Welsh more a language of the classroom than the home

Katie Harris argues this is a major issue the First Minister’s ‘national conversation’ should address

For those who were expecting the proliferation of Welsh medium schools and Welsh classes for adults to have furthered the spread of the language, the results of the 2011 census proved disappointing. Published in December 2012, they highlighted an overall national decline in the number of Welsh speakers in Wales, from 21 per cent in 2001 to 19 per cent ten years later.

A national conversation on the future of the Welsh language was kick-started by Carwyn Jones on 31 May. It was an attempt to address the “fragile” state of the language and the First Minister pledged to generate constructive dialogue about its future.

“We want to know how people with all abilities of Welsh currently use the language,” he explained at the outset. “We also want to understand why some people either don’t want to use Welsh, or don’t feel confident using it. Most importantly, we want to find out what people think could be done to increase the opportunities to use Welsh in their everyday lives.”

The use of Welsh in everyday life is certainly undergoing fundamental changes. One commonly cited reason for this is that Welsh has become the language of the classroom rather than of the home. Rhys Lewis, a 32-year-old teacher from Ystrad Mynach, was educated through the medium of Welsh but grew up speaking English at home with his family. Today, although he is proud of the fact he can speak his national language, he hardly ever uses it in his daily life.

“I like the fact I can speak Welsh – it’s part of my identity, part of who I am,” he says. “But I’ve always spoken English in social situations and it’s not really natural for me to speak Welsh – even with other Welsh speakers, I tend to resort to English.”

Lewis is not unusual in this respect. Ten years ago, the census found that 40 per cent of school-age children could speak Welsh. But a decade further on, only 24 per cent of that same group of people say they can still speak the language. So while the education system may be exposing a far greater number to the Welsh language, it seems that it can be easily lost when it is not used beyond the realm of the classroom.

However, another reason for the disheartening census results lies with the issue of inward migration by non-Welsh speakers, the vast majority of whom are English. Overall, 26 per cent of the population of Wales weren’t born in the country, making it one of the most diverse populations in Europe.

Gwennan Higham, a 27-year-old PhD student at Cardiff University, is conducting research on teaching Welsh to migrants and ethnic minorities. Over the past couple of years, she has piloted Welsh taster courses geared towards individuals from ethnic minority communities, which have been met with overwhelmingly positive responses.

“My argument is that it’s a way of both enhancing integration into Wales and enhancing Welsh citizenship,” she explains. “For me, language is a door into another culture – you see the world through someone else’s eyes. And with Wales, the history of the nation is in the language and I think the way to truly understand where you live is to learn the language.”

Higham adds that she would like to see improvements in government policy, making Welsh courses more readily available for immigrants in Wales. “There’s nothing to stop Welsh from developing as a modern, multi-ethnic language,” she argues. “We do, however, need the support of the government and the citizens of Wales, that they would value the language – and not just passively.”

Dr Lynda Pritchard Newcombe, who has conducted in-depth research into Welsh learners in Cardiff, agrees that people should be encouraged to learn Welsh. However, she points out that people rarely become fluent unless they have a strong personal commitment. As a Welsh tutor at Cardiff University with over 20 years experience of teaching Welsh to adults, she admits that she has seen disappointingly few learners become fluent in the language.

“As with all language learning, there’s a big dropout rate,” she says. “People have got to learn Welsh for themselves – they’ve got to want to do it. It’s often linked with identity – people who sustain motivation and become fluent tend to have family members who speak Welsh or children who go to Welsh school.”

She added that she believes the national conversation was a step in the right direction. “I’m sure it will bring a lot of dialogue and a higher profile to the Welsh language,” she says. “Hopefully it will bring the interest back.”

The conversation served its purpose in that it provided opportunities for people across Wales to express their opinions and ideas through community groups, social media, an online forum and an Aberystwyth-based conference held on 4 July. But the evidence suggests that if the Welsh language is to see positive growth, the people of Wales need to ensure it moves beyond the perimeters of the classroom and penetrates diverse communities the length and breadth of Wales. The First Minister’s ‘national conversation’ now needs to be translated into action.

Katie Harris is a Cardiff-based freelance writer and journalist who specialises in politics and contemporary literature.

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