Education, the decline of Welsh and why communities matter more than classrooms

Welsh language school sign
Welsh language school sign. Philip Wolmuth / Alamy Stock Photo

Martin Johnes, Professor of History at Swansea University

Why Welsh declined is an emotive topic. For more than a hundred years, some have liked to blame the British state, with the Welsh Not offering an apparently convenient symbol of official attitudes. Others prefer to argue that wider state attitudes deliberately created an atmosphere that encouraged people to turn against their own language. Either explanation frees Wales from responsibility for the decline of Welsh (although the former misunderstands how education actually worked and the latter implies that the Welsh of the past were gullible victims of some wider conspiracy).

What is beyond debate is that the history of the Welsh language in the modern period is one of decline. Probably at least 80% of the population spoke Welsh at the start of the nineteenth century and most of them could not speak English. At the 1891 census, the first time anyone counted properly, Welsh was only spoken by half the population, with 30% saying they were unable to speak English (although that figure was thought to be exaggerated because of the way the question was worded and some suspicion whether it could really be that high). By the 2011 census, just 19% of the population spoke Welsh and that figure was probably an exaggeration of actual fluency levels. Only in Gwynedd and Anglesey were more than half of people able to speak Welsh.

Education is part of this story but it is only part. If education was decisive to people stopping speaking Welsh, it is hard to explain why there were such large regional variations in language patterns. The central purpose of education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was to teach people English but in rural Wales it often failed. In 1891 in Meirionnydd and Cardiganshire, three quarters of people were returned as only speaking Welsh, despite fifty years of growth in the education system. In 1901, 10% of 15-year-olds in Wales were unable to speak English, despite the fact that school attendance had been compulsory for more than 20 years. In rural districts of Meirionnydd more than half of 10 to 15-years-olds were unable to speak English.

Today, the education system is sometimes condemned for teaching English to the Victorian Welsh. But in that period, people damned it for failing to do so. The reasons given by investigations into education were

  • Too many schools failed to make use of Welsh in the classroom and thus left children floundering to understand lessons given in what was essentially a foreign language.
  • School lessons were not being reinforced by wider culture in communities where Welsh was the language of work, play and prayer and English was very rarely used or even heard.

Thus education did not bring about significant linguistic change in rural communities because it often failed to actually teach people to speak English properly. At schools where teachers refused to use Welsh, children might learn to read and repeat English words but they did not actually know what these words meant because no one ever told them and because they never heard them outside class.

Moreover, even if education had been better there was little to be gained in Victorian rural communities through abandoning Welsh. The language was spoken everywhere and by nearly everyone. Giving it up would have made no sense. It was both natural and useful, whatever the Blue Books said.

 

Inroads

In contrast, in the industrial south communities were becoming more diverse. By the end of the 19th century, large-scale migration from England was affecting a shift in community languages. English became something that could be learned not just in the classroom but in the workplace, the pub and the street. Surrounded by an increasing number of workmates and neighbours who could not speak Welsh, the dynamics of language were changing from migrants learning Welsh to the existing population learning English.

Contemporaries noted how the key linguistic shift was among the children. They might speak Welsh at home but, in communities full of migrant children unable to speak Welsh, they played and learned in English and thus English came to be their natural tongue for speaking to anyone who was not their parents. They, in turn, raised their own children in English.

Thus demographics were key to why Welsh remained strong in the countryside but was declining in industrial and urban areas. There were, of course, other factors at play. The public rhetoric that Welsh was old fashioned and unsuited to modern life must have had some influence, although this has to be set alongside the very significant status Welsh gained by being a language of religion. English was also the language of a global mass media and popular culture. It was the language of a growing consumer culture and the army. This meant after the First World War, English made significant inroads into rural communities and in industrial communities the linguistic shifts brought about by demographic changes were reinforced.

