A boost for the Welsh speaking heartland


Rhodri Llwyd Morgan outlines the recommendations of his policy group tasked with promoting the vitality of Y Fro Gymraeg

Over the past 18 months I have been chairing a Welsh Government policy group tasked with producing a plan for increasing the number of communities where Welsh is spoken as the main language. The key recommendations, announced in our report published last week, and the membership of our group, are detailed in the panel below.

Defining the term ‘main language’ is problematic to say the least. Could the definition be based soundly on Census results (self-reported ability rather than language use)? Was 70 per cent a relevant ‘threshold’ as referred to in the Welsh Government’s previous strategy, Iaith Pawb (2003)? Perhaps 50 per cent is indicative of ‘most people’, or could 30 per cent provide a basis for the Welsh language as a key part of the social fabric as it did a decade ago for the University College London’s extensive study on the Planning System and the Welsh language.

In recognising the diversity of opinion, along with appreciating the fundamentally dynamic nature of our communities and their social and other networks, the Group held that it would be wrong to create a Plan relevant only to a very limited cluster of Electoral Divisions. ‘Cop out’ you might say, but our aim was to be inclusive and ambitious and to provide a means for growing the use of the language for as wide an area as possible based on the demographic challenges in west and north-west Wales in particular.

Promoting Welsh in the heartlands: main recommendations


  1. Promote the development of Bangor, Aberystwyth and Carmarthen as city regions – to dovetail economic regeneration and infrastructure improvements with language growth.


  1. Make regional planning beneficial for the Welsh language – Welsh Government to second experienced teams to mainstream the Welsh language as a clear element of its principal economic development strategies.


  1. Make education provision for 3-14 year olds consistent across Anglesey, Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire so that all pupils become fluent in both Welsh and English – examine the practicality of expanding Gwynedd’s latecomer provision across the area.


  1. Promote social and informal use of Welsh in collaboration with schools and communities – appoint community officers to create a bridge between the school and the community.


  1. Encourage people to take part in activities and socialise in Welsh by supporting organisations and societies and by taking new initiatives.


  1. Welsh Government, local authorities, health boards and higher education institutions to establish targets to increase the number of bilingual employees.


  1. Welsh Government to establish six ‘Welsh Language Promotion’ schemes – following the pattern of the Aman Tawe pilot – in areas of particular linguistic significance.


Working Group membership


  • Dr Rhodri Llwyd Morgan, Pro Vice-Chancellor for the Welsh Language and Culture, and External Engagement at Aberystwyth University (Chair)
  • Sali Burns, Member of Welsh Language Partnership Council and employed by Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board.
  • Cllr Dyfed Edwards, Leader of Gwynedd Council and Spokesperson for the Welsh Language, WLGA.
  • Owain Gruffydd, Member of Welsh Language Partnership Council, Chief Executive of Menter Iaith Bro Dinefwr.
  • Lynne Reynolds, Wales Council for Voluntary Action.
  • Elin Rhys, Director of Telesgop and Chair of Task and Finish Group on Welsh Language and Economy
  • Professor Elan Closs Stephens, BBC Trustee for Wales and former Chair of S4C.


The models and precedents for our work were few and far between. Understandably most policies and strategies refer to the entire country/state. Of these, particular note should be taken of the successes of communities such as Quebec, Catalonia and the Basque Autonomus Community. If we take increasing the number of speakers as a key measure, these prove that progress can happen. Interestingly, in these cases the main emphasis has been on raising status through legislation twinned with progressive education policies.

What are the main challenges for us in Y Fro Gymraeg? The situation is not some fiendish mathematical puzzle at all, but a consistent pattern. The evidence proves that the number of Welsh speakers is decreasing in the areas of higher percentages. Generation after generation of new Welsh speakers come along – born and bred in Welsh speaking homes or gaining bilingualism through the education system. However, a third of these Welsh speakers leave those areas to study or find work.

