Ministers speak with forked tongue in Welsh

Joshua Parry finds a contradiction between the Government’s aim of promoting the language and what it does in practice

First Minster Carwyn Jones has failed to promote the use of the Welsh language within the Welsh Government. Following the ‘national conversation’ on the Language last year, he stated his Government would lead by example in its use and its promotion.

To date there has been precious little delivery on the commitment. Their flagship ‘apprenticeship programme’ is a case in point. Recently the Welsh Government said that an increase in civil servants in Wales was due to the recruitment of an additional 150 apprentices, claimed to be a magnificent employment opportunity for young Welsh people between the ages of 16 – 24.

However, under figures obtained from the Welsh Government only two apprentices – that is, 1.45 per cent – completed any part of their NVQ modules in Welsh in the last five years. This has serious implications for Carwyn Jones’s Live in Wales: Learn in Welsh? campaign, If so few Welsh Government apprentices are be taught through the the Welsh language, then how will parents be persuaded of the benefits of having their children taught in Welsh-medium schools?

Furthermore, only 13.8 per cent of those participating in the ‘apprenticeship’ programme in the last five years (between 2008 and 2013) were Welsh speakers.  Even more worrying was only six apprentices were placed in jobs where the Welsh language was used extensively.

All this gives the lie to the the myth that the Welsh Government are providing cushy jobs for young Welsh speakers straight out of school. To the contrary, the Welsh Government lacks a commitment to providing enough opportunities for young people to use Welsh in the workplace after mainstream education.

Here was an opportunity for the government to show that they were taking the Welsh language seriously by employing Welsh speaking apprentices, making the language essential for everyday use. Instead we have an apprenticeship programme which has failed to deliver the government’s commitment to see the language thrive and opportunities for its use after mainstream education increase.

Another weakness is the very low number of bespoke training courses delivered by Eliesha Cymru, the Welsh Government’s training arm, through the medium of Welsh.  The table below shows that in 2010-11 and 2011-12, only 16 and 11 delegates attended courses delivered through Welsh, just two courses in both years.


Number of courses delivered in Welsh

No of Delegates

Welsh language delivery as a percentage of overall delivery of courses

















The low number of training courses delivered through the language to Welsh Government staff are revealing in a number of ways. First, it suggests there is a need for new legal standards for the use of Welsh by public and some private bodies if the government does not look at its own practices. The proposed standards are meant to promote the Welsh language. However, in practice it turns out that the Welsh Government itself is unable to train sufficient numbers of its own staff to speak Welsh.

Can we blame NHS Direct Wales for having a substandard Welsh language option in which call handlers cannot speak Welsh or are not confident in answering queries when Carwyn Jones’s government does not provide sufficient opportunities for its staff to practice their Welsh speaking skills? If less than 27 members of staff out of 5,000 attend training courses in the Welsh language in two years, can we expect them to answer calls from members of the public/ converse confidently in the language?

Second, efforts to encourage positive Welsh language behaviours amongst staff are being undermined. As many have not been trained or not used to talking with fellow colleagues in Welsh. This is strengthened again by the lack of training opportunities where the Welsh language is used. In addition, the lack of a consistent message from the Welsh Government of what staff can expect in respect of the Welsh language use undermines its promotion.

Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that there was an improvement in 2012-13, when Eliesha Cymru increased the number of courses delivered in Welsh from two in the previous year to sixteen. But this still leaves the question why the number of courses delivered in Welsh fell so steadily after 2009-10.

Carwyn Jones himself has not set an example in his use of Welsh in government. An FOI request made by Cymdeithas y Iaith found that out of 128 e-mails he sent between 1 and 8September 2013 none were in Welsh. Nonetheless, speaking in the Assembly that month, the First Minister said that his government needed to develop opportunities for people to use Welsh socially and professionally, advocating that everyone should have five conversations a day in Welsh.

There are serious questions about the Welsh Government’s desire to develop Welsh language education provision. Funding for a new Welsh medium primary school in Grangetown was made available to Cardiff Council by the Welsh Government. But after the council reneged on their promise to establish a Welsh medium school, the Welsh Government’s silence has been deafening.   Parents and campaigners should not be having to battle hurdle after hurdle for each new Welsh medium school.