It was only once English was well established that some Welsh-speaking parents took the decision to raise their children in English. Here they were influenced by the economic, political and cultural power of English but this trend was concentrated in the areas where English already dominated. Thus in 1926/7, of those children at Anglesey secondary schools who did not speak Welsh at home, only 2% had two Welsh-speaking parents. In Merthyr, 30% of secondary-school pupils who spoke English at home had two Welsh-speaking parents. In wider Glamorgan, the figure was 19%.

It is still instructive that a few families in Welsh-speaking Anglesey were raising their children in English. Yet the 1920s was relatively late and by then better education, military service, the cinema and radio had all boosted people’s ability to speak English.  Before the First World War, it was more common for migrants into rural communities to learn Welsh than it was for locals to drop the language. Census records show how the children of English families who had moved to rural Wales could often speak Welsh. Their parents didn’t speak the language and much of their schooling would have been in English. It was in the community and with their friends that they learned Welsh.

Even in the first couple of decades of the post-1945 period, as the inability to speak English started to disappear, rural Wales remained strongly Welsh speaking, despite the allure of English films, tv and pop songs.

What changed this was not education or the status of languages but English migration. Just as migration from England was decisive to the decline of Welsh in industrial communities, it became decisive in the decline of Welsh in rural communities. Children of migrants might still learn Welsh but they do so most effectively in places where Welsh remains the dominant community language. The number of such places is falling as the demography of rural Wales changes.

What happens in schools only really matters if it is reinforced by what happens outside school. That is why today, decades of Welsh-medium education in English-speaking communities have not changed the language of those communities. It is why some children who learn Welsh lose it in later life. It is why Welsh-medium education for all in rural communities is not enough to buttress Welsh there if the everyday language of those communities is changing through migration from England.

Future

If the Welsh Government wants to reach a million speakers then education alone is not the answer.  Even if this nominal target is reached through a massive expansion of Welsh-medium education, it will not mean there are a million who do speak Welsh, merely a million who can speak Welsh.  The decline of Welsh was rooted not in what happened in classrooms but what happened in communities. The future of Welsh won’t be saved by education either. It relies on ensuring there are still communities where it is natural to  start a conversation with a stranger in Welsh. It relies on people elsewhere having other opportunities to use the Welsh they learned at school. It relies on being a living language outside the classroom.

Indeed, it’s probably better, and certainly more sustainable, to have 500,000 people regularly speaking Welsh in their community than a million able to speak it but rarely doing so.

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Craig
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Craig

Agree. But a Welsh future just needs a plan, any plan. Something more than the tagline the Labour Government in Wales has pinned our fortunes on.

Ben Angwin
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Ben Angwin

If you own the property of a village, and the land itself, you can control the language. And gradually change it to any language you wish.

Siôn
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Siôn

The thing is Ben, most young people in Wales can hardly afford a house let alone a village

Mathew Rees
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Mathew Rees

Well they can, but they can’t get a job in the so-called affordable areas.

j humphrys
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j humphrys

10 up points!

Russell Owen
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Russell Owen

This statistical analysis re-inforces my life experience. In school in Newport I was denied any opportunity to learn my native language. It was no longer spoken at home,having died out with my grandparents. Nor did I have any chance to learn Spanish though I was required to learn French and Latin. Today my French is ok but I am fluent in Spanish . This is at least in part because I had a grounding in Latin. Nonetheless I learned Spanish because I lived there in Catalunya for most of the 80’s. I also found Catala easy to learn. I still… Read more »

Jonathan Edwards
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Jonathan Edwards

Agree, especially with your comment on the political aspects of 2020 Wales. Prof.Johnes has only reminded us of what has been true since at least the Welsh Language Act 1993. Welsh Language Schemes, and Commissioner, aside what have the Welsh ever done for us?

Anthony Mitchell
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Anthony Mitchell

Did the minister actually say we have no history?! Welsh history is some of the finest history in Europe. In fact its probably the most important history in Britain by far.

Simon Gruffydd
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Simon Gruffydd

One could consider this article a Red Pill for our political classes who claim to be keen to implement schemes to revive the Welsh language. The message is stark. Migration and ‘cultural diversity’ is killing the Welsh language. That may be politically incorrect to say, but it is still true.

