It’s one-way bilingualism, not immigration, that’s killing the Welsh language

Picture by Hefin Owen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Abraham Somers Cocks

People often say that non-Welsh in-migration is, and has been, the downfall of the Welsh Language.

Certainly, if you were to compare the strength of Welsh in, say, Blaenau Ffestiniog to the strength of Welsh in, say, Barmouth, you will definitely reach that conclusion.

However, in-migration has not been the only factor in the collapse of Welsh as a living community language, and its importance, I think, is overstated.

You may think, that as an Englishman, I would say that anyway, but bear in mind that in Argentina, for example, some 52% of the country is of Italian descent, and yet Argentina is not an Italian-speaking country.

In London, where I am from, in-migration has in no way weakened the local language, English.

So why is the situation so different in Wales?  In London, everybody is expected to, and kinda has to, speak the local language, regardless of what country they’re from, and this what I have always considered to be the ‘normal’ situation.

Even in the most Welsh-speaking areas of Wales, however, people who aren’t Welsh generally won’t speak Welsh.

An obvious reason behind this difference is the fact that every adult and teenage Welsh-speaker in Wales can also speak English, meaning that if you are an English-speaking incomer, there is little obvious need to learn Welsh.

Bilingualism in Wales is hence very one-way, with 100% of Cymry Cymreig also speaking English, and only 10% of native-English speakers in Wales also speaking Welsh.  And it’s one-way Bilingualism that is the problem.

One-way bilingualism means that if you have three Welsh-speakers and one English-speaker in the conversation, all four will have to speak English together, even if they’re in the heart of the Fro Gymraeg.

One-way bilingualism means that if, in a Welsh-speaking area, the village shop is owned by someone who isn’t Welsh, then the rest of the village will not be able to shop in their own language, in their own country.

Where I live in London, the nearest bakery happens to be Romanian, but that does not mean that we have to speak Romanian whenever we want to get good quality bread.

One-way bilingualism has resulted in a situation where I have met countless locals in the Aberystwyth area who are non-Welsh-speaking merely because one of their four grandparents happened to not be Welsh.

As a result, English was the home language for the whole family from that point on.

In London, such a situation would be, quite rightly, inconceivable. one-way bilingualism has made the situation for Welsh much, much worse.

This wasn’t always the case. The Welsh language held strong periods of higher levels of in-migration.

Different

Indeed, when you did have English incomers moving into majority Welsh-monoglot areas, they did learn Welsh.

Providing evidence to the Royal Commission on Education in 1888, Beriah G. Evans noted that within a generation the families of immigrants into the Wales valleys would speak Welsh.

In the same way, T. Gwynn Jones wrote of how Denbigh was “completely Welsh” in the early 19th century despite the immigration into the town, because they were quickly absorbed into the community.

This was still true in the early 20th century in some areas, as I discovered when looking at the 1911 Census returns for Bethesda, Gwynedd.

The trouble was, however, that areas like Bethesda were no longer the Welsh norm, and that even in 1911, some 81% of Welsh-speakers in Wales also spoke English.

Therefore, when you had large waves of English in-migration, such as into the South Wales coalfield, the incomers had no need to learn Welsh.

English was, therefore, the common language, and factors such as inter-marriage diluted the Welsh-speaking population very quickly, and the rest is history.

The sad thing is, that this need not have happened, since Welsh-speakers at the time were much better at English than other non-state language groups were at their rulers’ languages.

For example, in around 1910, only around half of Czechs, Slovaks, and Slovenes, etc, were able to speak German was similarly around half.

If the Welsh had been more like those other groups at the time, then we would most likely have a very different Wales today.

Thus, we have seen how one-way bilingualism can lead to language death, and a situation where it’s the indigenous people who are being assimilated into the newcomer’s culture and not the other way round.

However, this is not the only disadvantage of one-way bilingualism; OWB can also have bad consequences for society in general.

Segregation

A Study of Language Contact And Social Networks in Ynys Môn, by Delyth Morris, published in 1989, showed that one-way Bilingualism, where it does not lead to all-out language death, can result in segregated communities.

Residents who don’t speak the local language feel excluded by, and resentful towards, the locals who do.

Sadly, my own experiences appear to support her conclusions; I all too often heard Welsh-speakers being described as an insular and parochial group who lived in their own ‘bubble’, speaking their own language which ‘nobody else understands.’

In London, such accusations would never be made against the locals, since the ‘English world’ is something which every newcomer here is forced to join, and therefore, it is not a ‘bubble’ to them.

The Welsh example, therefore, shows that one-way bilingualism can lead to unforeseen consequences which, I imagine, no country would ever choose to have in their society.

The sad thing is, that despite this being a post-imperial and post-colonial world, one-way bilingualism appears to be becoming more common across the world, and not less common.

I have often heard a joke, that if, in Dubai, Qatar, Stockholm or Amsterdam, you want to find someone who speaks two languages (ie, the local language, and English), you should go to a ‘local’ school, while if you want to find someone who speaks just one language (ie, just English), you should go to an ‘International’ school.

I also read the story online of a lady from South East Asia who had moved to Finland as a twelve-year-old.

Naturally, she wanted to learn the language of her new home and become part of the society there, yet even though she tried, she didn’t truly become fluent as a teenager because her high-school classmates insisted on always practicing their English on her.

Why should she be denied her chance to integrate and become Finnish, despite her best efforts?

If her story is not enough, then the Welsh experience shows that one-way bilingualism does not end well.  Let there be a wake-up call.

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