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Opinion

Do we really know how many people in Wales speak Welsh?

13 Dec 2023 5 minute read
The 2021 Census

Dr Huw Evans, lecturer in law, Cardiff Metropolitan University

The article explores issues of concern arising from the two main data sources that calculate the number of Welsh language speakers in Wales: the official census of England and Wales (the census) and the Annual Population Survey (the APS).

Promotion of the Welsh language is central to Welsh Government policy. The Welsh Language Strategy (WLS) sets out an overarching policy and aims to have a million Welsh speakers in Wales by 2050.

As to the calculation of the number of Welsh speakers, the WLS states:

We consider the census to be the authoritative source on the number of Welsh speakers in Wales and it is the basis for our aspiration of a million Welsh speakers.

However, there may not be any more censuses as there is an Office for National Statistics (ONS) consultation about obtaining data differently in future.  In that event, it seems that this creates a problem as the ‘authoritative source’ for calculating Welsh speaker numbers will have been removed.

The census

The first census was held in 1801 and has been repeated every ten years since, except for 1941 because of World War II. Questions about Welsh language capacity were not included until 1891.

The census has been the prime source for measuring the number of Welsh speakers in Wales since 1891, a practice continued by the WLS. The 2021 census figures show Wales has a population of 3,107, 500, out of whom, 538,000 aged three or above speak Welsh (17.8% of the population).

But although the Welsh Government regards the census as ‘authoritative’, things are not as clear cut as might first seem. Census returns are self-reporting, and a respondent has to assess if they, and others on whose behalf they respond (eg, a child aged three), are Welsh speakers.

In many cases this will be obvious, but may not in others (e.g., concerning an adult learning Welsh as a second language). Because of assessment inconsistencies between respondents, honest responses might produce differences in respect of people of similar linguistic ability.

Therefore, the numbers reported cannot be regarded as definitive. If there are ways to improve the robustness of the data, these must be explored.

The Annual Population Survey

The APS is an annual UK wide survey, which in Wales includes materially the same census questions on the Welsh language.  The survey in Wales involves around 35,000 people. For the year ending 30 June 2023, the APS estimated that 29.2% of people in Wales aged three or older were able to speak Welsh (around 889,700 people). The comparable figure for the 2021 census was 538,300, as mentioned.

There is a significant difference between the two and these are not stand-alone figures. That difference has consistently applied and, overall, has increased since 2001.

Welsh language data from the Annual Population Survey

The APR is also a self-reporting exercise, but the data is gathered by telephone interview (prior to the Covid pandemic it was in person). One suggestion by the Welsh Government Chief Statistician is that because of canvasser input this may produce a more consistent response concerning Welsh language ability, suggesting that the census figures represent an underreporting. Conversely, the APS is far less representative of the people of Wales than the census, which supports an argument that the census figures carry greater weight. Either way, the contrast can undermine the integrity of each data source.

The difference between the two data sources has not yet been explained sufficiently. There is an ONS and Welsh Government  joint work plan on coherence of Welsh language statistics and, hopefully, this will contribute to remedying the deficiency.  The exercise is also looking at other relevant data sources such as the National Survey for Wales.

Future of the census

The ONS has consulted on replacing the need for a census every ten years by a ‘sustainable system for producing essential, up-to-date statistics about the population’ by collecting data from a multitude of data sources.

The consultation specifically mentions Welsh language statistics and that the ONS is working with Welsh Government to identify appropriate alternative sources to the census.

Data integrity and ‘truth’

The discrepancy between the census and APS data begs the question about the integrity of the data provided from each source, especially as the discrepancy is long-standing and continuing.

Data should inform policy decisions about the Welsh language but if there is doubt about the data, this undermines policy decision making and the associated (non) allocation of resources. As mentioned, there is now an attempt to explain that discrepancy. This is welcome but why has it taken till now?

As to what happens next, the discrepancy between the data sources needs to be explained and consequential action taken to ensure greater overall integrity. This must happen regardless of the ONS consultation outcome. The integrity of all data sources needs evaluation, as well as securing the future integrity of those sources that are then used.

In an age where factual accuracy is increasingly challenged and tested, it does not help if differences between data from multiple sources are not adequately explained. It obscures where ‘truth’ may lie, which then undermines informed policy formulation and implementation about the Welsh language.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights concerning freedom of expression mentions that the right includes the exchange of information. Implicit in that position is that relevant information (or ‘data’) must be available and accurate as a bedrock for a vibrant and functioning civil society. This includes available and accurate data about Welsh speakers.

The number of Welsh speakers outside Wales is not within the scope of the article but the need for accurate data will be similarly necessary in that context.