Unfortunately, no political party in Wales is willing to talk about it. Certainly not Plaid Cymru, not even new upstarts Gwlad Gwlad. I don’t suspect Neil McAvoy’s new outfit will fare any better in that regard.

Demography may be destiny, yet fear of being called nasty names keeps us silent.

Penderyn
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Penderyn

I don’t know how monolingual culture coming Into Wales over 500 years is somehow cultural diversity in your eyes?

Johnny Gamble
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Johnny Gamble

What we don’t want is Welsh going the same way as The Irish language. I know its true that there are over 1 million Irish language speakers, but the reality is that the only people who use it on a daily basis are those confined to the scattered Gaeltacht area’s of the West Coast. It’s all well and good the Welsh government setting a target of 1 million Welsh speakers but more emphasis should be placed on preserving Welsh as a community language in Y Bro the Welsh speaking heartlands, otherwise Welsh will end up in the same position as… Read more »

j humphrys
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j humphrys

Our minimum requirement is a Residence law. The rest will be history.

Plain citizen
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Plain citizen

How would a residence law work? Please explain.

j humphrys
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j humphrys

Purchase and occupation of real estate to be controlled by Senedd, through it’s housing commitee.
Essentially, only persons possessing Cymru housing qualifications are granted consent to purchase property.
Exceptions could be made for high-net-worth individuals, who would pay, say, GBP 120,000 per annum to state tax revenues. This, of course on a sliding scale.

Jonathan Edwards
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Jonathan Edwards

Easy way or hard way. Easy way – copy rules of WRU or FWA and use 3 years’ residence. Hard way – copy UK rules and demand legal residence + ability to speak Welsh or similar. Hywel Dda way – wait 3 generations to be truly Welsh! Residence laws do help to build a national identity. But not a magic wand. Proper education including Welsh history and Welsh civics and Welsh language is of course good. Real need is for Welsh people to get our of their chairs and actually do this stuff. Plaid failing to do an SNP so… Read more »

Huw Davies
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Huw Davies

I suspect you meant FAW Jon ! The FWA would not countenance Anglo settlement of any kind, but never got round to being in a position to implement that policy !

Graham Deamer
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Graham Deamer

I recall an item on BBC Wales news in the 1960s in which the (supposedly) last Welsh person unable to speak any English was paraded as a bizarre curiosity. He was a farmer, possibly from (the then) Meirionethshire.

John Ellis
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John Ellis

I recall being told about thar when I was on holiday on Anglesey in 1960. The guy who told me was tickled by the embarrassment of the interviewer because the old feller being interviewed was apparently an inveterate swearer, with the consequence that almost every other word had been ‘bleeped’ out!

Rhosddu
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Rhosddu

Thing is, he wasn’t the last monoglot. There were several around in the 1980s, and the last died in about 1990, apparently.

Mathew Rees
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Mathew Rees

This is about far more than just the Welsh language, it’s about civilisation. Over the last 50-60 years we have almost forgotten completely how to be families, how to be communities, how to adhere to a basic Christian narrative, even if you were never a believer. We are now atomised like never before. Two parents have to work to pay the mortgage, children start school with no communication skills because they’re being shipped out to baby farms to be looked after by 16-year-olds. It’s taboo to talk about motherlessness though. Take a look around. People are exhausted, depressed, glued to… Read more »

Huw Davies
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Huw Davies

Some home truths spoken there Mathew. The ongoing disruption, leading to destruction, is the big threat. On a separate article on here I’ve commented about the need for continuity of immigration to support the demands for labour in our care and health services. So it presents us with something of a Catch 22. That said the increased level of older immigration, generally of a kind either not in employment or approaching retirement, adds to the pressure on services in due course. One of the unintended consequences of our regulations is that people with assets get to keep £50000 in Wales… Read more »

Penderyn
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Penderyn

Blaming a few Syrian refugees for the decline of Welsh is beyond wrong… Everything is indirectly linked to English rule….. Do you really think an independent Wales from 1500 would’ve let this happen. Remember Eire after 800 years had been destroyed as well.. Moaning about A few hundred Syrian refugees many of whom are learning Welsh Is needless and alarmist.

