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

Article written by Guest Writer Robert J. Jones

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.

Colonialism

Wales still very much has a colonial mindset, even though most people in Wales don’t see it that way, if it all. For years Wales was ruled from London, and the day-to-day decisions for the country were made by the Secretary of State for Wales and his department – the Welsh Office – all appointed by the government in Westminster. Democracy in Wales existed only at local UK-wide levels, both somewhat meaningless. The local governments were beholden to the Welsh Office and the Secretary of State for Wales, and Wales’ voice in the House of Commons was and is so small as to be insignificant.

In the present day, the new Welsh government fails to lead in any meaningful way because most of its members have never been leaders for Wales. Most of them have been taught that if they wanted to go somewhere in life, they had to go there via England, and to be sure, many of them still have aspirations for a position in the London government. This has always been the case.

We can take a look at someone like Aneurin Bevan, British Minister of Health (1945–1951) as a classic example. Credited with the formation of the UK’s National Health Service and considered a national hero by many in Wales, even he made his mark in England. He died there, far away from the coal fields of his native South Wales, married to a Scottish woman, who ten years after his death would be made an English baroness.

Why would the Welsh government ever try to keep its country’s young in Wales? The message too often received is that success, real success, only comes when you leave.

bevan

Aneurin Bevan, British Minister of Health (1945–1951) from Monmouthshire, South Wales

There is also this sense that things in Wales cannot be done unless they are accomplished by following the well-worn patterns established by London. One cannot go off the beaten path without permission or consultation from those in England who have “always known better,” never mind that the Welsh government now has some power to branch out on its own and look to other small countries for inspiration or to consider entrepreneurial approaches like those used in the U.S. to change the way the game is played.

A great example of this inability to change gears is in the failed attempt to establish a daily Welsh language newspaper. As an American I marveled at the almost medieval approach to its launch – going door to door, almost, asking for subscriptions upfront for start-up costs at the same time with a hand out to the Welsh government. Why not go to some rich people and ask them to back the first few months – surely enough papers would sell to get enough advertisers in time; there was a potential market of 600,000 and then some. I live in a metropolitan area with around 800,000 people and we support two daily newspapers, neither one of which is very good. Yet, not only do they survive, they thrive; one just did the unthinkable and purchased new presses.

Moreover, Wales is still being physically colonized one house at a time. I mentioned in-movement earlier, and we can see how this affects the language. Some 27% of people in Wales were not born in Wales; 20% are from England. In general, the English who move to Wales are wealthier than their Welsh neighbors, and they can afford to pay top prices for housing, thus driving up the cost for local people beyond what many can afford, and again encouraging them to seek greener pastures elsewhere or remain in relative poverty in Wales.

Finally one often hears that Welsh is not a language of commerce, and certainly many Welsh speakers agree, even if unconsciously, with this sentiment. Still relatively few businesses (although more and more do), offer services in Welsh, or even reliable signage, seeing no need to market in the language other than a paternalistic pat on the head. Where at least 19% of the population might take advantage of such services if they were offered sincerely and reliably, and they are not, in the U.S. most large retail and banking establishments offer a wide range of services in Spanish, the main language of only 12% of the population. Of course, some may point out that 12% of the U.S. population is millions, indeed tens of millions of people so it’s so much more worthwhile.

On the other hand, 93% of Iceland’s population speaks Icelandic; its population is 392,000. I’m sure 100% of retailers and banking establishments in Iceland offer sincere and reliable services in Icelandic. It really isn’t a question of money. Instead it’s a question of a lack of collective will to make it so coupled with a collective disdain for the language which has only recently begun to recede.

Language Planning – The lack thereof

Language decline is not inevitable. Since in the case of Wales, like in the cases of Catalunya and Euskadi in Spain, the process of language decline was not an entirely natural process, the reversal of the same can’t be either. The wholesale revival of Hebrew didn’t happen in a natural way either; all three were, however, an engagement, not always amicable, between grassroots social action and leadership from their respective governments. This is one of the key facets missing from the current so-called language planning process in Wales. Like so many other aspects of government intervention, it’s piecemeal, uneven, and occasionally it works against itself. It consists of an uneven and un-ubiquitous access to Welsh-medium education, and equally uneven adult education, and a housing-development plan that until recently was not even legally allowed to consider the impact on the language of local communities when new housing was being planned. Any partnership between grassroots groups and the Welsh government? Almost unheard of.

welsh sing

Attitudes of Welsh Speakers – The Hidden Welsh Speaker

But then again, how many people do speak Welsh? The world will never know. The number is surely greater than 562,000 people – that’s just the number in Wales. The number in England is surely significant. Estimates put well north of 100,000. My own guesstimate would put it at around 200,000 given what I know about the school census data, or about 35% of the entire Welsh speaking population in England and Wales. Even in Wales, who counts as a Welsh speaker? At what point do learners begin to call themselves speakers? The census is a self-reporting modality, so there’s really no way to know for sure who does and doesn’t speak the language, never mind how well or how often. In light of this, the Welsh government commissioned a survey that sampled between about 1,500 and 3,800 people depending on the question, and the results were very revealing. The survey was conducted in 2013 and 2014 and was in-depth and detailed. In one question, 3,800 respondents were asked how well they could speak Welsh. 46% answered fluently; 22% said they could speak a fair amount of Welsh. In essence 68% of respondents felt they could at least carry on some sort of intelligible conversation. Returning to the 2011 UK Census, another interesting set of data comes up: self-reporting by age varies a great deal.

