“Perceptions and Realities: The Current Challenges to the Welsh Language and a Prognosis for the Future” Part I

Article written by Guest Writer Robert J. Jones

A couple weeks ago, I traveled almost three thousand miles away from my home in upstate New York to attend and present at the North American Association of Celtic Language Teachers (NAACLT) annual conference in Portland, Oregon – almost five thousand miles from Wales. More oddly still, in a few weeks, I will be returning to Portland to teach Welsh for Cymdeithas Madog’s annual, week-long residential language course “Cwrs Cymraeg.” Such are the realities for the small number of people who can teach Celtic languages in North America. We do a lot of traveling for our cause, but not always to the Celtic language homelands.

While I was at the NAACLT conference, I spoke on census and survey data relating to the Welsh language in Wales and addressed some of the challenges facing the language. For the purposes of this article, I want to focus on those more than the data I culled for my presentation in Portland, but some of that will play a part here as well.

Before I delve in any further, a couple of caveats and explanations. I am not native to Wales, but I do have Welsh ancestry. I began learning Welsh on my own when I was eleven years old and have been teaching it as a community instructor for about twenty years. My “real life” job is as a community college instructor where I teach French, German, Spanish, linguistics and world literature; I have, however, taught Welsh twice at the college based on student demand. Also, as I mentioned above I currently teach for Cymdeithas Madog, and also currently serve as their curriculum coordinator.

My relationship with Wales is perhaps quixotic; having not grown up there, my mission upon each visit to the country has always been to speak Welsh, thus I have developed almost no personal relationships with Welsh people who cannot speak the language. I travel almost exclusively to the Northwest where the majority of people can speak the language, and while I’m there, I normally speak little to no English. It is fair to say that my personal perceptions are based on an almost exclusive absence of contact with Anglo-Wales. What I know about it and the Anglo-Welsh I know mostly from social and traditional media, and as often as not I’m surprised by their perceptions of both Wales and its language.


Caernarfon CastleCastlesHistoric SitesN76-469
Caernarfon, Gwynedd

Not being Welsh, however, I can examine the situation of the language with an external and even clinical eye. On one hand, some people feel the language is pretty safe these days. The number of learners is increasing, and the public sentiment toward the language is more positive than it has been in more than a century. That’s the perception anyway. The reality is that Welsh is still very much a vulnerable language, and if some major social changes don’t take place in the next generation or two, at most, it will not survive as a truly living community language; it will find itself in the unenviable position that Irish finds itself in today, or worse.

Last year at Cwrs Cymraeg in St. Catharines, Ontario, a student asked the instructors what we thought about the future of the language. My reply was that I am cautiously optimistic – if certain changes in the attitudes of Welsh speakers occur, and if real leadership starts coming from the Welsh government. I said to the student that I think Welsh has about another century as a living, community language if nothing changes. A number of key challenges face the language at the present time and will continue to do so in the coming decades. Let me briefly explain some of those challenges.

Out-movement v. In-movement

A lot of people on the street’s of Wales complain about the in-movement of people from England and point to it as a threat to the language, and obviously it is, especially when those in-movers are young and have families. Fortunately, a significant proportion of the in-movement to the Welsh-speaking heartlands tends to be in the form of retirees, and they don’t erode the sociolinguistic fabric quite as much: they’re not going to have any more children, and they tend to socialize amongst themselves. On the other hand, young families with children tend also to have a more favorable outlook on the language, and of course in Gwynedd, in the northwest, their children will automatically attend primary school in Welsh. Still the impact is significant. According to the 2011 UK Census, 19% of the total population of Wales speaks the language, but of those born in the country, it’s 23.3%. For Gwynedd that’s 65.4% versus 88.7%, and for Anglesey it’s 57.2% versus 78.2%. Even more tragic is Ceredigion in southwest Wales were those numbers are a staggering 47.3% versus 74.6%.

Out-movement is just as much a problem in its own way. Young people are leaving Wales, and not just the Welsh-speaking heartlands, in search of a brighter future. The total number of Welsh speakers, according to the 2011 census, declined from 582,000 in 2001, to 562,000 in 2011 – an apparent net loss of 20,000 people. Alas, the true number must be higher than this: in examining the yearly school census data maintained by the Welsh government, we find that Welsh medium education had to have produced at least 28,000 new, competent Welsh speakers in the decade between 2001 and 2011, but the raw numbers didn’t increase by anything like 30,000. They went down by 20,000, so between out-movement and deaths, Wales actually lost more like 50,000 speakers in a decade.