You also invoke this strange idea of civilisation. It was this very westminster idea of civilisation that was used to destroy the Celts and the Welsh language. Be careful which Anglo-Norman centric ideologies you swallow achan!

Mathew Rees
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Mathew Rees

They change the nature and culture of an area and have a high number of children. Yes, we need to look after them while they’re here but they need to be sent home. How I would have loved to have stayed in Ceredigion and raised 4 children. As a native Welshman I was denied the opportunity to do that and currently I have to work in the Netherlands just to earn money. I’m 35. I should be a dad of 3 or 4 living where I grew up close to family. But I can’t because I’m not an economic migrant… Read more »

Dafydd ap Robart
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Dafydd ap Robart

Mae hwnnw’n sylw gwarthus yn seiliedig ar anwybodaeth lwyr. Rwy’n byw yn Nhregaron. Defnyddir y Gymraeg bob dydd, ym mhobman.

Jonesy
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Jonesy

Ti’n gwbod bod dim sail i beth wyt ti yn ei ddweud am y Syriaid. Nid Syriaid sydd yn altro dy gymuned on y rhacs o deulu sydd yn cael ei synud i stad cyngor/cymdeithas tai cefn gwlad gyda 6 o blant a ansefydlogi’r ysgol a’r gymuned; y gorlifiad o white flighters o ddinasoedd Lloegr; yr artisans honedig sydd yn chiwlio am eiddo rhad i agor stiwdio gelf. ac o ganlyniad newid y cymuned a gyrru prisiau eiddo drwy’r to. Cytuno am y diffyg gwaith o ansawdd a chyflog da yn y gorllewin sydd yn achosi allfudo…

Jonesy
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Jonesy

yeah those Syrians they have been taking our jobs and our women since wwwwh I don’ t know 1945?

Arwyn Lloyd
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Arwyn Lloyd

A very good article from Martin Jones showing a little of the complexities behind the fate of the Welsh language since the 19th century. What stands out for me is that language is so dependent on the culture in which it is embedded. I understand people’s fears over demographic change. We must remember that young Welsh speakers are choosing to leave their communities in search of better prospects. That is primarily an economic problem. The decline of Cymraeg as a community language is another feature in the multifaceted problems we face in Wales. Our Senedd lacks the governmental tools to… Read more »

Jonesy
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Jonesy

Cataoia and the basque country have a thriving economy compared to west Wales and hence the viability of their languages- it comes down to business, and economy to support a thriving linguistic eco system.

Arwyn Lloyd
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Arwyn Lloyd

Absolutely agree. Hence the urgency I feel over self government. Wales is being undone by appalling misgovernance. 30% child poverty rate, poor health outcomes, low wages, low GVA, 7k pa net graduate loss, high housing cost to wage differentials all the while we have 70% of the per capita spending on Education, Science and Transport of the UK average. And the fate of the Welsh language? Related? Of course. If y Fro Gymraeg is lacking in the economic fundamentals then there will always be incentives for young people to look elsewhere for work and older folk to take advantage of… Read more »

Penderyn
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Penderyn

Catalonia has more speakers to make it more economically viable for one thing.
And a thriving economy is only possible through self rule and responsibility. The basque country in Catalonia have much more control over things like wealth creation powers

Anthony Mitchell
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Anthony Mitchell

They’ve been talking about the decline of the Welsh language since 1600, there is a revival happening and people are becoming more conscious about it. I’ve been relearning Welsh since I left school (English speaking school) and it’s been a fascinating journey. Latin was a super power language at one time…. Where is it now? The reason the language is so important is that it holds the key to our history, once the language is not in use they can then fully destroy the history of the Welsh, which includes Brutus, King Arthur and the Coelbren language. A fine heritage… Read more »

Sibrydionmawr
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Sibrydionmawr

Well, the ‘historical’ associations with Brutus to deserve to be ridiculed, as does much of the rubbish spouted about ‘King Arthur’ who no one knows if he really existed as one discrete person, or was in fact a composite figure of myth. And as for the Coelbren language, it was Welsh, and the product of Iolo Morgannwg’s genius, but nonetheless laudanum addled mind. If you’ve done one thing in writing your comment, you’ve certainly highlighted the serious need for proper Welsh history to be taught in Wales!

