Census should ignite fight for Welsh

Chelsea Fraley says the most important factor in the survival of the language is whether people are willing to speak it

On 13 February 1962, Plaid Cymru’s founder Saunders Lewis warned the people of Wales that the Welsh language was headed towards extinction. His famous radio lecture Tynged yr Iaith (Future of the language) sparked in many the desire to fight for Welsh, a fight that continues to this day. Numerous policies have since been implemented to create a bilingual Wales, and the number of children attending Welsh-medium schools has increased significantly.

For a long time, it seemed as if this progress was enough to protect the language. The 2001 census results seemed to support this since it showed an increase in the percentage of Welsh speakers for the first time in over a hundred years. Because of the promising increase in 2001, the most recent census results have come as a bit of a shock. Despite an increase in the Welsh population, the number of Welsh speakers has decreased from 576,000 (21 per cent) to 562,000 (19 per cent). The fate of the Welsh language remains uncertain, and Saunders Lewis’ warning appears to ring just as true today as it did fifty years ago. Unless the methods of promoting Welsh are revised, future census results are likely to be just as disappointing.

If the Welsh language is to live on, the Welsh people must see the importance of learning and using Welsh. No amount of policy or money spent will be enough to preserve the language if no one is willing to learn and use it. Even teaching Welsh in schools does not guarantee the language’s survival. Eventually school ends, and without practice, a language is easy to lose. The most important factor in the survival of the language is whether people are willing to speak that language. Getting people to speak Welsh in their daily lives continues to be the biggest challenge to the preservation of Welsh.

To address this challenge, the movement needs to most overcome the prejudice against the language that many continue to harbour. Historically, Welsh was considered a lesser language than English, and still today many see it as belonging to an outdated and less educated group of people. Unless there is a campaign to provide the language with a clear place in the present, increasing the number of speakers will be impossible.

An imperative step in overcoming this prejudice is to focus more on promoting Welsh with adults. If adults do not make Welsh a priority, there is no reason that their children will do so.  Since the most important factor in keeping a language alive is the continued use of that language, Welsh speaking parents have to encourage the use of Welsh in their households. More adults need to learn Welsh so that an even greater number of children can be encouraged to learn and maintain the language.

One way of convincing adults to learn and use Welsh is by making clear the importance of Welsh to culture and the importance of culture to one’s identity. People need to see that protecting Welsh is about more than just having to take an additional class in school. Inspiring people to learn Welsh because it is an integral part of who they are will be more effective at increasing the number of Welsh speakers than any amount of policy change.

Additionally, potential Welsh speakers need to be aware of the benefits of bilingualism that accompany learning Welsh in addition to English. For example, knowing Welsh can provide people with job opportunities that otherwise would not be available to them. Knowing multiple languages has been proven to improve cognitive skills, an ability to focus, enhance memory, and promote multitasking skills. In later life spin-off benefits include fewer symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Getting people to see Welsh as a valuable skill rather than as a burden will guarantee an increase in the number of people wanting to learn and use the language. There needs to be a campaign to make the people of Wales aware of the importance of Welsh to them as individuals as well as to Wales as a whole. If people understand why Welsh is important, they will be much more willing to learn and use it in their daily lives.

Supporters of the Welsh language have fought a long fight, but the recent data shows that it is far from over. The continued passion of these fighters, even after hundreds of years of struggle, serves as the best indicator that the Welsh language will continue to survive for many more years. Now is not the time to become complacent. The 2011 census results are disappointing, but must be used to ignite the movement. The passion that these supporters continue to possess must be focused into new methods of language promotion. If these changes are correctly implemented, disappointing census results can become a thing of the past.

Chelsea Fraley is an American student studying Political Science at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, USA. She recently served as an intern for Plaid Cymru in Westminster while participating in the Hansard Scholars Programme.

22 thoughts on “Census should ignite fight for Welsh

  1. Just being able to speak the language will do little to ensure its survival. Reading and writing is absolutely essential. As for adult learning, well, classes are struggling to survive due to lack of numbers. It is also very difficult for adults to learn a difficult language, certainly not in sufficient numbers to make the slightest difference.

