Census debate 4: Demand for Welsh-medium education promises future growth

Heini Gruffudd finds encouragement in the number of genuine young Welsh speakers being higher than the overall percentage

The 2011 Welsh language Census figures are but one of many indicators of the language’s health. Some people have responded in a chorus of wailing. While this reaction may not be entirely misplaced, a superficial analysis should immediately dispute some of the findings.

There is a very unlikely percentage of 40.3 per cent for Welsh speakers among the 5 – 15 age group. We know from other sources that around 21 per cent of primary school children attend Welsh medium primary schools, and that these schools are the only ones which genuinely present pupils with a full range of bilingual skills. Parents’ view of what is an ability to speak Welsh is very subjective, so in spite of the general desire for this to be the case for a child, we must erase around 85,000 from the total number of Welsh speakers. Nevertheless, the demand for Welsh medium education in less Welsh speaking parts of Wales is around 40 per cent, and the unlikely percentage of 40.3 per cent can be construed as part fact, part aspiration.

Future of the Welsh language 

This week we are running a series of articles reflecting on the 2011 census results, reported on here. Tomorrow: Steve Morris reports on research into creating new spaces for the language in anglicised areas of Wales.

Although this would lower the percentage of Welsh speakers from 20.8 per cent to around 16.6 per cent, this is no longer a cause for wailing. For the first time, the percentage of genuine young speakers of Welsh is considerably higher than the overall percentage, and this must be a source of pleasure for those who have ensured the success of Welsh medium education. The demand for this type of education is forever increasing so one can envisage real growth in future years.

Not shown in the statistics are those who are not confident enough in their Welsh language skills to claim ability. These can range from learners to dialect speakers. I have come across many such people who nevertheless take pleasure in speaking the language. These have never been quantified.

There are, however, issues of concern to those involved in language planning in at least three fields:

  1. Population movements and housing policies.
  2. Home language transmission.
  3. Social networks and spheres of language use.

500,000 Welsh born people live in England, and around 600,000 English born people live in Wales.  90 per cent of the increase in Wales’s population since 2001 has been caused by in-migration. Gwynedd reflects this movement. For many years the vast majority of pupils in Gwynedd have been educated through the medium of Welsh but just 64 percent of Gwynedd’s population speak Welsh. While Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire have lost actual numbers of Welsh speakers, Gwynedd has kept its numbers but its percentage has declined. Without an adequate language integration scheme there is a clear societal language shift. We should not be shy in insisting on language learning opportunities for incomers, nor should we avoid developing housing policies which favour local people, many of whom are economically disadvantaged.

Several studies have shown that the pattern of Welsh language transmission in the home is around an inadequate 80 per cent where both parents are Welsh speaking and around 50 per cent in other circumstances. Whereas such parents tend to send their children to Welsh medium schools, the link between home language and the child’s Welsh language skills is imperfect. A successful link is fundamental in attempts at language sustainability and as a basis for positive future patterns of language use.

The erosion of parts of the country where Welsh is a majority language – studies have shown that 70 per cent or even 80 per cent Welsh speakers are needed for general confidence in language use – will doubtless see Welsh losing its place as the natural language of society. In less Welsh speaking parts of Wales there is a dearth of opportunity to use Welsh for the thousands of school leavers and learners. An increase in Welsh speakers can be foreseen  in future, and this must be associated with providing adequate spheres of language use.

So to where do we go from here? The answer is no longer the sole responsibility of Welsh language bodies such as the Language Commissioner’s. We were lulled into a state of inertia by the very existence of the Welsh Language Board, whose sphere of influence was always restricted. It is now starkly clear that language policies per se belong to the past. The days of protest and reaction are over.

Ten years ago Professor Colin Williams wrote that efforts at language promotion would need to be in the field of social engineering in the 21st Century. Add to this economic engineering. Housing policies need to prioritise effects on language. Public bodies which use Welsh to a substantial extent can be relocated to Welsh speaking parts of Wales and economic action needs to be taken to establish largely Welsh speaking growth areas so that these become attractive for the young. Link to this adequate north-south transport and economic infrastructure and support for home-grown industries.

Other courses of action are needed in less Welsh speaking areas.  The provision of Welsh medium education needs to correspond to the demand. Scores of Welsh language centres need to be established in urban areas for language learning and entertainment. Local authorities should provide Welsh activities for young people and a thorough and intense programme of teaching Welsh to parents and public employees needs to be established.

Other ideas abound. It is time to move onwards from the self-satisfying but socially irrelevant demand for Welsh bills and suchlike. The pleasurable use of Welsh in an increasing number of sustainable social networks, emphasising the value of the language for personal and national identity, is the task for the present generation.

If one were to measure the efforts made to safeguard the Welsh language in the last fifty years, attempts at ensuring language status would rate highly, and so would efforts made in the field of entertainment. Ensuring Welsh medium education would also score.  There has been however an increasing chasm between these efforts and the use of Welsh in social networks. Social engineering, and economic engineering must now make Welsh a main concern for all government departments, rather than the concern of just the department of the Minister for Education and the Welsh language.

Heini Gruffudd is Chair of Dyfodol i’r Iaith

One thought on “Census debate 4: Demand for Welsh-medium education promises future growth

  1. You go ahead and tell the Labour Councillors to get off their backsides and open more Welsh Medium schools then. It hasn’t worked for the rest of us. They make up all sorts of excuses then abuse us when we complain!

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