Jonathon Gammond
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Jonathon Gammond

An interesting and thoughtful article. Rural communities have changed massively across the UK: generally most people have to leave the countryside and small towns earn a living as there are so few opportunities, while only the wealthy, often retirees, can afford to move to the countryside and villages resulting in a lot of churn. In England it is noticeable as a housing issue with village schools closing as there aren’t many working families with children; whereas in Wales there is the added dimension of the impact on the language. It is down to economics and housing policy/taxation, not what goes… Read more »

Penderyn
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Penderyn

Anyone else notice the use of UK has increased rapidly over the years. The UK is basically a corporation created by 18 century aristocracy intent on building an exploitative empire. Who has the money land and power And ability to mould culture and language derived from this construct

Terry Mackie
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Terry Mackie

The best historical essay I have had the fortune to read on both how we got to where we are and why current policy is off-beam. Martin Johnes is ignored at peril by educational and cultural policy makers. That does not mean he’s wrong. It just points to the misdirections of identity politics suffusing devolutionary zeal and economic limitations: “If the Welsh Government wants to reach a million speakers then education alone is not the answer. Even if this nominal target is reached through a massive expansion of Welsh-medium education, it will not mean there are a million who do… Read more »

Arwyn Lloyd
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Arwyn Lloyd

Absolutely. This in spades.

Penderyn
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Penderyn

Although his conclusions about why the 1 million Welsh speaker push has big flaws are spot-on (and already realised by those with a critical mind who read the plans) His earlier conclusions about why Welsh declined historically however confuse me somewhat. He insinuates that the English state (which of course hides behind the once celtic ‘british’ label) is wrongly attributed to the decline of the language and it is the Welsh themselves who should take more responsibility. While I do not deny that many Welsh speakers happily cast off the Welsh language and didn’t pass it on. Saying that the… Read more »

Martin Johnes
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Martin Johnes

Just for clarity, I am not trying to blame anyone but just describe and explain what happened. As I think/hope I acknowledge, the position of English as the language of state and business etc is important but it is not until demographics change the nature of communities that it becomes influential on the decisions of ordinary people to drop Welsh. If English being the language of state was the key issue, Welsh would have been long dead by 1900. What I don’t accept is that the modern state took active steps to stop people speaking Welsh in their daily lives.… Read more »

Arwyn Lloyd
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Arwyn Lloyd

The only thing I’d say about being a “state” language is to look at examples such as Italian and Spanish. Linguists refer to “prestige” language, a somewhat unfortunate term insofar as it can be misunderstood. We can consider the influence of French on the English language during the Norman period because of the culture of the then ruling classes. If Welsh had a greater degree of visible (audible?) use in public life in Wales I’ve no doubt its importance in the eyes of the public would increase. I feel the Senedd could offer greater leadership on this. IIRC the last… Read more »

Jason Evans
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Jason Evans

“What I won’t accept is that the modern state took active steps to stop people speaking Welsh in their daily lives”. This comment is verging on an apology for the anglo-centric state institution of Westminster. In 1844 the removal of the Welsh language was bouncing off the walls of Westminster. The National Society was heavily influenced by the religion of state that was the Anglican Church, The state commissioned Blue Books had a massive impact on Welsh life and Language. The Welsh Not was still in use after 1870 when the state became directly involved in education. So I will… Read more »

