Education alone won’t save the Welsh language – we need entertainment too
Ifan Morgan Jones
I’m yet to meet anyone who thinks that the Government’s target of 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050 is anything other than an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass.
It’s difficult to take seriously any deadline which will be reached after the politicians who have set it will no longer be around to be held accountable.
Any discussion of the target is usually coached in language such as ‘If the Government is serious about 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050…’ Which is a strong clue that the answer is ‘no’.
The truth is that we need to have a fundamental rethink about the way we approach the Welsh language. Because if we continue along the present path the language will die.
Welsh, and the culture attached to it, are far too precious to be allowed to wither away because we as a nation can’t have a grown-up national conversation about this issue.
Part of this reluctance is due to the number of anti-Welsh bigots will seize on any criticism of the current strategy as ‘proof’ that efforts aren’t working and should be scaled back.
There is a danger also that those who are best placed to solve issues surrounding the language are probably in situ in jobs in the public sector that depend on current spending arrangements.
If you’re being employed to implement the current strategy, you’re unlikely to suggest ripping it up and adopting a different one.
Saving the language is hard work, and will require tough decisions. It would be too easy for the 2050 target to become a mental crutch which allows us to wallow in comfortable inaction.
Languages need to provide three things to thrive:
- Status. Speakers need to feel that the language is a useful skill to have and that the ability to speak it will help them succeed in life.
- Entertainment. Speakers need to feel that the language will give them access to a culture that is unique, interesting and that will entertain them.
- A sense of belonging. Speakers need to feel that the language with help them bond with their local and national community.
The Welsh language lost the first two of these in the 16th century. Its status was taken away by new laws which made speaking English a requirement for any half-decent job.
And as the moneyed feudal lords and new middle class embraced the English language they stopped funding Welsh culture, which meant that there was little amusement to be had by speaking it either.
The only thing the people didn’t lose was the sense of belonging. They held on to their nationhood largely because the modern state apparatus which would promote British nationalism wasn’t invented until after the industrial revolution.
That changed in the 19th century.
The language’s status was eroded further as Imperialist British Nationalism associated the English language with progress and any other language, including Welsh, with barbarity.
The Welsh language also failed to amuse. It became too strongly associated with puritan nonconformism, a culture not usually associated with gaiety and excitement.
However, the general belief seems to be that it was English-only education from the 19th century onwards which killed the Welsh language.
The truth is however that what did the most damage was not the dreaded ‘Welsh Not’ but the music hall, the daily newspaper and the cheap picture book.
The railway brought a cheap, mass-produced, populist English culture with it.
As one commentator said 1891:
“A child can get all of Milton’s poetry for six pence, and all of Shakespeare’s works for a shilling.
“He can buy all the works of England’s top poets for the same price as one volume of Dafydd ap Gwilym.
“This teaches our children to love England, not Wales. They feel that the language of their own country is not worth bothering with.”
He was probably being rather naïve in thinking that the children of Wales were reading Milton and Shakespeare.
They were probably reading picture books and cheap thrillers, the likes of which didn’t exist in Welsh for any price at that time.
They were also reading newspapers that emphasised daily that Wales as a nation did not exist at all, only as part of a British state.
At the end of the 19th century, a young Welsh population (in 1881 a quarter was under nine years of age) turned their back on the Welsh language en masse.
Status, amusement and a sense of belonging were now all gone. A million Welsh speakers collapsed to a little over half that within 80 years.
Fast forward to the present day: What has changed?
Well, the language certainly has status now. I’ve never heard anyone express anything other than pride in their ability to speak Welsh.
The language is recognised by the Welsh government and is a skill that is sought in many a well-paid job.
There is also a sense that the language belongs to the people of Wales, although – in the absence of a lively Welsh media – this sense is not as strong as it should be.
But how entertaining is Welsh culture? I would argue that it is fascinating, but then I’m part of the target audience – a middle aged, middle class Welsh-speaker – for whom much of the produce is generated.
