the 2011 census would have a more profound effect. 100% of school children who have been in school since 1999 have had compulsory Welsh lessons and, no matter how innatentive they were, all of those could answer that they spoke, wrote and read Welsh. If you were to ask the more pertinent question; “Do you speak Welsh?” the fall in percentage would be greater than that between 1991 and 2001.
    The reality of the situation is that the figures are masking a steady decline in usage and a steady degradation in ability….this oft repeated mantra of “Giving more opportunities to speak Welsh” is nothing but a delusion. Over and over again Welsh speakers given a clear option to use Welsh use English for preference….it is nothing to do with opportunity it is to do with choice and language facility. As ability in Welsh continues to degrade day to day usage will equally decline. The growth of Welsh Medium schooling which excites everyone so much hides the fact that Welsh first Language teaching in those WM schools fails to produce a high degree of competency in Welsh. A simple check on the percentage reaching the age appropriate grade in Key stage 3 in WM secondary schools finds these uncomfortable figures……..Worst result, Welsh second langauge, next best, PE, third from bottom……Welsh first language.
    There are more ways to lose the language than falling numbers “able” to speak Welsh.

  2. As a Welsh learner having moved to Ceredigion over a year ago , I have been struck by the opportunities and constraints to developing my Welsh in a bilingual nation.

    I think further exploration of this is key in any forward planning as outlined in this helpful analysis and surely it could be a really exciting and creative context for the language and for Wales.

    Although I can speak other European languages and have lived in European countries , it was a revelation to me to learn a language in a bilingual country and to gradually understand what this meant.

    From a purely personal perspective, friends and colleagues in England seem to be surprised and puzzled at the concept of bilingualism and I think this compounds a great deal of other ignorance about Wales in every level.

    It would be great to see more about this aspect of the Welsh language and I would hope that this might put the crisis/ knee jerk debates into a wider context and mean Wales could become more at ease with the issue as this would surely make it even more attractive for people to learn and speak Welsh.

  3. As Jon says, a much better analysis of the situation, but I fear that there is still a long way to go before any ‘sensible’ solutions can be formulated.

    Indeed I think the comment ‘The need for language policy to be underpinned by far more rigorous research.’, has to be the key, though I am not sure that their definition of research would necessarily be the same as mine. Involved as I am with ‘auditing’ the translation of a large web site, I am keenly aware of the problems. Written translation of any kind is costly in time and money, and when so few use the Welsh it isn’t good for anyone. And a recent comment from an allegedly fluent Welsh speaker has made me wonder exactly how fluent Welsh speakers/readers/writers actually are. That, together with the comments on the IWA regarding the standards of Welsh in schools does, for me, raise the question of how and in what form a language can survive where there is a such a small base of good quality? As a Community, Spoken Language? Probably. But beyond that it is difficult to see how the situation can be rescued and improved. If Wales were a rich country then we could probably afford all the recommendations in the Welsh Language Act. But it isn’t and in the current World economic situation there is no chance that this can be improved. Even if all the Welsh language teaching in schools since it became compulsory had any effect it will take many years before these children could properly use the services. I would suggest the challenge for all the Welsh Language groups is to face up to reality and work out how best to save the language and what form and areas of life it could be used in. Throwing more money at it won’t work and there isn’t any spare cash.

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