The Welsh Government

I remember awaiting with great anticipation the results of the referendum to establish a devolved national assembly in Wales in 1997. It’s been more than fifteen years now since the Welsh government was established, and it has proven to be a very effective middle manager, duly plying the cash from London and from Europe (via London) in generally fair and respectable ways, generally genuinely with the best interests of the people at heart, but they’re not doing nearly enough. One reason for the out-movement mentioned above is a total lack of a deeply engendered spirit of entrepreneurial and business leadership in the country. Young people leave Wales because there are simply not enough good jobs for which they are qualified. Job creation is an area in which the Welsh government has yet to fail because it simply has not cut its teeth on it in any meaningful way.


Additionally, despite hype to contrary, the Welsh government doesn’t nearly do enough for the language. Yes, there is a language commissioner, and before that position there was a quango called Bwrdd yr Iaith Gymraeg – The Welsh Language Board that stumbled along with a budget of about $19 million a year. To put that into perspective, the annual budget of the community college where I work is about $19 million a year, and we serve a community of a little more than 100,000 people. Bwrdd yr Iaith served nearly 600,000 Welsh speakers and tens of thousands of learners for the same price. And since the language belongs to everyone in Wales, at least in theory, both Bwrdd yr Iaith and the Language Commissioner serve the entire country; $19 million is a bargain by any account. It is also true that the Welsh government supports Welsh-medium education, but it does so unevenly (not all Welsh medium schools follow the same Welsh-only track), and it cannot or does not keep up with demand. Regarding higher education, a few years ago England raised university tuition by some £6,000. The Welsh government’s response was to keep the tuition rate unchanged in Wales, but if students wanted to go to university in England, the government would pay the difference! What would be the point of keeping intelligent students in Wales and training them in 21st century, marketable skills that might inspire them to open a thriving business in Wales?

Finally the Welsh government does essentially nothing to create a positive image of the language, its communities, or how both English and Welsh can live in harmony. It creates no form of positive propaganda for the use of the language, nor does it work to engender a sense of Welshness that includes either or both languages.

4 Thoughts on ““Perceptions and Realities: The Current Challenges to the Welsh Language and a Prognosis for the Future” Part I

  1. Pedr ap Ioan on 16th July 2016 at 12:44 am said:

    Loved this article, trouble is the raw truth of it brought tears to my eyes.
    I have to fight daily to use Welsh in Cydweli, Sir Gaerfyrddin (Carmarthenshire) a so called Welsh Heartland, Oh its nowhere near dead here !!! But so many think that the battle for the language has been won ! While in reality this is far from the truth, and unless we wake up to the facts and do more than pay lip service to the preservation and growth of the language. One day in the not so distant future, we may have rude awakening.
    O fydded i’r hen iaith barhau !!!

  2. Robert Matthias on 16th July 2016 at 6:11 pm said:

    There is an appalling ignorance with regards to the language in Wales and I believe Cymdeithas yr Iaith Cymraeg must take some of the blame. A common statement by non Welsh speakers is that the Welshies are always ramming their language down your throats as if they are an alien people, without actually being aware that it was English that was rammed down the throats of a Welsh speaking nation with most being ignorant of the Welsh not. There is a myth that Welsh is too difficult and has no value. Fact is English is more complex and the language teaches the truth of our history for instance we having equality for women in Wales during the reign of Hywel Dda 880-950 long before the suffragettes were even born. It tells use in the place names also althought many have been changed due to a form of intellectual amnesia. Ruabon in North Wales I was told by a councillor was changed from Rhiwabon because the RH Welsh was too difficult . I replied that RH is found in rhythm and rhubarb . Abon’s way has now been changed to RU ABON which has no meaning. Boudica was Buddug and was not an English warrior Queen. etc etc

    • Cymdeithas yr Iaith’s work is tremendous. We wouldn’t have any where near the Welsh language rights we have now if it weren’t for them.
      Also, the idea that women had equality under the law of Hywel Dda is a modern myth.

  3. The real truth of the matter is, despite falling % in the heartlands, until the percived advantage of being a welsh speaker in the emplyments matket becomes a genuine reality, loads of kids with speak some welsh till their 16. there would be an advantage to employing welsh speakers if the market demostrated it. More of us need to demonstrate; going to rugbi games, the eisteddfod isnt enough. The language has a greater status than ever, its an asset/differentiator, we need to demostrate thats its a viable economic option or be forever sustained by hand outs.

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