Another underlying fact is the reduction in the number of children born and brought up in higher percentage areas. Clearly this undermines the ability of a language community to develop and thrive. In these areas, this is coupled with the impact of incomers who, for whatever reason, do not learn the language.

If these are the main symptoms what are the causes?  The three main causes are the relative weakness of the economy, the lack of progress and continuity in Welsh-medium education, and lastly the weak impact in the west and the north-west of legislation intended to promote the status of Welsh.

Economic weakness feeds out-migration and over-dependence on public sector jobs does little to spur growth. In education, the data reveals that virtually no growth has occurred in Welsh-medium education since the adoption of the quite divergent language policies of Gwynedd and Dyfed in 1974. In terms of the status of Welsh, the Acts of 1967 and 1993 have made their mark in some ways in the east of Wales but have failed to make more than a superficial impact in the west. Indeed, it is a local authority initiative that has delivered the greatest impact by some distance when Gwynedd in 1974 adopted Welsh as its main internal language of business.

While we await further progress on implementing the Welsh Language Measure (2011), the Group focused on the major soci-economic challenges and by our recommended Plan sought to enable significant change to the demography of the Welsh language in the higher percentage areas. The necessary change would include growing the economy, facilitating attractive family life, and providing the best opportunity for the younger generation in particular to be bilingual and able to choose to live their lives in Welsh.

In the main we encourage a dual approach: planning ambitious economic growth that is informed by equally ambitious language growth.  This is largely based on the strategic development of Bangor, Aberystwyth and Carmarthen as city regions for the higher percentage areas. Secondly, we call for significant progress on the education front across the higher percentage areas so that all young (and older) people can become fluent and confident in using Welsh as well as English. Other proposals relate to increasing the use of Welsh in the workplace in major public authorities across the area as well as social opportunities for young people to use their Welsh informally and so gain the necessary confidence in using the language.

With the exception of Caernarfon, one significant feature of the Welsh language in the west is the divergence in the proportion of Welsh speakers between the main urban centres and their surrounding areas.  The numbers of Welsh speakers are high but the percentage in Bangor (36.4 per cent), Aberystwyth (30.9 per cent) Carmarthen (37.6 per cent) and Llanelli (23.7 per cent) is significantly lower than in the rest of Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. The effect of higher education institutions and hospitals is an obvious factor but their importance as areas of employment, commerce, leisure and services gives these places particular significance.

Let’s finish with some examples of good practice.  In terms of economy and housing there have been good efforts to ally development with positive language planning.  These include Congl Meinciau in Botwnnog, Pen Llŷn, an affordable housing scheme and thriving Enterprise Centre set up by Cymdeithas Tai Eryri.

On a strategic level the efforts a decade ago by local authorities and Welsh Government in creating the Môn-Menai Action Plan seem to be bearing fruit in terms of Enterprise Zones status and the Menai Science Park. In education the Gwynedd Canolfan Iaith model is delivering a well-established Welsh language immersion course for children that have recently moved into the area with little or no Welsh and enabling them to integrate into their local schools. We also learnt about the success of Theatr Felin-fach’s youth and community work which, through particiapative arts activities, gives young people from all backgrounds confidence in using their Welsh.  At a community level Dyffryn Nantlle 2020 gave the Group added confidence that that there is plenty of desire and ability out there to bring people together and use the language as a key feature of community development.

When the right things are happening they’re working.  The challenge is to get more happening across the area and for their effects to be integrated and cohesive.

The Welsh Government is due to respond to the Plan shortly alongside its responses to several reports relevant to future Welsh Language Policy.  Our hope now is that we move on from the Big Conversation into a period of Big Action.

Rhodri Llwyd Morgan is Pro Vice-Chancellor for the Welsh Language and Culture and External Engagement at Aberystwyth University.

9 thoughts on “A boost for the Welsh speaking heartland

  1. One glaring error here. Bangor’s percentage of Welsh speakers is put at 36%: this figure relates to those who can Speak, Write and Read Welsh. There are a further 8% recorded in the 2011 census who can speak the language, but who cannot read or write in Welsh: thus bringing the figure of actual Welsh speakers in Bangor up to 44%.

