Census debate 5: We need to make new Welsh-speaking communities

Steve Morris reports on research into creating new spaces for the language in anglicised areas of Wales

A constant theme amongst adults on why they are motivated to learn Welsh is a belief that as a result they will become more integrated with their community. The following comments are typical:

I live in Wales so I should speak Welsh.

It’s important to keep the language alive.

I’m learning to understand and speak to members of the community in the language of the community.

Evidently there is a mismatch between the aspirations of learners to integrate with a Welsh-speaking community and the linguistic reality that often the majority of that community does not speak Welsh. How can this be addressed? What strategies can be implemented to extend and expand the Welsh medium social networks of adult Welsh learners? As Linda Pritchard Newcombe puts it, in her 2007 book Social Context and Fluency in Second Language Learners:

“If learners do not receive a positive response when they first use the language, they may lose confidence and withdraw, believing their Welsh to be inadequate. Learners are not usually prepared for the gulf between learning in class and using/practising Welsh in the community.”

Many teachers of Welsh to adults will be familiar with learners who prefer the safety of the classroom to the challenge of trying to use the language outside it.  When these learners live in communities where the majority of the population only speak English the challenge is obviously much greater.

One response in some areas has been to create Canolfannau Cymraeg (Welsh-speaking Centres) where classes are combined with activities for other Welsh-speaking groups in the community under the same roof. There may also be a Welsh language bookshop, bar or café in the same building. How effective can they be in integrating learners into Welsh-speaking communities?

Commissioned by the Welsh Government and the South West Wales Welsh for Adults Centre, Heini Gruffudd and myself carried out research into this question. We looked at around a third of all adult learners of Welsh in higher level classes (those who are nearest to fluency in the language) in areas of both north and south Wales where less than 15 per cent of the population are Welsh speakers. Three settings emerged as offering the main opportunities for new speakers to socialise in the language:

  • Family
  • Canolfan Gymraeg
  • Activities and events in ‘familiar’ locations

It is notoriously difficult for language planners to influence the first setting to any great extent. However, the research showed that Canolfannau Cymraeg offere regular opportunities for these new speakers to use Welsh. Moreover, interactions with other speakers of Welsh could take place in a ‘familiar environment’ where they felt ‘safe’ and more confident.

By holding events and running activities through the medium of Welsh for all Welsh speakers, Canolfannau Cymraeg are a good way of increasing new speakers’ confidence in using the language outside of the class environment. They also encourage Welsh speakers to persevere in speaking Welsh with Welsh learners. Crucially, from the point of view of language planning and policy for the less Welsh-speaking parts of Wales, Canolfannau Cymraeg also offer a rare opportunity for other Welsh-speaking groups, such as ex-pupils from local Welsh medium schools, to use the language and develop new Welsh-medium social networks. Activities such as these are vital to reversing language decline.

The research found there was potential for great success in a number of strategies for helping new speakers. Examples include persuading parents to raise their children through the medium of Welsh, encouraging new speakers to take more responsibility for organising events, raising awareness amongst Welsh speakers of the needs of new speakers and linguistic assertiveness sessions for learners to increase confidence. The effectiveness of all these strategies is much greater when they take place within a Canolfan Gymraeg.

In September a conference was organised by Academi Hywel Teifi at Swansea University to discuss how to increase the number of these centres. Certainly, there needs to be more cooperation between the Welsh Government, local government, the Welsh for Adults Centres, the Mentrau Iaith and other key organisations and individuals to create more of them.

Efforts should be made to locate all the organisations which are involved with the Welsh language under the same roof. This is an obvious way to turn a building from merely providing office space for one or two organisations into a complete Canolfan Gymraeg where Welsh speakers can go with the confidence that everything happening there will be through the medium of Welsh.

We should also learn from the success of those centres that have already been established, especially in Merthyr Tydfil, Swansea and Wrexham. A first lesson is to ensure that there is local ownership.

The late Chris Rees frequently reminded teachers in the field of Welsh for adults that their main raison d’être was to create new speakers of Welsh. Few would disagree. But we need also be mindful that this generally has be achieved in situations where Welsh isn’t the natural community language. In our anglicised areas Canolfannau Cymraeg can be the basis for creating varied and innovative Welsh-speaking communities. They can bring together three categories of people who in combination offer hope for the future of the language, namely first language speakers, the new adult speakers of Welsh, and young people who have received their education through the medium of Welsh.

It is difficult to see how we can restore Welsh as a ‘normal’ language in the non-Welsh-speaking areas of Wales without the creation of more Canolfannau Cymraeg as a basis for new Welsh-speaking communities and social networks.

Steve Morris is a lecturer in Welsh at Academi Hywel Teifi, Swansea University and leads the national Welsh for Adults Research Committee.

2 thoughts on “Census debate 5: We need to make new Welsh-speaking communities

  1. Speaking as a Welsh learner who has experienced these particular initiatives I have to say that I think these are the least effective of all the many measures considered in these debates. Neither the standard of Welsh achieved, which is really quite poor, nor the numbers involved will have any real effect other than to prolong the decline of the language. More of the same is not the answer. Anyone over the age of about 10 will have lost the natural ability that we are born with to learn languages and Welsh is a difficult language. It would be far better to target resources into proper teaching of youngsters. This involves more than just speaking the language. To become fluent in any language you have to read a lot, not just speak it. This is doubly so in Welsh because of the nature of the language. Mutations, word order and mispellings don’t matter too much when you are speaking to someone but it is a different matter when written down.

  2. Thanks for this, Steve. As an adult Welsh learner myself, I can well remember how hard it was to start using the language outside the classroom. There is huge scope to harness great energy and enthusiasm among adult learners with a broader benefit for the whole community and I hope we will see more community-owned Canolfannau Cymraeg.

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