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.

No fun

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.

Paradise lost

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.

Graph by Statiaith

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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