% of people who can speak Welsh by age group (27 Mar 2011) (InfobaseCymru)

Age Gwynedd (in NW Wales) All Wales
3 – 4 73 23.3
5 – 9 91.4 38.2
10 – 14 93.3 42.2
15 – 19 72.3 29.4
20 – 24 51.4 17.6
25 – 29 67.7 16.4
30 – 34 70.1 15.3
35 – 39 69.5 14.9
40 – 44 67.1 13.6
45 – 49 64 13
50 – 54 61.3 13.2
55 – 59 58.3 13.4
60 – 64 54.4 13.5
65 – 69 53.7 14.9
70 – 74 57.9 15.2
75 – 79 59.5 16.2
80 – 84 60.9 17.7
85 62.3 19.1
All Ages 3 and over 65.4 19

 

We see that in Gwynedd, the most Welsh-speaking part of the country, that only slightly more than half of retirees in most age ranges can speak the language. This isn’t really surprising considering how attractive the county is for retirees from abroad. What is startling, however, is that only 51% of 20-24 year olds report speaking Welsh. This number, of course, is a fiction. We can see that the percentage of speakers hovers at around 70% on both sides of this age range. So why the low response? Speculation is all I can offer, but I suspect it has to do with the idea that Welsh isn’t necessarily cool to adolescents, but as they mature and decide to reengage with their communities and perhaps raise a family, they realize they want to carry on with the language.

There’s also a question of confidence in using the language that many report. They may use it with certain family members, or just in school, but are wary of being judged if their Welsh isn’t the right sort of Welsh for whatever social milieu they may enter, or even feel that Welsh just isn’t appropriate at all for certain social settings. Yet as one man in his 30’s said in an online discussion recently, he personally doesn’t know anyone under age of 40 who cannot speak Welsh, and the truth of the matter is there is no one under the age of 40 born in Wales who cannot speak Welsh to at least some degree. They may not all speak it well, they may speak it haltingly like a foreign language spoken by a disinterested student, but they can speak it to some degree.

Y Dyfodol – The Future

To go back to the question that student raised during Cwrs Cymraeg last year about the future of Welsh, yes, I am certain it will survive. It is a well documented language with a rich literary corpus extending back deep into the Middle Ages. It also has a large corpus of television programming and film, and a large and growing web and twittersphere presence. It is, in its own way, an international language with learners and ex-pat speakers all over the world, and several thousand speakers in a Welsh colony in Argentine Patagonia. Even if the worst happens and some day in the future the last native speaker draws his or her last breath, the capacity to revive the language will be there. It’s been done before.

Alternately it could stagger on for another century or two and end up with a fate much like that of Irish: an adjunct cultural language only used regularly by a relative few people outside of small, rarified communities on the margins of their culture, even wherein it will be increasingly difficult to live one’s life in the language, but it may reach such a stasis. Irish is important to enough people in Ireland to keep it going as it is for a very long time.

I am not sure, however, that either of those two futures is appealing to anyone who speaks Welsh, for today Welsh is still a real, living community language, a natural form of communication for several hundred thousand people. That’s what I’d like to see survive. And I believe it will if Welsh society overcomes the hurdles I mentioned above, it will. 42% of 10-14 years can speak Welsh; if they grow up and choose Welsh alongside English, the vision of a bilingual Wales will be made real. Wales is a beautiful country with a beautiful, ancient and expressive language. There’s no reason it could not be, that it should not be a country whose population speaks both it and English. It’s been done before.

Robert Jones is Professor of Foreign Language and English at Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown, New York where he has taught introductory courses in French, German, Spanish and Welsh, as well as an introductory course in Linguistics and courses in World Literature.  He speaks and writes on a range of topics including bilingualism, minority languages, medieval literature and science fiction.

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

  1. R Tyler on 19th October 2015 at 4:09 pm said:

    “51% of 20-24 year olds ” Bangor University

    • martinedwards on 19th October 2015 at 6:21 pm said:

      “I suspect it has to do with the idea that Welsh isn’t necessarily cool to adolescents, but as they mature and decide to reengage with their communities and perhaps raise a family, they realize they want to carry on with the language…”

  2. R Tyler on 22nd October 2015 at 3:57 pm said:

    No, it’s because of the presence of 1000s of English students in that age group.

  3. Nia Lloyd on 19th August 2016 at 11:22 am said:

    Very interesting article. As a fluent Welsh speaker in Wrecsam, North Wales, a town that borders England, we do struggle to hear and use the language outside of school and chapels. My friends first language was English, she went through primary and secondary Welsh medium education and said, she left school without the language. I found this hard to believe, but when looking at why this could be, her Welsh was used in the classroom only, there was no opportunities to speak Welsh socially outside of school. The language on the school yard in secondary was also English.
    We are fortunate to now have a Welsh centre, Saith Seren in Wrecsam now since 2012 where Welsh can be spoken, heard and used socially, with regular Welsh events.
    Children however are still without opportunities to use the language outside of the school.
    We do have minimal opportunities via chapel and Kung fu! But this is not enough.
    Cymdeithas yr Iaith are constantly lobbying for more of these opportunities, there are other bodies that should perhaps do more, namely yr Urdd and Menter Iaith.
    I live in hope.

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