  2. You have to understand the nature of support for the Welsh language; it’s wide but shallow. Simple questions like “Do you want the Welsh Language to survive?” will always get a huge proportion of people saying YES. Do you want your children to be able to speak Welsh… again a large percentage saying yes. Are you going to put your child in a Welsh Medium school? Here the percentage comes down and so we have the paradox of parents who would like their children to speak Welsh but not if it means putting them in a Welsh Medium school. Again, if everyone who wants the language to survive is then asked to spend one evening a week learning Welsh the number willing to do that collapses so that the actual adult uptake is actually about 1%. This is why we in Wales live in a fools paradise……none of the figures actually add up. We are a country where something like 12% can speak Welsh fluently, 10% are first language Welsh speakers and about 8% habitually use Welsh. When we come down to how many people prefer to use Welsh about half of that 8% are indifferent about the language they use.
    So that is the size of the task; persuade 88% of the population to become fluent in a second language that they prefer not to use (and why should they use Welsh?).

    The task is, of course, hopeless.

    For the language to actually survive we have to abandon the pretense of “Bi-lingual Wales.” and instead concentrate of producing a group of highly literate first language Welsh speakers who can at least give Welsh credibility as a language.

  3. As for the tedious list of all the advantages of bilingualism perhaps each person who trots it out should actually go and read the studies that their assertions are based on. The first thing that they will find is the admission that scientific evaluation of the advantages of bi-lingualism is actually impossible. Think it through; first find two large samples of parents with exactly the same mix of educational qualifications and the exact same mix of life backgrounds and socio-economic circumstances. One group must be monolingual the other group must be balanced bi-lingual and use both languages equally when bringing up their children. This group goes to a bi-lingual school and at every stage the assessments show that development in both languages is in balance.

    You will see that the experiment is just impossible. The studies made have all been with only balanced bi-linguals who have been brought up in bi-lingual households. But, as one critic points out, once you start discarding children who show more development in one language than the other aren’t you selecting a unique group anyway? Later tests to find that they are unique become superfluous. It’s worth thinking though about who in Wales might enter the experiment – it’s the 4% who use Welsh and English equally and without preference.

  4. Thanks for this, Chelsea. Making Welsh central in the workplace is key. The Welsh government could advance this within its own departments and agencies, if there was broad popular support. It would obviously need to be done in an inclusive way with good training made available. Gwynedd County Council has led the way. The Basque country has interesting things to teach.

    The Hebrew example gives the lie to Colin Miles’ routine pessimism as indeed does Basque about the ability of adults to learn “difficult languages” and adult learners “making a difference”. Welsh is not, in any case, particularly difficult. It is just different (as other commentators have made this point to Colin Miles on this blog before, to no effect). The spelling and range of tenses are much simpler than English, for example, and compound words tend to be formed in a logical way, whereas English often draws on Latin or medieval French. Mutations are simpler than the case endings in German or Russian, both of which adult learners master in large numbers every year. My understanding is that there is, in fact, lots of demand for adult classes at the beginning level, although getting adults to keep going to the higher levels is hard, which brings us back to incentives, once again.

  5. What is the point of encouraging its use in SE Wales when the language is dying as the majority language elsewhere? It is essential that people are still able to have a geographical concept of the language and know that it is used by the majority of people in a given region of Wales. If the language ceases to be heard by everyone in regions of Wales where it always has been, why are people going to learn it? Secondly on that point, the language is undermined by the fact that people who speak Welsh also have a facility in English, and actually use it with incomers rather than refusing to until they have learnt Welsh. Picture this; I move to a country where only 19% are actually able to speak the national language, and in my village or town, 65% of people speak Welsh, 35% don’t. 100% have a facility in English. I can’t be bothered to learn Welsh. What do I do? Nothing. Ignore the Welsh speaking population and live in a polarised community by only socialising with 35% of the community who are all incomers, forcing the Welsh who live there to use English with me, don’t forget that English is percieved as the better, more cultured language to use and free from a history of colonial prejudice. On top of that, due to bilingualism, I can do anything in English, whether it’s the local council or whatever else. This cannot go on, the fight for Welsh in the SE and NE is futile unless we ensure there are regions in Wales where Cymraeg is used by the majority. 65% of Gwynedd and 64% of Anglesey speak Welsh, around the same amount were born in Wales.