The problem remains the same as it was in the 19th century. Because there’s no profit to be made from producing content in Welsh there’s no real incentive to appeal to a mass audience.
If you pay a middle-class Welsh speaker to write a novel, he or she is going to write a novel that will gain the approval of other middle-class Welsh speakers.
Welsh speakers have to turn to English to find the kind of popular, slickly-produced garbage that we all, if we’re being honest with ourselves, love to consume at the end of a long day.
Another problem is that there’s no real incentive to appeal to young people.
My kids grew up watching Cyw on S4C. This was fine until they hit five years old. Now they don’t watch much television at all.
They watch YouTube and other apps on their iPads. This mainly consists of Minecraft videos, video diaries such as Family Fun Pack and funny listicles.
Either that or they’re listening to One Direction or Little Mix on their iPods.
One day, perhaps in their mid-20s to 30s, these children will discover and fall in love with Welsh language culture, as I did.
But what does Welsh have to offer them for the next 20 years of their lives? What incentive do they have to speak Welsh outside of the classroom, when their entire cultural experience is in English?
Welsh language education is absolutely essential if the language is going to survive. We can’t take a step back on that issue.
But we must ask what will keep these young people speaking Welsh outside the classroom or once they leave school.
At the moment, the census suggests that as more children are getting the benefits of a Welsh-language education the drop off in Welsh speakers after school age is becoming more pronounced.
Do the children just forget how to speak Welsh? No. Ask any young person under 30 a question in Welsh in Wales and 50% of the time you will be understood, and 40% of the time you’ll get an answer in Welsh too.
We’re raising a generation who understand Welsh perfectly well but don’t bother using it or identifying as Welsh speakers.
Advertisers target the young for a reason. Because they realise that preferences tend to become set in stone as people grow older.
If the Welsh language is going to survive, we need to target this generation like a laser.
It seems crazy to me that I can be funded to write a novel, but that a young band in their late teens don’t get the same level of support to produce an album of popular music.
Or that S4C don’t spend a considerable amount of their funds producing content for YouTube.
Or that very few Welsh-language magazines or newspapers publish their content online at all.
If the Welsh speaking intelligentsia is serious about saving the language rather than just creating the types of content – and the jobs that come with them – that appeal to us, we need act quickly.
If we do that, perhaps the 2050 target will appear to be less of a fantasy designed to soothe our own comfortable consciences and encourage us to rest on our oars.
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The Private Sector has a role to play too in boosting the Welsh language. Please don’t forget that.
In the public and third sector job advert after job advert says that Welsh is either essential or desirable.
Apply for a senior managerial position in any of the big private sector companies in Wales – Admiral, Sony, Principality, Ford, GE none of them mention Welsh.
Take up of the Welsh language in the private sector is essential otherwise there is a big danger of the ‘them and us’ divide, that already exists, growing
This seems correct to me; one of the big problems for Welsh literature has always been a lack of popular genres beyond that of the detective/crime novel (e.g. science fiction, fantasy, romance). That’s partly an issue of audience, but partly (as you say) an issue of economic incentives, but it’s a large part of why teenage me barely read any Welsh-language novels at all, because there was very little of what I wanted to read (mostly sf ) available. And the growth of new media has caught much of the establishment by surprise. One problem is that visibility is always… Read more »
Hansh? Gorwelion? Ciwdod?
Also, we don’t get to access an important part of our national cultural output in the form of films. Over the years Wales has produced some films that are in my opinion, gems, but there is nowhere they can be downloaded, or even streamed. We’re outdone by Iceland here, as there is a website dedicated solely to Icelandic film. It’s pretty appalling that a nation with a population little more than Cardiff can outdo us. By definition, nothing in Welsh is ever going to be ‘mass market’, that’s just not possible with a language community of around a million, but… Read more »
People are obsessed with the 2050 government target. The first ‘milestone’ to highlight the Welsh government’s success with this goal will be in 2021 (4 years time) when the data, from the National Census, will be frightening. The data will show a modest increase in the county of Cardiff, a slight increase in Monmouth, a potential increase in Newport and a complete free fall in the rest of Wales.If you consider the age of the population living in the Fro Gymraeg and the demographics relating to the Welsh speaking elderly, the de-population of rural Wales to either Cardiff or the… Read more »
Any idea who the commentator in 1891 was? Would love to find the quote. Fits in really well with my MA history thesis.
