The Welsh Language: Living with Welsh and its future

Most people I meet find the fact that I speak Welsh intriguing. If they’re British they tend to ask me to pronounce the longest place name in Europe; Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Others ask me to say a few words and then compare it to Elvish from Lord of the Rings.

elvishIt might sound similar but Elvish isn’t Welsh

In this post I want to describe my relationship to the Welsh language and share my opinions of the importance of the language to the country. Firstly I must explain where I come from and a little about the community I lived in for the first eighteen years of my life.

I grew up in a little village called Rhosybol on the island of Anglesey, or in Welsh: Ynys Môn. Today the island’s population is around 70,000. When I lived in Rhosybol there were no more than 900 people living there. Rhosybol has a primary school and when I used to go it consisted of around 70 students and five teachers; it was tiny, my sister was one of only four students in her entire year. Most of the families in the village were Welsh speakers and there was a strong sense of community. There were only around a dozen children in the school that couldn’t speak Welsh.

I was a member of Urdd Gobaith Cymru; normally translated into English as the Welsh Youth League. Urdd is a Welsh-medium youth movement; in essence a youth club where Welsh speaking children can meet to play and participate in community projects. I was also a member of the local Young Farmers’ Club and the Scouts. The Scouts was the only organization where I spoke to other children in English.

urddWelsh speaking children attend the annual Eisteddfod yr Urdd; a Welsh-language youth festival of literature, music and performing arts

During my childhood I mostly spoke Welsh in social situations and with my family, although I had no difficulty communicating in English. I used to watch a lot of English language movies, such as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, and TV. I rarely watched the Welsh TV channel, S4C, because I generally couldn’t understand it. There are in fact two distinct Welsh dialects; a northern dialect and a southern dialect. Welsh TV is primarily produced in the South and even today I don’t understand most of it when I tune in out of curiosity.

Some families in Rhosybol were far stricter about the Welsh language than others and looking back they were also quite nationalistic. I remember one friend in particular and his mother’s attitude; she prohibited my friend and me speaking English in the house. I have memories of us talking about the latest Nintendo game, hearing her yell from the kitchen in Welsh ‘What’s all this English I can hear?’ and thinking she was crazy. Other families would treat you differently if you had an English parent. A friend’s father would always speak to me in English, although we both spoke Welsh fluently, because my step-mother was English; he was a kind of language elitist.

When I got a little older and began attending secondary school, in 1993, I came into contact with many more non-Welsh speaking people. I also started to become aware of a slight division between the two groups. There was never any animosity between the groups but sometimes very little contact or communication; for example the Welsh language was a compulsory subject but native and non-native students were taught the subject in separate classes. The more non-Welsh speaking friends I made the less significant Welsh socially became; a crack began to form between myself and the language. The crack widened when I was thirteen.

Before I was thirteen every single class I attended was taught through the Welsh language, from science to history, because I was a native speaker. At thirteen I was given the choice to change to English and jumped at the opportunity like most of my native friends. We, and our families, understood the importance in switching to English for the future. I remember that the transition was difficult; having to learn new vocabulary and write much more in English.

In 2000, when I was eighteen, I left Wales and moved to attend university in Manchester, England. I made many friends but no one that spoke Welsh. My Welsh began to slowly suffer as I only returned home to visit my family every two months or so. I made one friend in particular from South Wales, from the city of Swansea.  Sometime in 2001 I visited Swansea and met my friend and her family. I was surprised not meet any Welsh speakers; most people I met were indifferent to the language. My friend’s mother was a primary school teacher and did not appreciate it when people spoke Welsh in her home; I felt that she may have been a little insecure and thought that they might be talking about her in a language she didn’t understand. Hearing a primary school teacher expressing such opinions was unsettling.

trefelin

Patagonia: Wales’ only colony

When I first visited Argentina, in 2012, I visited Chubut, Patagonia. In Chubut there are reportedly 5,000 people who can speak Welsh as a result of immigration in the late nineteenth century. In the small village of Gaiman I spoke to four people who could speak Welsh; a teenage girl, a man in his thirties who had visited North Wales and two elderly ladies I found in a quaint Welsh tea house who were fluent in nineteenth century Welsh. It was a bizarre day and very interesting to talk to people who could speak Welsh but not a word of English.

Culturally the Welsh language is what separates the country from its neighbor, England. Apart from the language, Wales is “the land of music” and notable for its harpists and male choirs. If the language was to disappear, it would be difficult to find something that makes the country culturally unique. As the Welsh Language Measure of 2011 states;

“The Welsh language is an essential part of the cultural identity and character of Wales. It helps to define us as a nation – in our communities, in our relationships with friends and families and as individuals. With many other languages, it forms part of the rich diversity that shapes the social landscape of this country, the UK and Europe.”

choir

 A traditional Welsh male choir

A 2012 BBC article claimed that the number of fluent Welsh speakers is falling by around 3,000 people a year due to old speakers dying and young speakers moving away for better educational and working opportunities.

As mentioned in the “The Welsh Language: A history and efforts to maintain it in a modern Britain” article only around 19% of the population speak Welsh. In this article I have discussed the people I have met who are either indifferent about the language or are a type of language elitist. Both types of people are not helping to promote or maintain the language. I feel that political endeavors such as the position of Welsh Language Commissioner are not going to bring about change.

