The census results in relation to the Welsh Language which was published back in December 2022 came as a blow to those who have worked tirelessly over the Language during the last decade and more, many of whom have been doing it voluntarily. It came as a shock to some but not to everyone, a number of us have been warning that the current interventions particularly the lack of momentum in offering increased Welsh medium capacity in tandem with reducing English medium places in the education sector have hindered its growth.
Over the years those who have been employed in the Welsh language sector have benefitted from generous salaries and institutions and organisations have received substantial sums of public money to facilitate the increase in the numbers who can speak Welsh and use it day to day.
So, what went wrong? And where is the accountability for the failures of the past decade?
I grew up in the seventies on the border in a small village called Gwynfryn near Wrecsam, an English-speaking village at the first glance, but as I scratched at the surface, I came to realise many of its inhabitants, and those in neighbouring Bwlchgwyn, were, in fact, Welsh speakers. An older generation who had lived through the war and had decided en masse not to transfer the Welsh language to their children.
A linguistic shift developed post-war with significant numbers, particularly in industrial areas, deciding not to transfer their Welsh language abilities to their children. Better to concentrate on one language, one with uses across the UK and further afield.
Turn the clock forward half a century and the grandchildren of many of these individuals are benefitting from being bilingual in modern Wales thanks to their parents, who missed out on being able to speak Welsh themselves, being able to send them to Welsh medium schools, thanks to the growth in Welsh medium education.
The growth of the language, numbers-wise, in these now post-industrial areas is heartening, on paper. Especially considering how the language has declined in its western heartlands thanks in part to in-migration and the brain drain of young Welsh speakers leaving to seek work opportunities that don’t exist in the communities where they grew up.
Despite there being an increase in the number of young people who are now able to speak Welsh, how many of these use the language or interact with the Welsh language once the bell rings to signal the end of the school day?
Research suggests that 60% of children who attend Welsh medium schools come from English-speaking households, 20% where one parent can speak Welsh with 20% coming from Welsh-speaking households.
I belong to the second category, the 20% where one parent speaks Welsh. In my case, I only speak Welsh with my children, including in the presence of my wife who has learnt Welsh but isn’t confident speaking it. So the Welsh language can be heard in the home on a daily basis.
Welsh is the language of school to them, it’s English they speak with their friends, English, in the main, is the language of the music they listen to and the content they watch, the influence of anime means they watch Japanese content, but with English sub-titles, these simply don’t exist in Welsh.
English is the content they view on YouTube, content that originates, in the main, from the US, and English is the language of the interfaces on the digital platforms and games they use daily.
They lead their lives in a digital world whilst the Welsh language appears to be existing in an analogue one.
This isn’t exclusive to Wales, Iceland has declared its concerns that its young people are living increasingly English-language lives. This is thanks to the significant impact of content from the US and a lack of digital resources in their native language.
This isn’t the reason for the decline in the number of Welsh speakers, but it does expose much larger issues, how many Welsh speakers actually use the language? And where are the opportunities for them to use the language and interact with Welsh in a natural environment?
The other big issue is the level of confidence amongst individuals when it comes to using the language, particularly those who went through Welsh medium education from English-speaking households. A number of this cohort haven’t spoken Welsh since leaving school, and although some send their children to Welsh medium schools, they lack the confidence to speak Welsh with their children.
We have created tiers of Welshness within our society. There is clearly a need for rapid action to ensure that the correct conditions exist in order to ensure that the Welsh language strongholds see an increase in the number of Welsh speakers and that the language retains its status as the language of the community. This requires detailed economic planning and developing opportunities so that young people can stay and return to the communities where they grew up.
A recent episode of “Y Byd ar Bedwar” on S4C focussed on the situation of the Welsh language, and one interview provoked a lot of reaction and the shaking of heads. It was with a Welsh-speaking farmer from Tregaron who, despite their children benefitting from Welsh medium education, made it clear that he, and his English-speaking wife, didn’t see any value in them speaking Welsh.
And that’s the keyword, “value”. Value has been an enemy of the Welsh language for decades, and in my opinion, one of the reasons that previous generations didn’t pass on the Welsh language to their children. English was the language of the brave new world full of potential. Why waste energy on two languages when you can focus on one that’s far more useful?
Most Welsh speakers see the value of the language beyond the economic boundaries, the language is part of us, part of our souls, and it’s more than a means of communication.
But, what of the economic value of Welsh? One of the arguments against Welsh medium education is the fact that hardly anyone, apart from a handful of people in South America, speaks the language beyond Offa’s Dyke.
“We should be teaching our children useful languages like Chinese or German; they’ll be far more useful in the World of commerce and trade” and “Learning Welsh means children spend less time learning important subjects like maths”.
How many times have we heard these arguments?
The fact is we’re not doing enough to promote the benefits of Welsh medium education, particularly in the context of bilingualism. You only have to search Google for “benefits of being bilingual or multilingual” to see an array of articles, many by academics, explaining the benefits of bilingualism, both health-wise and educationally.
Over half the world is bilingual or multilingual, the ability to speak English and “A N Other language” is a specific skill which has huge potential benefits in a global multi-lingual economy.
Advances in digital technology have highlighted the importance of being able to offer services and the need to develop technologies that allow more people to interact with technology and content in native languages. This offers us a unique opportunity here in Wales.
Developing an industry centred on bilingualism and the technology of delivering digital content in multiple languages could create an economic sector that’s unique to Wales within the UK, by innovating we can create outputs that are hugely beneficial to the Welsh language.
Investment by the government could create hundreds of new jobs, creating opportunities for young Welsh people to remain in and return to the communities where they were raised, communities that are calling out for an injection of fresh blood.
By stating the economic benefits of bilingualism, the challenge of selling the idea of converting English medium schools into schools where students are fully bilingual, and competent in Welsh and English in equal measure, becomes so much easier.
It’s time for us to make the Welsh language an economic USP.