Martin Johnes
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Martin Johnes

As I have said before, the Blue Books, which actually argue for Welsh to be used in the classroom, led to no policy changes. What people say and do are different things. The Welsh Not was sometimes in use after 1870 but this was not state policy and disapproved of by education inspectors. Education was very decentralised. The National schools you mention had no national policy on language but many used Welsh, partly as a way of getting kids away from Chapel schools. By the late C19th the Anglican Church was very supportive of Welsh as it tried to regain… Read more »

Jason Evans
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Jason Evans

The backing by the Anglican diocesan system and the readiness for landowners to endow Anglican education gave the National Society had a huge advantage over the British and Foreign society (a non sectarian organisation) , the state commissioned Blue Books was carried out by 3 commissioners who relied heavily information obtained from Anglican clergy at a time when Wales was “a stronghold of nonconformism”.

The state just had to let the religion of the state do the job for them !

Martin Johnes
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Martin Johnes

I agree don’t take one historian’s interpretation so…. See Matthew Cragoe’s work for how the Anglican church became more Welsh in outlook and language. See the parliamentary debates on the 1836 Established Church bill for MPs’ attempts to make the church employ Welsh-speaking Bishops and vicars. See the 1861 Newcastle Report into education for exasperation at the failure of all types of schools to use Welsh in the classroom in order to better teach English. See Robert Smith’s book on elementary education in Wales for the tensions between the National and British Societies and how this centred on questions of… Read more »

Jason Evans
Guest
Jason Evans

Well that put an end to that, fair play, quite happy for you to put me in my place but I would say that the use of Welsh language in schools was to promote English and never the other way round. It is interesting to me that in John Davies’ A History of Wales p652 he states (even though Davies is in agreement with you elsewhere in his book, as is Gwyn A Williams) :- “The Welsh Arts Council was established in 1967, an important milestone in the history of culture in Wales. By 1985, ……annual grant of £7m ;… Read more »

Penderyn
Guest
Penderyn

There is a famous saying in linguistics

“A language is a dialect with an army”

The Welsh haven’t joined a Welsh army in many many hundreds of years. They join an English-speaking one directed from London.

While I agree your Factors are a significant role in the decline of Welsh. They all indirectly feedback to English imperialism and colonialism. Imperialistic values were wrapped up in the 1800s by the way with large migration promoted by those english only speakers and Welsh crachach who owned the mines and factories

Penderyn
Guest
Penderyn

You might be describing the superficial reasons that we are all well aware of but there are still deep roots which can’t be dismissed. In my family and across many families in the valleys, as soon as a Welsh speaker married a non Welsh speaker they didn’t raise their kids to speak Welsh. Would have this really happened in a self ruling Wales in which not only Welsh speaking institutions were strong but everyone went to speak Welsh in schools and used Welsh in all forms of life. (Also immigration has never been under the control of ‘Cymru’) Is there… Read more »

Walter Hunt
Guest
Walter Hunt

Teaching and assessment needs to focus much more on confidence in using Welsh. Networks need to replace communities in dissolution. Language restoration must be integrated into a wider national renewal plan (can Welsh be expected to thrive in an England 2.0?) There are recognised standards for safety, quality etc. There needs to be one for Welsh that drives language usage wherever the organisation has reach- mandatory on public sector, private sector uptake incentivised. Possession of Welsh must be seen as an economic advantage in every walk of life, not just for an elite few.

Terry Mackie
Guest
Terry Mackie

If statist power over language really worked, outcomes would have been shifted much more over last 30 odd years. I am convinced that you cannot mandate language in this day and age. Martin Johnes produces good historical material sensitively presented and interpreted that this was always the case in the last two centuries. Compulsion within quite sophisticated democracies is gainsaid by individual and collective choice. The same could be said for repression. Johnes shows this on the subject of the Welsh Not. The thriving of Welsh (it’s actually doing relatively ok in terms of global comparison, according David Chrystal) calls… Read more »

Jonesy
Guest
Jonesy

Johnes analysis of the situation is spot on, but unfortunately nobody is listening.