It is the same in Gwent, where funding for a second Welsh language secondary school is available. However, the ongoing wrangling between Torfaen, Monmouth and Newport councils has meant delays in creating a new school. It is yet to be seen whether the Welsh Government’s requirement upon local authorities to produce and publish a three-year Welsh in Education Strategic Plan will have the desired effect.

An overall policy vision by the Welsh Government would assist local government in planning Welsh language services, and promote more cross-cutting working and a more co-ordinated style of delivering Welsh language education services.

There is also the question of whether the Welsh Government can adequately influence, protect or cater for the needs of people that speak Welsh in non-devolved policy areas. Take the example of prisons. The Welsh Government is not doing enough to guarantee the Ministry of Justice takes Welsh speaking prisoners seriously. We can see this by how seriously the Ministry of Justice collates data on the needs of Welsh language prisoners.  A recent Freedom of Information request discovered that it does not know how many or which prison staff can converse in the Welsh language in Welsh prisons. As a result, they cannot assess whether prisoners are receiving the right support.

Even more revealing was a question posed to Justice Minister Chris Grayling on the number of Welsh speakers in prisons. He replied that the existing system (NOMIS), to record the first language of prisoners, was inadequate because it was not mandatory. He said that requiring all prisons to assemble data on Welsh language speakers would be too costly during a time of austerity. Consequently, one of the arguments made for siting a new prison in North Wales to cater for Welsh language speakers will be hard to gauge if there are no relevant figures in place to measure its success.

In its A Living Language: a language for living strategy, the Welsg Government admits it is not entirely sure the numbers of staff that speak Welsh across the Welsh Government. How can they ensure that they are meeting the needs of Welsh language speakers, if they are so slow to implement measuring indicators for the strategy?

Taken together, all this suggests that the Welsh Government is not laying the foundations for the Welsh language to develop. There is a contradiction  between the rhetoric of the Welsh Government in its declared aim of increasing the number of Welsh speakers and what it actually provides to those Welsh speaking members of staff in its government.

Joshua Parry is a student at University of Bath

12 thoughts on “Ministers speak with forked tongue in Welsh

  1. There are two basic problems with the promotion of the Welsh language. First, there is an insufficient critical mass – that is the number of people competent in ALL aspects of the language for it to become self-sustaining and create further growth. Second, there aren’t the resources to achieve the first, neither in time, money or people. In reality those who control the purse strings know that even if they cannot admit it in public. And no language in the modern world can expect to thrive if it is treated as primarily a spoken language.

  2. The problem, Joshua, is that the problem is consistently mis-stated and therefore the remedy cannot work.

    All the Rhetoric of the “Big Discussion” was about supply of Welsh Language service and opportunities to use Welsh. On the other hand all the data points to a lack of demand for Welsh Language services and a general incapacity to use Welsh in a functional way in society.

    Carwyn Jones, so it seems, is surrounded by a civil service that doesn’t universally speak Welsh. So, to state the problem that he faces, for everyone on his immediate staff and those with a wider need to know, to understand what he writes he must use English.

    He cannot use Welsh in his communications until EVERY civil servant in his circle of communication is a fluent and literate Welsh speaker. So far every initiative to increase Welsh speaking is about giving opportunity and everyone is terrified to analyse demand or potential demand and the very obvious constraints on supply. The census gave figures of 16% of adults able to speak Welsh to some degree. The all Wales survey gave figures of 10% of adults who consider themselves fluent and the 2011 adult skills survey found that amongst fluent Welsh speakers only 76% considered themselves confident to read Welsh emails in work. Fluent Welsh speakers however had higher confidence levels when it came to reading English.

    If anyone cared to do the research, the inability of many Welsh speakers to function through the medium of Welsh could be traced directly to failures within Welsh Medium schools. At Key stage 2, Level 4+ Welsh first language has the lowest percentage of pupils passing at that level…..lower than English in the same schools. More telling still is the shortage of excellent pupils; those attaining at level 5+, here the percentage pass rate is way below all other subjects. Lower still are the skill levels of pupils from a deprived background within WM schools. This would be a national disgrace except that no one will dare to say that the Emperor is in the altogether.

    Until we realise that Welsh Medium schools are not teaching Welsh to a high standard supply of Welsh competent workers will remain poor and actual demand for Welsh Language services will continue to decline.