I don’t watch tv in any language and rarely listen to live radio. I mostly listen to podcasts and audio books. The number of Welsh-language podcasts is tiny and falling since the BBC dropped mp3 downloads for many programmes in favour of iPlayer. I would be happy to pay for audio books but they are virtually non-existant.
Entertainment and inspiration! Let’s make a start here – e.g. there is loads of great Welsh music, can Nation.Cymru start reporting on the Welsh music scene?
I agree with Cymro Cymraeg above. The 2021 Census will be frightening, as it will clearly show that there will be very few areas outside Caernarfonshire with a viable percentage of Welsh-speakers. We have fallen off a cliff in the past 20 years, and no-one really seems to have cared. The level of mass immigration into the small towns, post-industrial villages and rural areas of Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion has threatened to drown the local populations in a sea of Englishness. Can you even go grocery shopping in Welsh in Ammanford, Llandeilo, Llandovery, Newcastle Emlyn, Lampeter or Cardigan any more? And… Read more »
This is a really interesting article and makes a number of compelling points. My 2c is that for Welsh to not only survive but to flourish it needs to go past the schoolroom and become the language of everyday life, entertainment included. To do this it needs every single Welsh speaker and every single other stakeholder to relentlessly promote its use in every single everyday context possible. From the top down: It’s encouraging to hear noises of Welsh standards being set for private firms (as an aside: shame on Santander) and, in the short- to medium-term, there likely needs to… Read more »
The Welsh Language Use Survey has shown that the number of daily, yes daily, speakers of Welsh has risen by over 10,000 since 2006. The Welsh Government’s statistics department published data today also that showed that the number of Welsh speakers has risen in all but 5 counties. Thankfully, according to this data, the has been an increase in Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Camarthenshire, as well as in Cardiff. Link here – https://statscymru.llyw.cymru/v/CMb2 I’m not dismissing Ifan’s concerns or his points but it appears as though any decline may have been halted.
Interesting. Is the general trend one of an increase over the past few years or is it only this year that it’s begun to show? I ask mainly because if it’s the latter we may need a few more years data to be sure that it’s not a one-off fluctuation as opposed to a larger trend. Still, it’s a hopeful indication.
(It would also be handy to know what the likely error estimates are as well, assuming that they’re working off of a sample of the population rather than surveying everyone.)
As Disraeli may or may not have said, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Whether the number of Welsh speakers is increasing slowly, decreasing startlingly, or going sideways, the course of action is the same: we the people need to do everything in our power to promote Welsh as a language of the every day.
Fair question. As far as I’m aware, the data relating to speaker (not users) is annual. So an increase since the last year. If you follow the link, there’s some information about sample size and methodology and so on. Increases possibly, but a more conservative interpretation may be a halte in decline maybe? The immediate death of Welsh isn’t something we need worry about.