  6. Ben, It’s 57% who say that they are able to speak Welsh in Anglesey. 53% of adults. However that isn’t the percentage able to carry on their daily lives in Welsh. The fluent Welsh speaking population is 45% and so Anglesey is already a majority English speaking county. Amongst school children, the percentage who speak Welsh at home fluently is 41.1% in secondary schools but 38.3% in primary schools therefore ten more years will probably see 38% home language Welsh speakers in secondary schools and, since decline is accelerating, 33-34% Welsh home language speakers in primary schools.

    Anglesey has the poorest Welsh first language Key stage 2 assessment figures of any county. Why is this the case? Well, in my judgement the establishment is terrified of making any criticism of any Welsh Medium schools on any basis whatsoever, this is because once parents start to hear that WM schools are failing in anything they will stop sending their children to those schools… those parents lucky enough to have an option. If the Education authorities, Estyn and the Welsh Government can’t bring themselves to acknowledge weakness in these schools then that weakness will continue and be perpetuated by poorly qualified Welsh speaking teachers going back into WM schools. A spiral of decline brought on by ideology and cowardice… and dishonesty of course.

  7. Efrogwry – the Hebrew taught by Uplan is modern Hebrew. If Welsh had started off in a similar way the story might well be different and more akin to what it is in Israel. As for comparing Welsh to German and Russian, that is hardly relevant since English is the language that Welsh has to compete with. As for it not being a difficult language – well, to native speakers it isn’t, but to the rest it is and many native speakers have problems with reading and writing as the census shows. As I have said before, an aunt of my wife’s commented, ‘I didn’t realise how difficult Welsh was until I had to teach it’. And as my Welsh teacher used to say, half in joke when I queried something – ‘Colin, in Welsh there are no rules’. And as for the spelling being simpler when so many words mutate at the beginning, middle and end, and plurals…….

    You have little hope of solving the problems if you don’t, or won’t understand what they are. And the suggestion by Heini Gruffudd that ‘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.’ is just too incredible for words.

  8. In order to strengthen Welsh-speaking communities we need to consider provision of affordable housing and the economy – particularly opportunities for young people. These are serious problems that go beyond anything linguistic. The situation of the Welsh language is a barometer, an indicator, of pressures that people are under as Raymond Williams pointed out on a few occasions. The language is a sustainability issue and like any other sustainability issue it should be considered as a factor in all planning and policy – not just a special category on its own.

  9. @Colin Miles – It’s true that learning a foreign language very close to your native language is in some (though not all) ways easier (e.g. Catalan for a Spanish speaker, maybe Frisian for an English speaker) and that learning any language requires effort and motivation over a long period (rather than any special intelligence). That said, if you’re an English speaker wanting to learn another language, there are aspects of Welsh which are relatively easy, both compared with some other languages and, in the case of the phonetic spelling system, even compared with one’s native English. There are other aspects which are more complicated but, hey, that’s a DIFFERENT language for you! It’s different and that takes some practice and getting used to. The problems with native speaker literacy that you mention are not evidence of the “difficulty” of Welsh. They are to do with the education system and the fact that many native speakers do not use Welsh routinely in many domains of life. These problems could all be overcome (levels of literacy in Basque among Basque speakers at the time of Franco’s death but have risen substantially). Neither are the anecdotal comments of the two Welsh teachers you mention evidence that Welsh is uniquely difficult to learn. Similar comments are routinely made by native English speakers who start teaching English to foreigners. I have only been able to explain when the present perfect is used in place of the simple past since when I started teaching English as a foreign language in Germany. Ditto the complex English continuous tenses. As for English phrasal verbs, well, “there just aren’t any rules”. Doesn’t stop adults learning, though, does it?

    Many English speaking adults achieve fluency in Welsh every year and there is no reason why this could not be scaled up if the will was there. It could make a “significant difference” to the prospects for the language as part, as you and other have commented, of a wider strategy.