  3. There are four major issues here that face the Welsh Government

    (1) the Welsh Governments lack of apprentices that are employed that are welsh speakers
    (2) only 1.4% of the apprentices, have their NVQ college course taught through the Welsh language.
    (3) lack of training delivered to civil servants through the Welsh language.
    (4) the lack of influence the Welsh Gov has over the welsh language in non-devolved areas

    The WG needs to take action over these issues. I agree with this article clearly.

  4. What strikes me is the indifference in reaction by the Welsh Government to all policy matters not just the Welsh Language.. In England, the news that the NHS is in crisis was greeted with shock and disgust, and the PM to give a false parroted message of apology. In Wales, they appear to be cool with a poor NHS.
    Why does the Welsh government have such a negative moral outrage for any blame of their government. And at this moment, I recall the government has made mistakes on education. language and the NHS.

  5. @Colin Miles- there is indeed enough people in Wales who have knowledge of Welsh in all aspects, somewhere between 350,000-450,000, being modest. That is more than the number who speak Icelandic for example, that language isn’t in danger of dying. The size of English right next door makes people compare the two languages, when in fact Welsh should be compared to languages of comparative middling size. Way over half a million people claim knowledge of Welsh in Wales alone, that figure is actually quite high, but as people have their cultural blinkers on and refuse to look at Welsh on its own terms and not in comparison to the most expanding language the world as ever seen (due to America as much as anything else) people think Welsh is tiny, which it is when compared. Look at it on its own merits and not in comparison to a major language, and the critical mass is more than definitely there.

  6. @ Steve Davis

    I don’t think there’s an indifference but rather a refusal for policy decisions to be driven from England and to adopt a position of moral panic in response to problems. It has been very striking that David Cameron has almost every week launched an attack on the poor performance of NHS Wales. It is veiled as an attack on the Labour Government in Cardiff but it happens too often to not be part of a planned campaign. The English NHS has adopted an internal market whereas Wales has not. Persistent attacks designed to damage the reputation of NHS Wales also serves as an attack on the non-market model for if it were to succeed, it would be an embarrassment for the market model. Perhaps the best evidence of this is the use of non-comparable statistics by David Cameron, something he knows to be misleading.

    That said, there are clearly particular difficulties which NHS Wales is having to face, largely because of the policy of reconfiguration and such changes take time to deliver. And it is right that when such services as the ambulance service underperform, it should hit the headlines. I have no difficulty with the Government in Cardiff being accountable to the Assembly and its voters for its performance or lack of it though I, for one, feel very ill-informed about the true situation of our NHS by our media. But it is a bit rich for a Prime Minister responsible for the English NHS to be lecturing Wales about its performance when they have yet to clear up the mess left behind from the catastrophe of the MId Staffs NHS Trust.

  7. Mae’n anodd iawn i weld erthygl o’r fath hon mewn Seisneg. Pwy ydi ei tharged? Os ydach chi am fwy o bobl defnyddio’r iaith, rhaid i chi eich hunan cyfathrebu wrthyn nhw yddi hi, ond dydi? Pa werth yr iaith i’r digymraeg? Os yndan nhw am hyrwyddo’r Gymraeg byddan wedi ei dysgu erbyn hyn. Dyna’r cam cyntaf!

  8. @john – I think you are missing the points that Colin Miles and – further down – J Jones – are making. The 350,000 to 4000,000 Welsh speaker that you refer to are the total number adn they have very differing abilities. Can we look at some of the figures J Jones gives? Of the people who considered that they speak Welsh fluently , just three quarters (76%) felt confident enough to read emails in Welsh. How can this constitute a critical mass.
    You also say that Welsh should be compared with other languages with a similar number of speakers such as Icelandic. I would say there is more to it than numbers – it is also to do with where those speakers are concentrated, the density, how many opportunites they have to speak their language in everyday life and work and also what the alternative it. In Iceland – I’m guessing – there is no alternative. Everyone speaks Icelandic. That is not true here in Wales – everyone speaks English and not everyone speaks Welsh. That is bound to have an effect.
    I am saying this as someone who is supportive of the Welsh language and who recognises the immense achievenment the langauge has made in surviving. To ensure it survives into the 21st C and beyond, we need to be realistic.

  9. The Labour Party like its fellow Conservative Party is only interested in maintaiming itself in power. Nothing else matters.

