Analysis: Amidst a decline, can the Welsh language thrive?

Written by Alex Veeneman

When the Office of National Statistics released the results of the 2011 Census December 11, many details into trends were seen across the UK, which included information on new diverse areas (includ

When the Office of National Statistics released the results of the 2011 Census December 11, many details into trends were seen across the UK, which included information on new diverse areas (including Leicester in the East Midlands). There was also some information on the trends in Cymareg – the Welsh language.

Within the ten year time period, the number of people who spoke the language declined, from 582,000 in 2001 to 562,000 in 2011, according to a report from the BBC. As a result, only 19 percent of the population in Wales speak Welsh compared to 21 percent in 2011, the report adds. According to data analysed from the Wales Online news service, the amount of those who spoke the Welsh language was highest in Gwynedd (65.4 percent of the area), Ceredigion (47.3 percent of the area) and Carmarthenshire (43.9 percent of the area). The BBC report notes that in Anglesey, on Wales’ North West coast, over half of the population speak Welsh, and that it is a minority language in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire.

However, two areas, the capital Cardiff and the county Monmouthshire, in South East Wales, have seen increases in the number of people who speak it, the report adds.

With the release of these statistics, it has caused a debate with regard to the national identity in Wales, and the role of the language. A spokesperson for the Welsh government said that the results emphasised that the future of the language was in the hands of Wales’ children and young people. “We published our Welsh Language Strategy, A living language: a language for living, on the 1st March 2012,” the spokesperson said. “This identified the six areas that we need to focus on. The strategy recognised the fragile state of the language, and emphasised the need to promote and facilitate its use across all walks of life, with a particular focus on the use of Welsh within the family setting; providing opportunities for children and young people to use Welsh socially; supporting the use of Welsh in communities; the use of Welsh in the workplace and developing the use of Welsh in information technology, including its use with social media.”

The spokesperson added that reaching out to these areas would expand the language, and that the figures from the ONS required more analysis. “The figures published by the ONS require detailed analysis and we look forward to working with all who have an interest in the future of the Welsh language to ensure its long-term sustainability,” the spokesperson said.

The Welsh Language Commissioner, Meri Huws, speaking to Wales Online, said the figures had been shocking. “Perhaps there has been a danger for everyone to be lulled into a false sense of security 10 years ago, believing everything would be alright, and that the growth in some areas would make up for the decrease in other areas,” Huws said, adding that she would work with the Welsh government and councils to promote the language. “If that was the case for the past 10 years, the alarm clock has rung very loudly this morning, and there are very definite challenges to be faced here, and urgently.”

Additionally, calls have been made, notably from the Welsh Language Society (known as Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg) to ensure the language is safeguarded. The group released a manifesto December 15 to encourage a change in rules in education, planning and public sector speaking rules and further investment from the Welsh government, according to the BBC.

“This manifesto is a positive programme of work which could change the fate of our unique national language,” said Robin Farrar, the chair of the society, ahead of the rally staged the same day as the release of the manifesto, according to the BBC. “There’s no point sitting back and accepting the census results. We believe it’s the wish of an increasing number of people in Wales to live in a country where we can all live our lives in Welsh; we also understand that ensuring the strength of Welsh language communities is the only way to realise that vision. What’s needed now is the political will to realise the ambition of people around the country.”

A spokesperson for the Welsh government did not respond to a request seeking comment on the request from the society.

Residents of Wales have been wondering what this means next for the language, and what many say is a quintessential part of its cultural heritage. Alex Gravell, who lives in Cardiff, is preparing to take a Welsh language course to relearn it, notes that it is only taught for pupils up to age 16. “Socially we don’t use it so we lose the skills,” Gravell said, noting that she did not have a Welsh speaking family and did not need to use it at university, but has three younger sisters attending Welsh schools, and that the course would help her better communicate in Welsh. “I want to get my fluency back.”

Gravell adds that there is not a big push for the language outside of Wales. “Welsh is perceived as a dying language because of the less speaking [of it] in the workplace,” Gravell said. “Lot of companies and institutions do business outside Wales. They have to speak English—the international language.”

A Cardiff resident, who asked not to be identified, said the language was important, but in different ways. “I don’t think it makes you any more or less ‘Welsh’ if you can or can’t speak the language,” the resident said. “But for the language to survive, [you have] to use the language every day, be that socially or for work purposes. I’m very proud to speak Welsh and very grateful that I was given the opportunity to learn as a child.” The resident added that had she not lived in North Wales, she would likely not have been able to learn it.

Rachael Misstear, who lives in Carmarthenshire (but was born in England), says the language is important to the identity of Wales. “Having moved to rural Wales as child, I found the genuine sense of community and the warmth of the people, frankly, beautiful, even at the age of seven!” Misstear said. “The language is an intrinsic part of a culture which fosters many of the values, which perhaps are being lost elsewhere. My mother is fluent in Gaelic and I was brought up to appreciate the significance of indigenous languages. I cannot see a time when to consign that history would be acceptable.”

Misstear added that learning the language seemed to be the most natural thing, and notes that she sends her son to a Welsh school. “For me as an ‘immigrant’ to Wales (though I identify myself more readily as Welsh than anything else) it has always bothered me that I do not have a full grasp of the language and I am now taking Welsh language classes,” Misstear said. “I feel that anyone who moves to a country should feel obliged to learn the language.”

Misstear says that she wanted to educate her son and ensure that he was bilingual, saying that it would not be harmful to learn a number of languages. Misstear adds that without the action by groups like Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, little would have been done to preserve the language. “Considering how much encouragement is already given to new parents to educate their children in Welsh, I’m not sure how effective further policies will be,” Misstear said. “Democracy allows for people to make their own decisions and therefore I think it would need a huge cultural shift to see any real change.”

Gravell adds that the language will continue to be a part of Wales and its culture. “It’s a beautiful language,” Gravell said. “We’re proud of our heritage. We’re patriotic. We support our country and like our independence. It’s an aspect of our identity.”

Indeed, Misstear adds that she is optimistic the future census figures will tell a different story. “I believe we are among a growing number of English speaking parents who are opting to educate their children in Welsh, not because it has been dictated to us (I would likely rebel!) but because we believe it will enhance our son’s cultural experience and sense of belonging,” Misstear said. “There is hope that he and the other children like him will go on to have children who brought up bilingually.”

For the people of Wales, its language will remain part of their identity. The question that remains will be if it can be viable.

If you’re a reader in Wales, how important is the Welsh language? If you’re outside Wales, would you want to learn the language? How important do you think a language is to a culture? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Diolchi chi amddarllen, a Nadolig Llawen a blwyddynnewydd dda!


Image: Northern Studios