“The immediate death of Welsh isn’t something we need worry about.” I wish I shared your optimism! To be frank – I don’t put that much faith in the statistics. I am very concerned about the extent to which they are artificially inflated by school children who receive some Welsh education but don’t use the language outside of that school system. At a community level my experience living in Ceredigion is that the language is coming apart at the seams. Its roots are becoming much shallower. I hear my own children conversing in English with other children who come from… Read more »
“The goal [is] survival of Welsh as a language that you can actually live your life in” I absolutely wholeheartedly agree. And there are a number of complicated, not necessarily dependent issues that need to be addressed to achieve this. One issue which seems relatively easy to solve is facilitating Welsh speakers who would like to use Welsh in their day-to-day lives, but who don’t know when/ where/ with whom it is appropriate, to do so. It’s easy to say “start every conversation in Welsh” but in practice, especially in predominantly English-speaking areas, this can be daunting. Yesterday I was… Read more »
Statistics are an extremely useful tool when used correctly. There’s nothing about the use survey or the current statistics from the Welsh Government that would suggest we need to take them with a pinch of salt as they’re not accurate. There’s enough anti-intellectualism around. There Welsh Language Use Survey shows 360,000 daily users. There’s no way that can be spun negatively. Some children won’t speak it but clearly many others are. Not talking specifically about you, but few will learn a language if the discourse around it says it’s dying. When it isn’t.
Scenario: Reception desk on Level 2, Cardiff Central Library. Big sign with the orange Cymraeg speech bubble. Two members of staff on the desk. Me: Helo, hoffwn wneud cais am pas bws. Member of staff: Sorry, I don’t speak Welsh… After this, someone goes off to find the sole Welsh speaking member of staff on duty, only to find that they are busy. I’m sure this is a common scenario. It’s not just being able to recognise other Welsh speakers, (which would be great too) but a case of really ensuring that all staff that work in public facing jobs… Read more »
In terms of a bit of honest discussion. As a parent I have played my part in making my children question and feel awkward about using Welsh outside of the house and at school. I am someone who spoke welsh as a young child, grew up in an English speaking atea and went to English medium schools. I haven’t got muxh confidence speaking in Welsh, particularly in public and I have passed that feeling on, despite the fact that my childten can and do speak lovely natural Welsh. They will always revert to English in situations outside of tje home… Read more »
Wel y peth pwysig (yn fy marn i) yw i fynd ati a chreu cynnwys heb ddisgwyl rhyw grant neu gymorthdal oddi wrth y wladwriaeth. Mae popeth mae’r llywodraeth yn cynhyrchu neu gyffwrdd yn gachu. Sneb yn atal ni rhag ysgrifennu, paentio, recordio caneuon, creu podlediadau ac yn y blaen. Mae’n haws i wneud y pethau yma nag erioed… felly be sy’n dal ni nôl? Israddoldeb a hunan-gasineb y Cymry? Fe all hyd yn oed griwiau bychain o bobl ar draws y wlad gyda’r ethos DIY sbarduno is-ddiwylliannau Cymraeg a Chymreig a chreu gofod ar gyfer Cymreictod sy’n amgenach nag… Read more »
Diolch am y neges Bele. Dwi’n credu mai’r ateb i ‘be sy’n ein dal ni nol’ yw amser. Os oes gen ti swydd llawn amser a lot o gyfrifoldebau teuluol mae’n afrealistig disgwyl i rywun gynhyrchu darn o adloniant o safon uchel. E.e. taswn i heb gael grant gan Lenyddiaeth Cymru i gymryd bach o amser o’r gwaith swn i byth wedi gallu gorffen fy nofel diweddaraf, Dadeni.
The next census will be done online and supplemented with surveys. It may not be comparable to 2021, but I am no statistician.
To answer a question above you absolutely can still grocery shop in Welsh in Castell Newydd Emlyn. Rhydaman yes but it’s different. The Welsh children (not many incomers there) use Welsh and English half and half and all of their cultural references are English and American, and internet based. Their sense of identity seems strong but language use has dropped.
Diolch Ifan re: “I’m yet to meet anyone who thinks that the Government’s target of 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050 is anything other than an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass.” Could we draw a naive graph from now through to 2050 and see where we should be in 2, 5 or 10 years time? If the government were serious about the target, they would be serious about the steps to reach there and measuring progress. If we have (for the sake of round figures) 500,000 speakers in 2017, and we have 32 years to reach… Read more »
Cymdeithas had worked it out by county and had a map on display at the Urdd Eisteddfod – many of them were needing to double the number!
