Lessons of language loss stay the same

John Osmond offers some initial reflections on the latest Welsh language census published yesterday

The census information on the state of the Welsh language, published yesterday and shown in the table below, give the bare outline details. More information will be available at the end of January in which we will be able to se what is happening at more local community level across Wales.

We will be running some articles by specialist commentators next week but it is possible, on an initial glance to come to a few conclusions. First of all, the overall decline is far from catastrophic – mush less, for example, than occurred between 1961 and 1971 when the overall statistics fell by 26 per cent to 19.8 per cent.

Indeed, the relatively small drop that has occurred in the first decade of the 21st Century may well be accounted for by the fact that the overall population of Wales has risen, due to inward migration, mainly from England. This almost certainly accounts for at least part of the relatively large 4.7 per cent fall in Ceredigion, for instance, where in-migration has been especially strong.

Again on the positive side, the Welsh Government yesterday derived some comfort from the fact that there were considerable increases in the number of younger children speaking Welsh, a reflection of the growth of Welsh medium education in south east Wales.

It also needs to be said that the increase in 2001 seemed inordinately large – an extra 80,000 or so speakers compared with 1991. Where did they come from? It may be that the 2001 census results were a bit inflated. The general message appears to be a decline in the heartlands of the north-west compensated for by growth in the anglicised areas of Wales.

More worrying, however, appears to be the relatively steep decline in Carmarthenshire, where the percentage of peoplespeaking Welsh dropped to 43.9 per cent, compared with 50.3 per cent in 2001, and 54.9 per cent in 1991.  At first sight, and this will be confirmed by the more detailed anaylsis next year, the major decline has taken place in the southern industrial part of the county – in the Amman and Gwendraeth valleys.

In this area there was a failure 20 to 30 years ago to establish Welsh medium schools which have done so much to compensate for relative decline in the eastern Valleys. The same phenomenon has probably occurred in Neath Port Talbot and Swansea which experienced  2.7 per and 2.0 per cent cent falls between 2001 and 2011.

So what are the lessons? No different from what they have been for the past decade and more. We need to rely on much more than establishing Welsh-medium education, though that of course is vitally important. We must make Welsh a living language for your young people well beyond the confines of the school gate in the increasingly niche areas of lifestyles that they typically inhabit these days –  as much virtually on the web as elsewhere.

In the Winter 2012 edition of our journal agenda, published this week, we carry an important article by Steve Morris who leads the national Welsh for Adults Research Committee. He argues that we need to do more to establish new spaces for the language in the anglicised areas of Wales- social spaces where people can meet and enjoy themselves, through the medium of Welsh.


The number of people who speak Welsh has fallen in the past 10 years, according to the 2011 census.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

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