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Frank
Frank
2 months ago

The true figure of Welsh speakers here will always be rigged and manipulated by people in authority who have an agenda and who do not want the language to survive. They will have us believe that it is on its last legs. How can that be when children in Wales are taught through the medium of the language on starting school. Figures may also look low because incomers are coming here in huge numbers to settle and therefore diluting the numbers. I remember going to Carmarthen and the only language heard in the streets and shops was Welsh. Go there… Read more »

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
2 months ago
Reply to  Frank

Carmarthen town has, for the past half century at least, been a predominantly English speaking town, even if large numbers of townspeople were capable of speaking Welsh. Personal experience suggests that many of those now in their mid 60s hold somewhat negative feelings towards their mother tongue. There was, even in the early 80s a very apparent influx of English people, many of whom appeared reluctant to adopt the Welsh language, a situation sadly not helped by the willingness of locals to tolerate this – a situation that affects much of West Wales.

Kieran Thomas
Kieran Thomas
2 months ago

I think people get put off by the binary choice, perhaps mixed in with some cultural hangovers of not feeling “proper Welsh” or not wanting to speak Welsh without being perfect. As a learner, I need to get better at just having a go, rather than waiting for my Welsh to be “good enough”. However, I did tick that I can speak Welsh on the last census, because I can, just not fluently! A better question to get a better grasp of Cymraeg skills across the country would be some scale question. Many people I know who would never consider… Read more »

Rhosddu
Rhosddu
2 months ago
Reply to  Kieran Thomas

That might be a good solution. Many adult learners and older schoolchildren seem to interpret the census Welsh-language question as a choice between being fluent and di-Gymraeg, prompting a large number to reply “No”. Any recognisable ability to generate a sentence in Welsh is indicative of some ability, and a scaled question would accurately reflect this.

Welbru
Welbru
2 months ago
Reply to  Kieran Thomas

Yes, this is an issue. It’s not a yes or no question.

Shan Morgain
2 months ago
Reply to  Kieran Thomas

Yes, I have also posted here on needing a 3rd box to tick – also posted about this for years.

Rhufawn Jones
Rhufawn Jones
2 months ago

Some people (like myself) think that even the census figures are grossly exaggerated because of self-reporting. There was research done in Denbighshire shortly after the 2021 census results, I cannot remember by who, but essentially, the figures showed that the number of children reported as being able to speak Welsh was about double the number in Welsh medium education! If that was replicated in all counties, we would have thousands of extra ‘speakers’.

Last edited 2 months ago by Rhufawn Jones
William Dolben
William Dolben
2 months ago
Reply to  Rhufawn Jones

Yes I agree. You only have to look at the figures for children who speak Welsh fluently at home. When teachers assessed it, it was 6-7%. Now that parents assess it is around 10%. I think the truth is maybe closer to the teachers’ assessment. Not very heartening but that is the harsh truth. Now, the same percentage do become fluent during schooling but many then lose fluency or don’t use the language. I heard on a programme recently that 30% of people in Wales speak Welsh. We can say that as much as we like but it won’t be… Read more »

Martyn Clifford
Martyn Clifford
2 months ago
Reply to  Rhufawn Jones

In contrast I have spoken to over 20 people I guess that can speak Welsh reasonably well but put ‘no’ in all boxes.These people can conduct a basic conversation watch a TV programme and understand it . In my opinion they can speak Welsh but ‘slowly’.

Jon_S
Jon_S
2 months ago

A more interesting question is not how many can, but how many people do speak Welsh in their everyday lives. The latter is what is key to the survival of the language.

Welbru
Welbru
2 months ago
Reply to  Jon_S

Not sure about that. You can go through phases according to who your friends are, what job you do, etc.

Nia James
Nia James
2 months ago

Excellent piece. More analytical articles like this are what we require. We all need to encourage our young people to speak Cymraeg on a daily basis. As for incomers, we must all explain to them that Wales is an unique nation with our own language and culture.

Shan Morgain
2 months ago

The sources of the info on ‘Welsh speakers’ are far too crude. They separate us into two unrealistic, simple groups: speakers and not. But in between a basic conversational speaker and the complete ‘nots’ are a huge range of partial users. Many of us proudly and happily use Welsh vocab in everyday life but couldn’t form much of a sentence. We read public signs on roads and in shops. In my family we constantly use Welsh but we’re not ‘Welsh speakers’. In my case I’m also completing a PhD on the Mabinogi – mediaeval Welsh literature. (Serious illness has prevented… Read more »

Huw Evans
Huw Evans
2 months ago
Reply to  Hywel Jones

The work plan between the Welsh Government and the ONS is ongoing, and this report is an early output it. It is helpful but there is more to do. The report does not consider how differences between the census and data sources such as the APS might be attributable to sampling and weighting methodology. Yes, the report does explore the detail of difference between the two sources (eg, in relation to age category or local authority area) but not explanation for the differences. As mentioned in the article, hopefully future reports under the work plan will begin to materially explain… Read more »

Peter
Peter
1 month ago

I am really sorry to the other Welsh speakers of which i am one,, but we all know that the real number of Welsh speakers is far less than our government tells us. They say that it is almost one third. I say that it is about one sixth of our population. No matter what we would like it to be, the reality is that by far the majority of Wales, Don’t speak Welsh, it is not one of their priorities, to speak Welsh, and they couldn’t care less about the language, and would rather have a decent job with… Read more »

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