Languages survive and thrive if there is incentive for people to speak them. If young Welsh speakers are moving to non-Welsh speaking regions of the country or leaving entirely, the decline will continue. In my opinion, unless the predominantly Welsh language speaking regions are permitted to flourish economically and become more attractive to the younger generation, the language has a dire future. In the current climate of economic woes and austerity, a bright future for the Welsh language is diminishing.

9 Thoughts on “The Welsh Language: Living with Welsh and its future

  1. Eleri Strittmatter on 7th May 2015 at 6:43 pm said:

    Diolch i ti am dy erthygl difyr. Rydwyf innau hefyd o Sir Fon yn wreiddiol, wedi gadael yn 1971 i fynd i’r coleg yn Manceinion. Mae’n falch gennyf ddweud fod fy Nhgymraeg i yn dal i fod yn rhugl er byw yn Lloegr yr holl amser.
    Dwi’n cytuno hefot mai datblygaeth wneith achub yr iaith. Gobeithio te?
    “o bydded i’r hen iaith barhau”
    Eleri

    Thank you for your interesting article. I too am originally from Anglesey having left for college in Manchester in 1971. I am proud to say that my Welsh is still fluent even though I have lived in England all this time.
    I agree with you that it’s economic development that will save the language.
    “O may the old language continue” (a quote from the Welsh national anthem)

    • Sion Gareth Herbert on 30th May 2016 at 4:58 pm said:

      A fi hefyd! Wedi bod yn byw yn Manceinion am 12 mlynedd ac ma fy mab o 6 oed wedi dysgu dipyn or iaith. :)

  2. Bryn Hughes on 11th May 2015 at 5:05 pm said:

    Mi ydw i o’r pentre nesaf i Rhosybol, Llannerchymedd. Mi neis i adael Sir Fon yn 1967 a symud i Loegr if fod yn athro ac yma ydw i byth! Dwi’n dal i fod yn rhugl yn fy iaeth hefyd ac yn falch iawn o hynny.

    I’m from the next village to Rhosybol – Llannerchymedd. I actually left Anglesey in 1967 to take up a teaching post in England and I’m still here! I’m still fluent in my language and proud of it too.

    • I am so glad you have remained fluent. I was a Welsh learner when we lived on Anglesey. I did one of those Wlpan courses at Bangor University. I could get by with very simple conversations, but most bi-linguals reverted to English when they saw me floundering with difficult topics. It is 17 years now since I left Ynys Mon and moved to Sheffield and then on to Lincolnshire. Sadly, I have lost all the Welsh I learned. but am so glad that I had the wonderful experience of living on the magical mountain, Mynydd Llwydiarth and my love of Welsh history and the Welsh language has never faded.
      I wrote a an historical novel about the mountain it so fascinated me.

  3. Dominic C on 21st May 2015 at 10:38 am said:

    Very interesting, dioch.

    Your article got posted to a Facebook group campaigning for a Welsh DuoLingo course: https://www.facebook.com/groups/welshduolingo/

  4. Siwsan Miller on 31st August 2015 at 4:05 pm said:

    I found your article very thought provoking. I am a Welsh speaker, I was brought up in Llanbedrog befor my parents moved to South Wales I attended Ysgol gyfun Rhydyfelin and all subjects were taught thro the medium of Welsh. (Apart from the sciences although that did change in later years. Once I left school I did not use my welsh language unless I was speaking to my family. I have recently started working in a Welsh language school and I am pleased to say I use the Welsh language everyday. In the past I noticed people’s indifference to the Welsh language, but I think that it is gaining popularity once again in some areas. My only concern is that some children do not get the opportunity outside of school to hear, use and enjoy the language.

  5. Thank you for your interesting and thought provoking article. I am in the process of moving from England to Anglesey & I shall be attending Welsh language classes – not because I feel I ought to -but rather because I am rapidly learning how interesting & diverse the Welsh culture is. I know of many English people who feel the same way. It seems quite normal in Anglesey for Welsh to be spoken as a first language & I hear it spoken all the time in shops & social situations. The Welsh language is indeed a part of the cultural identity & character of Wales and perhaps people like me can play a tiny part in keeping it that way.

    • bdaf on 29th May 2016 at 9:29 pm said:

      The native name for “Anglesey” is Ynys Mon…..I find the name “Anglesey” very perplexing as its a norse name…yet the norse didnt really settle there.

      English names always take priority over Welsh names…a legacy of past imperialism

  6. Christina on 3rd October 2015 at 5:20 am said:

    Lovely article. I moved to Llangristiolus when I was 7. I had never heard of the Welsh language until then. I am passionate about the language and teach young children 2 to 4 year olds in my local cylch meithrin (nusery ). As you said in your article Welsh is quite commonly spoken on Anglesey, however it’s popularity diminishes in some other areas of Wales. I now live in Llanfairfechan not too far from Llandudno and there is a lot less Welsh spoken here. I am doing my best to change that by teaching the little ones Welsh. The language immersion policy is great. Our job is to converse through the medium of Welsh so that they hear only Welsh. I think this is crucial for all children in Wales to start their schooling through the medium of Welsh if they are to learn and actually use the language they have to be in environments that are Welsh. I know how hard it is to learn in later years and always wished as a child that my parents had moved to Wales when I was younger.
    So I am English and although my Welsh isn’t fantastic isn’t get by and speak it every day. My children attend a Welsh school and although their father is Welsh he doesn’t speak it. I have made sure that his children can speak Welsh and am very proud of all the children I know who speak Welsh.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Post Navigation