  10. Carl, the provision of affordable housing is important everywhere, not just in the fro Cymraeg but the emphais given to housing in the efforts to maintain the presence of young people in the Welsh speaking areas is over rated. Gwynedd and Anglesey County councils commissioned a research project called “The dynamics of demographic change and migration in North West Wales.” They actually went looking for the young people who had moved and asked them why they had moved. Most had moved to particular employment, some had moved to Cities because they were “bored” with rural Wales….not one single person did they find who had moved to find a house that they could afford.
    The same study looked at the young people who stayed behind; they found that a number of people who they interviewed WOULD have moved but were too poorly qualified to be competetive in the job market elsewhere and therefore continued to live with family and work in low paid employment. The kind of employment that doesn’t pay enough to buy a house anywhere in the country.

  11. Efrogwr – The idea that ‘Many English speaking adults achieve fluency in Welsh every year’ is just a fantasy. If it were we wouldn’t be having this debate. The census figures would appear to show that there is a core of around 400,000 people who are fluent in all aspects of the Welsh language. This is not ‘economically viable’ especially in the current economic situation – which looks as if it could go on for many years. I don’t know what the solutions are but none of the suggestions made in the debate so far look remotely practical. I admire your optimism but it is sadly both misplaced and unhelpful. And concentrating on the many deficiencies of the English language won’t help the Welsh language survive, let alone prosper. One attribute which English does have is that it is possible to express oneself in it very badly and incoherently and still be understood – usually.

    In regard to the economic and development side of things I note that just before Christmas a planning application for 336 houses in Ammanford was refused, against the advice of the head of planning. The first reason stated was that it would have a detrimental effect on the Welsh language.

  12. I can’t see the Hebrew/Israel analogy as helpful. The situation in Israel in late 1940’s and 50’s was that the immigrant population did not have a single language in common. Hebrew was introudced to provide that common language. The situation is totally different in today’s Wales – Wales has a language in common, it is English.

    I say this a very committed supporter of the Welsh language. I think we would lose something so valuable if the language dwindles away. However, I think we have to be pragmatic and look for solutions that are workable and that protect/improve the level we already have.

  13. @Colin – let me rephrase this – it is possible for adults of average intelligence to become fluent in Welsh, as those who do illustrate. This would need to be scaled up, which is perfectly possible if there is popular and political support for this. What can be achieved has been illustrated by what has happened in the Basque Country.
    I do not regard the peculiarities of English as “deficiencies”. Far from it. It is possible to express yourself badly in Welsh and be understood as well. That’s not a peculiar plus point of English.

    Your point about the economic viability of a language community of 400,000 takes your argument off on along different lines. Don’t really want to follow that hare as well save to say that Iceland and the Faroes manage well with much smaller populations and more difficult economic fundamentals. It’s about politics first and foremost, I think. Not sure how your point about housing in Ammanford fits in. Housebuilding is not a way to sustainable economic growth – look at Ireland. It seems to me you’re just lining up arguments to shore up your pessimism (and maybe I’m doing the same for my optimism :)!)

    @Carol – very fair point. Each situation is different but inspiration can be drawn from many sources.

  14. As I have said elsewhere people will not let their language confine them to a narrow range of localities and jobs. This is what happened to the Gaeltacht. If speaking Welsh means that you are confined to rural poverty the conclusion is obvious. Only a wider range of economic chances can prevent young people moving out and being replaced by well-off outsiders. And of course Welsh speakers can themselves be part of the problem by not passing it on to their children. But that in itself is often an economic decision.

  15. Efrogwr – you say ‘it is possible for adults of average intelligence to become fluent in Welsh, as those who do illustrate. This would need to be scaled up, which is perfectly possible if there is popular and political support for this.’ It is to do with linguist ability, not intelligence. Even the most intelligent adult will find learning any new language far harder than a 5 or 6 year old, unless they have some genuine linguistic ability. And very few people retain that ability beyond the age of about 10, which is why you will never get sufficient adults to take up the challenge of learning Welsh. The reality is that there is neither the popular nor political support for this. One suggestion made this morning at a Welsh class was that the language should be banned – in order to obtain popular support, but I doubt whether that support would be more than token.

