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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Ifan Morgan Jones
Guest

This is a good article, but I think one factor which deserves much greater attention is the ideology behind this one-way bilingualism. It’s too simplistic imo to say that most people in Wales could speak English while only half of half of Czechs and Slovaks could speak German. The dominant liberal ideology in 19th century Britain insisted that English was the global language of Empire and that Welsh was a backwards, useless language, and the faster the Welsh turned their backs on it, the better. In contrast, the countries that did keep their languages had strong national movements which instisted… Read more »

Robert Williams
Guest
Robert Williams

I agree with the points you make, Ifan, but would wish to add this to what you say about the contrast between 19th Century Wales & such countries as Bohemia & Slovakia – Slovenia also comes to mind: while non-conformist religion played an important part in preserving Welsh, didn’t the religious obsession also divert the Welsh middle class and intelligentsia from the kind of concern with preserving & perpetuating the national language & culture found in these countries? On top of this, concern to save the souls of ‘our English friends’ led to the creation of the destructive ‘English causes’.… Read more »

sianiflewog
Guest
sianiflewog

As someone who has learned welsh ond of partial engish descent, i have to say i am horrified by the attitude of most english women and men in cymru. Even as a semi-proficient learner i would be treated to displays of imperial arrogance that left me fuming. Once, having got off the bus at Dolgellau, i asked a woman in my halting cymraeg about the connexion. The lordly jaw of this particular example of the master race rose imperiously, her bosom that had nurtured god-knows how many genocides and killings (just think of Amritsar and croke park) swelled. Her eyes… Read more »

Janet Pike
Guest
Janet Pike

Wow – you wanted to beat a woman to death, for stating that she was English and therefore did not understand you? How did you manage to read so much into two words? I really don’t think your blind hatred helps the Welsh cause.

Gareth Tuen
Guest
Gareth Tuen

Right Janet, pick out the very eloquently put angst that was felt but only written, not acted upon. Yet you don’t ask anything of WHY THE F*CK this person would be “dragged and laughed out of shops” and being “arrested and detained for” speaking Welsh.
Argue the theory but have no issue with actual oppression. YOU, my dear, are a hinderance to the Welsh cause.

Siani, can you elaborate on the above quotations for me please, I’m disgusted that you would be treated so!

Janet Pike
Guest
Janet Pike

The author gives no other reason for his violent feelings towards the woman other than she simply stated that she was English – all his elaboration on her background and attitudes (unless he has omitted details) are based on his preconceptions – the very definition of racism. As to his claim of being arrested and detained for speaking Welsh – I don’t believe that for a moment, unless again, he is leaving out salient facts.

Marc Penparc
Guest
Marc Penparc

She.

Wrexhamian
Guest
Wrexhamian

Nicely put, Marc (Janet Pike hasn’t yet worked out what you meant, I’ll wager).
It’s a pity we have to be distracted by such ignorance and bigotry, when we should be applying our minds to working out wider solutions to the real problems facing our language. I shall, however, allow myself to be further distracted by pointing out to her that for a settler to contrive to hide behind the ‘R’ Word in a country whose people have been so ruthlessly exploited by a powerful neighbour only demeans her and makes her sound ridiculous.
I mean YOU, Janet Pike!

Dyl
Guest
Dyl

Well, in Dolgellau, there is a high influx of self righteous anglo-centric ignorantes hanging around. Like one I saw with a fag in her mouth at the uib “Everyone’s speaking Welsh! Goh! What did she expect? They speak French? Or the ones that feel Welsh is a foreign language from another planet. “Back in school, they would complain “why do we need Welsh it’s boring” “or it’s sh** ” or “nobody speaks it” even though it’s heard a lot, and many are also born in Wales, I think most was about the Welsh lessons than the language, or maybe both,… Read more »

Abraham
Guest
Abraham

Hey there Dyl, I was just wondering if I could quote some of your message here for a blog article that I plan to write about the decline of Welsh in Meirionydd? Some opinions on the ground would be great to include.

Mike Parker
Guest
Mike Parker

Interesting piece, well placed in the wider (historic and geographic) context. I’ve long been deeply suspicious of blanket bilingualism as the default position. It may well have been the right thing to fight for in the 70s and 80s, but not now. It means that determined English monoglots can develop a 50% blindness/deafness and Cymraeg speakers have to suffer everything twice. No-one wins. Absolutely, let there be more Welsh monolingualism, in events and roadsigns alike (really, if they can’t work out ‘Aberdyfi’, they shouldn’t be allowed to drive). Total immersion is a far more effective way of raising people’s standards… Read more »

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

What areas would you want solely English, genuinely interested?

Gareth Tuen
Guest
Gareth Tuen

Leamington Spa, for one.

