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Fall in under 15’s speaking Welsh ‘heartbreaking’ says leading academic

06 Dec 2022 5 minute read
Students in a lesson at school. Picture by Ben Birchall / PA Wire.

Siân Williams

The 2021 census figures released earlier today have confirmed we now have 23,000 fewer Welsh speakers than there were 10 years ago.

One of the main factors contributing to the overall fall, according to the Office for National Statistics was the decrease in children and young people aged 3 to 15 years who reported this skill.

Among children and young people aged 3 to 15 years, the percentage who could speak Welsh decreased in all local authorities between 2011 and 2021.

Giving his initial reaction to the Census figures, Dr Cynog Prys, a Bangor University Lecturer in Sociology and Social policy, who specialises in language policy and planning, told Nation.Cymru he feels “disappointment” at seeing the reduction in the numbers and percentage of Welsh speakers in Wales.

“I think the most heart breaking of all is the report of a 6% fall in the number of school children between 5 and 15 years old who speak Welsh. This is across the whole of Wales, and in each and every local authority area. If we look at pre-school children between 3 – 4 years old, there’s a decline of 5.2% being reported.”

As well as being “bad news”, this is a shocking and a worrying development according to Dr Prys.

“What has happened here? Traditionally, when we look back at the census, over decades, the highest numbers of Welsh speakers are school children. Seeing this decline is a major worry.”

In Blaenau Gwent, Newport and Torfaen there’s been a fall of between 11% and 12% in the numbers of Welsh speaking Children.

Covid-19

“But! Are we seeing the effects of Covid-19 here?” asks Dr Prys. “Schools were shut for an extended period just before the census (in 2021). Many children were home educated, more or less. And if they were from homes where no parents spoke Welsh, and the schools were struggling to provide any sort of education in this very difficult time. What effects has this had?”

What is also important to bear in mind here, Dr Prys points out, is the interpretation of the parent when they report on their children’s language skills, when they filled in the census on 21 March 2021.

“The children haven’t been going to school, the parents haven’t heard the children speak Welsh with their friends perhaps, with their teachers, in a school event. Everything was cancelled due to Covid wasn’t it?

“It is possible, that all of this combined, has led to parents reporting that their children cannot speak Welsh. It’s complex and it’s a mixture of two things: perhaps skills have been lost, and what effect home schooling has had on a parents’ interpretation of their children’s language abilities?”

Moving ahead, he says: “We now need to look at what needs to be put in place now to ensure that we don’t have a generation of lost Welsh speakers.”

Carmarthenshire “critical”

The figures show that there’s over 23,000 fewer Welsh speakers on the day of the census, 21 March in 2021, compared to 10 years previously.

Dr Prys says, “This is quite a large number in a small population.”

The census takes place every 10 years and the figures for Carmarthen show yet another decline in Welsh language speakers in this county, says Dr Prys.

He describes the dwindling number of Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire as “critical”.

“There’s a significant fall again for the second time in the number of Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire. In the past 20 years there’s been a fall of about 10%.”

Dr Prys says he has no straight answers for the reason behind the continuous decline in Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire. But he does have questions.

“Is this to do with people moving out and moving in to these areas? I do think that understanding migration patterns in these areas is important. There are factors, I should think, to do with work. We see this with Cardiff, but it’s a very complex situation.”

Cardiff “positive”

The fall in the numbers of Welsh speakers can be seen across Wales, with the exception of Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan, Rhondda Cynon Taff (RCT) and Merthyr Tydfil.

“But” according to Dr Prys, “What is somewhat encouraging in a way, is that there’s been an increase in those areas. I think what is also encouraging is the situation in Gwynedd and Ynys Mon. There’s been a fall but it has remained relatively consistent.

“I was worried that the situation would have been worse in Gwynedd and Ynys Mon. Yes, it has gone down a bit, but I think it could have been worse.”

On the “positive” side says Dr Prys, “Cardiff has done best – there’s been an increase of 1.1% here amongst adults. I think this is something to do with people moving to Cardiff on one hand, possibly to look for work from other areas of Wales.

“But also – and this is important – because it could reflect the success of Welsh-medium education in Cardiff.”