    And in the end the argument comes down to the simple ‘hare’ of economics. We are in a very different situation from Iceland, the Basque country, Israel, Finland, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, etc. We started off in a very different situation whereby the majority were fluent in another very dominant world language. The Welsh language had, and has, a very small base of fluent speakers and an even smaller base of fluent writers. Without a vibrant Welsh economy there is no extra money to pump into the various suggestions that have been made in these census debates. As Jon Jones has commented ‘For the language to actually survive we have to abandon the pretense of “Bi-lingual Wales.” and instead concentrate of producing a group of highly literate first language Welsh speakers who can at least give Welsh credibility as a language.’

  16. @Colin: I think we are in a stronger position than where the Basques were on Franco’s death and they have tackled native speaker illiteracy and have an adult learning programme on a much wider scale than ours. Be that as it may, by all means argue that there is no popular demand or political will or money for a large adult learning programme. Do not, however, argue that it is not possible because your average adult does not have the “linguistic ability”. It simply isn’t true. The learning process is different for adults than children, but average adults actually have some advantages (though they rarely end up with a native accent). Have a look at:


    and also this on Benny Lewis’ blog (where you’ll find lots of useful advice for adult learners of all languages):


    As an adult Welsh learner, I also find Lynda Pritchard-Newcombe’s book “Think without limits: you can speak Welsh” very helpful and the success stories from users over at saysomethinginwelsh.com

    Don’t be discouraged in your own learning! It’s a long journey, but well worth it. All about perseverance and practice not “linguistic ability”. Ymlaen!

  17. The Welsh language situation is only going to be improved if the measures taken have the active consent of most of the population, rather than the passive ‘yes it’s nice that the Welsh language should be preserved’ kind of attitude that exists now. It is easy to pay lip service to what appears to be a good idea but when it comes to paying for it, or taking the time and making the mental and emotional effort needed to learn the language, most people will opt out. The danger is that by pushing/trying harder the situation will be made worse, sympathy for and the language itself will decline. Most, of not all of the ‘solutions’ offered in the debate so far seem to be reactions rather than properly thought out and costed. Time for a Timeout I think.

  18. Efrogwr – there are 2 comments in the New Scientist article you refer to which are particularly relevant. The first is that ‘Surprisingly, under controlled conditions adults turn out to be better than children at acquiring a new language skill.’ Note ‘controlled conditions’. That was crucial to the success of that project as was noted in the concluding statement – namely: ‘But Robert DeKeyser at the University of Maryland in College Park warns that artificial experiments like this do not necessarily transfer to the real world. Even if adults are better at implicit learning, children are more likely to get the chance to learn implicitly.’

    I admire your optimism but in the real world we don’t learn languages in controlled laboratory conditions.

  19. Errr – no – the Census results should be taken as further evidence, not that further evidence is really needed, that the Welsh Government is wasting millions of pounds every year flogging a dead horse and simultaneously making Wales unwelcoming and uncompetitive in the process.

    Welsh should immediately be placed onto an opt-in basis in all schools and in life, backed up by a compulsory language preference field in all CRM and similar databases to stop the waste of bilingual communication.

  20. Many thanks to Efrogwr for commending my books. Many experts are stressing today that language learning has more to do with perseverence and motivation than aptitude. My years of experience as a language tutor to adults bear this out.
    Adults must be free from anxiety though as lack of confidence impairs performance. They must allocate time to learn and practise too.

    Pritchard Newcombe

  21. @ Colin Miles

    I see you’re up to your old tricks of making baseless assertions about the difficulties of learning languages as an adult. As Efrogwr says, there are thousands of adults learning Welsh every year, and other languages across the globe, which disprove your point; but I understand that you don’t let evidence get in the way of your opinions.

    As you revealed before, it is the threat to your cultural identity that inhibits your learning of Welsh; the education methods, of which there are many, work fine. It’s a poor pupil that blames his textbook.

  22. John R Walker noted: “Welsh should immediately be placed onto an opt-in basis in all schools and in life, backed up by a compulsory language preference field in all CRM and similar databases to stop the waste of bilingual communication”. I agree John. I have had a gutsful of receiving English only mail and notifications. And as for monlingual phone calls, why do these people waste my precious time?

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