    The idea of developing city regions to support the Welsh-speaking areas is a good one, since it highlights the fact that economic development is needed in these areas to keep young people who have been through the local education system and to attract back Welsh speakers who have left to look for work. Unpublished figured in the 2011 census would seem to indicate that there are at least a 100,000 Welsh speakers presently living in England. I would suggest that one additional idea that could be considered is to set up some form of specific agency to try and attract some of these people and their skills back to the Welsh speaking areas.

    The elephant in the room that is ignored in this report is the number of non-Welsh students attracted to the two universities at Bangor and Aberystwyth in particular. A good number of these students stay in the area after finishing their studies, and unfortunately only a small minority learn Welsh, either during or after University. This then leads to Anglicisation in the areas outside Bangor and Aberystwyth. This problem needs to be addressed at source.

    Universities in Wales( particularly in the Welsh-speaking areas) should introduce “Introduction to Wales” module to be taken during the first year by all students who come to study here from outside Wales. Although not a language module as such, this could amongst other things let students know that they are actually studying in a country with its own history, culture and language. More importantly, it could also promote the idea that Bangor/Aberystwyth/Caerfyrddin are areas where Welsh language growth is planned over the next few years.

  2. How come bilingualism in Wales is such a problem for your ilk John? What about Canada, Switzerland?

  3. At last! A development proposal that recognizes the north-south axis of the Welsh languge.The difficulty with the idea is that of accessibility between the three centres for them to become mutually reinforcing – a concept which adds more spice to the model proposed by the committee.

    I have no iidea how long it takes to drive between Bangor and Carmarthen with a stop at Aberystwyth for coffee, but Travline Wales informs me that it can take between 5 and 6 hours by bus or by train. It means a journey via Shrewsbury by train. A broadband cable along the route of Sarn Helen might be a better proposition than an another set of costly and interminable road works, or rebuilding the railway between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.

    Consideration also needs to be given to the future and function of small towns as growth points with the protection of the Welsh language in mind, particularly those on the periphery of y fro Gymreig, or the outliers that are furthest away from the proposed three centres. Traveline Cymru offers some interesting journeys if sustainable transport if your forte in business and employment, as does a visit to the Welsh bookshop/cafe in Oswestry. (Bookshops that specialize in the sale of Welsh books and magazines are my proxy measure for the potential strength of the language in a particular area).

    Dr Morgan and his Working Group have proposed some interesting ideas which deserve serious thought, and hopefully some action.

  4. Indeed, Ben, agreed. What about also China, Finland, India, Malaysia, Singapore and increasingly the US?

  5. The tragic footnote to this article is the fact that Rhodri Llwyd Morgan as Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Aberystwyth is trying to close Pantycelyn, the Welsh-speaking halls of residence. The last community of 70% Welsh speakers in Ceredigion.

  6. I sympathize thoroughly with the intention behind this initiative but I wonder whether it is not another example of the Welsh tendency to division with the need to appease different local interests. If we can get one growth pole going in the Fro Cymraeg, growing fast enough to achieve agglomeration benefits and generate employment, that would be a huge achievement. So we are going for three….

    It’s either Bangor or Aberystwyth. The latter would require new roads and a new railway. So it has to be Bangor. Pump the money in there and stop messing about.

  7. The model imparted to us a long time ago, at UCW Aberystwyth as it was then, was that there were two major axes to consider in Wales. East-West in the South, which defined the economic base of the country, and North-South which defined the Welsh-speaking base (roughly from Bangor to Carmarthen). The latter resonates in the proposal under discussion. As I read it, the tri-city proposal aims at a measure of equity and inter-connectedness between three centres in the consolidation of the socio-economic base. Good policy I would think, particularly when sustainability is the key operating principle at the present time.

  8. The welsh language can only be saved if levels of inmigration by non-welsh speakers is controlled. So many playgrounds in the ‘Fro Gymraeg’ have become majority english, due to most children not being born in Wales.

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