    It’s the miners, quarrymen and labourers of all sorts who have sustained the Welsh Language but the vast majority of the Labour Party in Wales see it as an enemy to their Socialist aspirations. Small nations, to them, are a waste of effort. Controlling big Imperial states gives them better coverage and power. It can be summed up as “Stuff the people, I’m all right, Jack”!

    Ed Milliband has tied his right-wing colours to the mast as a One Nation (i.e England) Nationalist. Both Labour and Conservatives in Wales have to decide whether to continue with the abhorrent One English Nation for Britain project or be a normal party and stand up for Wales as a nation. Which means supporting, promoting and using Welsh with as much determination, enthusiasm and energy as the English do their language.

  10. @John. The population of Iceland is about 322,000 and if you read the information on this country I think it is fair to say that they are all fluent in the language. In Wales, accepting your figures and with a population of 3 million, the proportion who are fluent in Welsh is around 12%. If that figure were to suddenly double there might be reason to hope, but there are so many factors which are and will prevent this from happening, the main ones being, as I have said previously, a lack of time, money and people.

    None of this is helped by the continued emigration of Welsh speakers in search of jobs, the immigration of non-Welsh speakers and the inability of the schools to turn out fluent Welsh speakers as for the reasons indicated above.

  11. Nice piece by Joshua, raising some good points – politics in this area is more difficult than it needs to be – because there is a lot of psychology at play. There is a nice stat in the Census that shows that two million in Wales or two thirds, consider themselves Welsh, which obviously means different things to different people, but considering the in-migration over the last thirty years of people who understandably would put down the country of their roots, then the overwhelming majority of people born in Wales state that they are Welsh, with quite a small proportion also stating they were British.

    If the same question had been asked in the 80s (and obviously with tick boxes and all that it wasn’t) then it probably would have been very different and devolution has had a positive effect in that area.
    You don’t have to speak Welsh to be Welsh, but if the language was lost then we would all be a lot less Welsh collectively – it is one of the key pillars of our society and culture, which is how it should be. The central pillar is our History – literature and music and that as well, is always being thrown back as something negative we are simply holding onto to, when in fact it is at the heart of Welsh identity, in a very good way.

    The language has to be a shared cohesive force that we share an equal pride in and have no hang-ups about – it should be regarded as a matter of politeness to be addressed in Welsh and not seen as rude or posh. I think things are probably better than they have been in many respects and if it wasn’t for so many young people leaving Wales, then the census stats would have shown an increase. The use of the language is obviously the hot topic now – this is more about psychology, changing communities, opportunities etc than ability or desire – someone I work with refuses to speak in English to anyone he knows can speak Welsh and finds it strange that someone who can speak Welsh would chose to speak to him in English.

    There are so many new dynamics in our society now that it should be quite interesting and the way the language is evolving, shows that it is very much alive – sblendigedig as I heard on Radio Cymru the other day – where the contemporary Welsh language music scene is actually very very good. It seems to be a young person’s language these days, which is good and Welsh music should be played a lot more on English speaking radio stations. We need the language purists to help to control the rate at which the language is changing, but they will have a hard task, because it is absolutely alive and vibrant.

  12. We are using the wrong tactics. Huge sums of (our) cash are being given in an effort to rescue the rapidly dying language. Quangoes like the Welsh Language Society have been set up that consume this cash and they have little effect other than to antagonize many people. Could this cash be used instead to ensure that anyone employed in the public service who had a public face could be paid a reasonable allowance for the skill he/she possessed ? Police officers, nurses fire fighters and so on would then have an incentive to improve their often dormant Welsh. There are thousands of people who have a good knowledge of Welsh, but no confidence or incentive to use it. Welsh speakers would be more inclined to stay here, and the status of the language would improve.

    One may lead a horse to water, but… has to make the horse thirsty before it will drink. Teachers demanding that a pupil ask only in Welsh to visit the toilet cannnot work. The Welsh “Taffia” only sem to create a “them and us” ambience.

    Carwyn Jones has said that the speaking of Welsh is up to the individual, and that is inescapable logic. The only problem is of course, those currently benefitting from government largesse would object to any change that deprived them of a cause and job.

    I am an English person who has learned Welsh. I am happy to be contacted by IWA.

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