Steve Thomas
Guest

My grandchildren attend the local Welsh medium school and I know many Welsh speaking parents/ grandparents who take their offspring to the same school. Yet strangely,they will not converse in Welsh to them,thus probably encouraging the children’s belief that Welsh is the language of the classroom only. This happens regularly outside the school gates and cannot be good for them in the future

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

SOme worry they wont learn English enough…Ive seen it a lot in my school in the 90s too

Benjiman L. Angwin
Guest
Benjiman L. Angwin

Ddiwedd y dydd, mae am ysgwyddo cyfrifoldeb.

ERNEST
Guest
ERNEST

Thanks for the article, it does make you think. My wife and I came to Wales a few years ago and have been learning the Welsh language on an internet course. Although I would like the opportunity to speak Welsh. dw i’n siarad cymraeg nawr. many native welsh speakers do still speak to me in English; I am sure that is polite-ness and we are still not that fluent. I am sure it will take us a further 2 to 3 years to become more fluent. About national identity, language is important, however it will not totally define or determine… Read more »

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

This is a thoughtful and well-researched article, but it leaves me feeling uncomfortable because it seems ultimately to be arguing in favour of ignorance – that we should aspire to go from a situation where nigh 100% of Welsh-speakers can also speak English, to one where some Welsh-speakers can’t speak English. That would be a backwards move. A more constructive approach is to stress that people who know Welsh as well as English are by definition better-educated – because they know more – than their monoglot compatriots, and that therefore knowing Welsh becomes something to be aspired to, with high… Read more »

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

article doesnt suggest that Welsh only speak Welsh..where did you interpret that? 🙂

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

OK, I admit, implied rather than stated, but provoked by the Finnish example. This reflected my experience when trying to learn German in Germany: anyone who spoke a little English wanted to practise it on me; anyone who spoke really fluent English found it much less effort to converse with me in English rather than trying to decipher my halting German. The only way I could make real progress was to find people who couldn’t speak any English, which wasn’t too difficult once I got far enough away from the University (this was Berlin Technical University in the 1990s).

Dewi
Guest
Dewi

Here in Catalunya a monolingual school system helps. Even the letters to parents are in Catalan only. Perhaps Gwynedd should try that.

nosuchthingasthemarket
Guest

Well said Abraham. Some additional notes on the same theme… One of the reasons that I have – several times over – given up on learning Welsh is the propensity of many allegedly fluent Welsh-speakers to switch into English at the slightest excuse. In the first wlpan class I went to, I was assured that nobody would mind me using English words in Welsh sentences in the event I didn’t know the right word. I felt that in essence I was being encouraged to put on a fake accent and talk loudly, just as English-speakers abroad are famous for doing.… Read more »

Red Dragon Jim
Guest
Red Dragon Jim

This really does my head in. I know some Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire who drop in vast numbers of English words, or who habitually switch to English. Place names, numbers. There’s loan words then there’s odd substitution. It is their own choice but I wish there was a way to stop them, other than ignoring it or brushing it off.

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

Oh boy, you’re not the only one. People are free to speak in whatever way they want to and can make themselves understood, but this ‘bratiaith’ or Welsh pidgin is painful on the ear and embarrassing to listen to.

Wrexhamian
Guest
Wrexhamian

A thought-provoking article which raises some valid points. You are right about English settlers becoming Cymricised in the past – my mother’s family moved from Derbyshire to Flintshire in the 17th Century and became monoglot Welsh-speakers within a generation or two. Why didn’t this happen in the 20th Century? Well, you are right that the host community was in some areas already bilingual. Why was that? Answer: the Education Act that made English the legal medium of education, reinforced by the Welsh Not and other stigmas. Secondly, English, not Welsh, was the language of commerce and industry in Wales. Now… Read more »

Radek Piskorski
Guest
Radek Piskorski

The end of your article answers your questions. The “English world” is not joined only when you arrived in London, UK. Everyone is already in the “English world”.

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

thanks to the UK having a big empire beating everyone up and then gloating on about it

Aled Thomas
Guest
Aled Thomas

I understand that my comment will show that I haven’t fully read the article and it may be a bit controversial. I don’t think the Welsh Language is dying to any extent. In fact, there are more Welsh speakers than ever before. I believe that the use of the Welsh Language is changing. The reason why that you may not hear the Welsh language being spoken in friendship groups even though they are able to speak Welsh is because the Welsh language is dying as a language within the family unit. If people don’t speak Welsh in the family then… Read more »

John Jones
Guest
John Jones

Funnily enough, just recently I wrote this on the IWA site:- “Any separate language exists to convey meaning to other people. In Wales 11% of the population, those fluent in Welsh and English, have a complete choice of which language they use. They may prefer to communicate in English, 20% of fluent Welsh speakers are more comfortable using English, they may be more comfortable using Welsh (40%) or they may have no preference either way (40%) http://gov.wales/docs/statistics/2016/160301-welsh-language-use-in-wales-2013-15-en.pdf Page 50. The point is that those 11% have choice but there is no necessity. For the remaining 89% there is only one… Read more »