To generate content on you-tube and other platforms is essential, but this is down to having the extroverts who choose to develop the often meaningless content, that kids and young adults lap up. The incentive for most of the american you-tubers is getting seen and shared – people make a lot of money out of it. Doing that solely in Welsh is impossible to get the millions of hits and views that people are looking for, unless it is accesible to speakers of other languages, like English, Spanish, Chinese etc. The most watched Welsh content seems to be mainly in… Read more »
I think you have a point there. I remember the outrage there was when S4C allowed young people pretty much total editorial control of some youth orientated programming at the time of the Porthmadog Eisteddfod in 1987, (way before the world wide web), ‘Swig o Port’ I think it was called. It caused such an outcry due to the dubious content and seemingly poor taste that I think S4C pulled plans to continue to allow young people to have so much control. At the time I was somewhat older than the target group, and yes, some of the content was… Read more »
Controversial material is also likely to generate noise that will bring things to life – young people are always pushing boundaries and quite often overstep the mark or maybe it just comes across as silly and juvenile to those who think they’ve been there and done it and learned from it themselves. You tube is the perfect platform, it’s free and maybe a bit of help with “how to videos in welsh” – by our creative lot who know how to make interesting short videos – showing how to make things appear more interesting, professional and funny might help nudge… Read more »
I’m reminded of Clay Shirky’s “Congitive Surplus” which argues in part that even the silliest small creative act (his example is LOLCats – remember those!) is still a CREATIVE act and the collaborative nature of it creates a kind of shared culture. And that you NEED the silly trivial nonsense to build the foundations and community that create the best stuff. We NEED silly memes Yn Gymraeg. We need daft YouTube videos of kids opening Kinder Eggs with the contemplative details suggesting their engaged in high level archaeology, we need things like Bolycs Cymraeg and Fideo Wyth and Hansch and… Read more »
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Re one of the earlier comments about wearing a badge, or getting staff in shops e.g. to wear one, Welsh speaking staff at the M&S store in Aberystwyth, all wear a badge with y Ddraig Goch ( Red Dragon) on it – I find this useful when starting a conversation. And to some amazement on my part, they seem to remember me and similarly initiate a conversation in Welsh. I do wish that more could be done to identify Welsh speakers in various business type environments, in a way that’s acceptable to all concerned.
Pan oeddwn in gwneud fy PhD ar nofelau Daniel Owen nol yn 2010-14, ceisiais I gael gafael ar y gyfres deledu “Treflan” a grewyd yn ol yn 2001 ar S4c. Doedd e ddim ar gael ar DVD, ar ffurf electronig, na mewn unrhyw ffurf arall. Cysylltais I ar cynhyrchydd, a chael nad oedd copi ganddi hi chwaith ac nad oedd hi wedi cael gwylior rhaglen am flynyddoedd. Rhaglen oedd hwn oedd ond yn 10 mlwydd oed ar y pryd. Mae rhyw 50 o ffilmiau wedi eu creu yn y Gymraeg ond dim ond rhyw 5 ohonyn nhw sydd ar gael… Read more »
Cytuno 100%. Mae ‘na gymaint o sdwff da wedi ei greu i S4C dros y 30 mlynedd ‘dwetha. Oni ddylse’r archif i gyd bod ar gael ar YouTube – neu o leia detholiadau da o ddramau, rhaglenni cerddoriaeth fyw, rhaglenni dogfen da. Dwi’n siŵr bod yna filoedd on oriau o bethe safonol bydde’n ddigon i greu hwb gwych sy’n adlewyrchu y ffordd mae llawer ohonom ni yn byw erbyn hyn. Cytundebau ag ati yn esgus pitw, o ystyried cynmaint mae’r byd darlledu wedi newid yn y degawd ‘dwetha. Os nad oes unrhyw hysbysebi ag ati, a dim arian yn cael… Read more »