It’s also quite possible, according to Dr Prys, that work, and the success of Welsh-medium education, could be a factor in the other areas where’s there’s been an increase in Welsh speakers: RCT, Vale of Glam and Merthyr.


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Cynan again
Cynan again
1 month ago

At first glance it’s not great news, but it probably bears deep analysis. What was the circumstance when the highest figure was reported? Was patriotism high at that time for example? (We schoolboy speakers of Cymraeg might overestimate our skills at such times. Whereas in bleaker times we may underestimate). Did a lot of the older cohort of fluent speakers die off? Death rates fluctuate. Did fluent speakers leave Cymru in some diaspora caused by , I dunno … Brexit? Where fewer kids are speaking it, are there just fewer kids? Was there a dip in birth rates about, say,… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Cynan again
Cynan again
Cynan again
1 month ago
Reply to  Cynan again

Part of the picture, not the whole picture. Birth rates 2010-2022 have fallen by 7000 – 8000 https://www.audit.wales/blog/audit-wales/2021/12/21/wales-schools-face-alarming-challenge-lowest-birth-rate-100-years

Cynan again
Cynan again
1 month ago
Reply to  Cynan again

200k excess deaths in the uk during Covid, pro-rata-ed down for Welsh speaking population of Cymru = 3000 5.2 milion British people emigrated from UK 2010-2020, pro-rata-ed down for Welsh Speaking population of Cymru = 75,362 These are not the whole picture obviously, but declining birth rates, excess deaths from Covid and Tory policy, plus natural migration patterns mean that we need to refresh the number of Welsh speakers more quickly than we lose them. Unlike English, Welsh is spoken in Wales and parts of Patagonia. When our people go overseas, they are likely to eventually lose the language. With… Read more »

Cath
Cath
1 month ago
Reply to  Cynan again

I’ve been learning Welsh for years, starting when my Nan went to Welsh evening classes in Birmingham, in the 70s. She only spoke Welsh in chapel and had never been formally taught in school. Since lockdown, I’ve set myself the task of trying to become fluent on one topic; gardening. So, I’m pruning my vocabulary to a few hundred words that reflect my interests. I’ve always loved nature. By the age of 10, I could have told you the names of 40 different tree species in English. At the moment I’ve only learnt 8 or 9 in Welsh. It’s very… Read more »

Riki
Riki
1 month ago

What did you expect when everything around them is in English! The only way you bring back Welsh to the levels needed to flourish…is gaining independence and then Downgrading the amount of English influence brought into the country. This will never happen while The British media is Dominated and Monopolised by England.

Rhosddu
Rhosddu
1 month ago

Probable causes: Children from anglophone families unable to learn and improve their Welsh during the covid lockdowns; Demographic change during the ‘race for space’; Unaffordability of housing on the part of local young people in the Welsh-speaking heartlands, causing an exodus of Welsh speakers; Insufficient nursery education through Welsh, i.e. not enough Cylchoedd Meithrin. The figures for the numbers of adult learners would be interesting. There has been a marked increase in their numbers in the post-industrial anglophone areas, but this increase seems to have been trumped by a decrease in Welsh speakers in the Bro Gymraeg through an unregulated… Read more »

Daf
Daf
1 month ago
Reply to  Rhosddu

Blaming COVID is the biggest cope going!!

Can we stop this in the bud early. It’s a ten year period. Most Welsh speakers I knew growing up have left their area and replaced by ppl from England who feel no incentive to learn

Rhosddu
Rhosddu
1 month ago
Reply to  Daf

Demographic change, as I pointed out, is indeed one of the problems.

Jonny
Jonny
1 month ago
Reply to  Daf

The figures do not cover a 10 year period at all. They are a snapshot in time of a single day in 2021.

Cath
Cath
1 month ago

There’s a problem with asking Welsh speakers and learners to describe their own ability. 25 years ago I would have described myself as fluent because I completed a couple of modules in Welsh at University. These days I’ve studied a lot more, so I’m more aware of problematic grammar. I didn’t become less fluent. I’m just more realistic about my ability. My Grandparents would have described themselves as bilingual, but they only spoke Welsh in chapel. That doesn’t mean they could follow everything that happens in the present day Senedd without translation. It really ticks me off when people that… Read more »

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