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

The Welsh language was destroyed by imperialism and colonialism….this is why people still fight for it…..they hate the reasons that it was weakened

Adlewyrchiad
Guest
Adlewyrchiad

John Jones you still have a massive chip on your shoulder. You got left behind and now you spend far too much writing to the Western mail etc. Accept that we are in Wales and Welsh is one of our languages. We will try to increase Welsh and from what I can see Welsh has really increased its presence and here in the South East people are hearing it more than over on the streets. Once your generation gets out of the way. ‘The rest may as well have learned any other world language and the benefit to be derived… Read more »

Adlewyrchiad
Guest
Adlewyrchiad

It’s so obvious that you don’t speak another language from the way you write about learning Welsh. Of course Welsh should survive just like Icelandic, Finnish or Swedish.

Colonialism runs so deep in the Cymro Saesneg. It’s tragic. Thankfully their ambivalence means that Welsh can be given the platform it deserves.

Brian ap Francis
Guest
Brian ap Francis

John – that is a lot better than I would have put it so thank you for a sensible,balanced posting

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

The White Elephant in the room:

Wales not being an independent state led to this.

A colony will eventually lose its language to its’ coloniser

Red Dragon Jim
Guest
Red Dragon Jim

And when Wales was Welsh-speaking its Liberal party, clergy and authorities looked to England instead of getting self-rule. Being Welsh-speaking was not sufficient as we had no control over our future.

Adlewyrchiad
Guest
Adlewyrchiad

The fact of the matter is that Welsh speakers are too ‘polite’ in this way. They need to stop switching back if one non Welsh speaker is present. I’m studying in my undergraduate degree and have learnt welsh for the last 2 1/2 years and am almost fluent. Quite simply the cultural reason was enough for me and should be for most. Being able to read Welsh books written in Welsh and English. Watch Welsh actors on the tele in Welsh and English. Support local talent in bilingual dramas. I can go into restaurants and pubs wit Welsh speaking friends.… Read more »

jasrob
Guest
jasrob

Visiting France, my Finnish wife demands we avoid anglos, who have their own `ladies´ circles, newspapers etc. Some of them have hardly any french, even after living there
for years. Case is the same in Spain, Tuscany, just like in Wales. More sensitive english people also avoid them, though. At the doctors a few weeks ago, he said `Oh, you speak
suomi well , english people rarely speak finnish´. I replied that I don’t, but also I was not english, but welsh. `Ah´, he burst out laughing, `you are of the colonies´.

Anarchist and Welsh Nash
Guest
Anarchist and Welsh Nash

John Jones- do keep up at the back there. “Survival” or ” Achub yr Iaith” are no longer the operative words when it comes to describing the Welsh Language context in Wales. The key words now are Developing and Promoting the language as every other nation in the world seeks to do with its own national language. See the difference? The first presupposes a defensive, backs to the wall mentality which is not all that appealing to people. The second presupposes a more vital and dynamic frame of mind which can prove attractive to people. It says to the world… Read more »

sianiflewog
Guest
sianiflewog

Oops – esgusodwch fi! i am prone to purple prose:”The lordly jaw of this particular example of the master race rose imperiously . . .” Actually, body language (for what that is worth?) says a lot more that words – certainly in that case. Her jaw really did rise and jut, before the imperial utterance. I was wildly angry and was left speechless, by this display of rank arrogance. I did actually look at her midriff and contemplate jamming my fist in – but of course i didn’t. My mother, god bless her soul was uceless as a mother (it… Read more »

Tellyesin
Guest
Tellyesin

Well then. It’s certainly true that one-way bilingualism is a problem. But from a government perspective we certainly need to come up with better ammunition to progress to a plan for increasing the numbers of Welsh speakers and the use of Welsh in the public sphere. By this I don’t mean having bilingual signage. Mike parker is right, if you can’t work out Aberdyfi then you probable shouldn’t be driving at all. The conversation I’ve had with an AM about this shows that it’s not within their imagination to increase the use of Welsh as a first use language. Dim… Read more »

Dick Wolff
Guest
Dick Wolff

Many years ago I was a pit deputy and had to pass exams in the Mines & Quarries Act & Regs 1954. There was a requirement in there that colliery managers in Wales had to be able to speak Welsh. Somehow I don’t think that requirement was out of some patronising desire to humour Welsh colliers. More likely, it was that it was judged that a pit manager couldn’t do the job unless he knew what his employees were saying amongst themselves. With union activism on the increase, at the very least you’d need to know what the union reps… Read more »

Phil Lewis
Guest
Phil Lewis

Mae gormod o’r Welsh
Yn bad thing.
Rhaid i language y Sais
Gael ei ffling.
Ond wi’n teimlo cweit dost,
Gan fy mod, to my cost,
Nawr yn utterly lost
Mewn bi-ling
?