Scientists have concluded the Welsh language is safe – but if anything kills it, it will be complacency
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes
Like many of my compatriots, I was encouraged by the news that scientists have concluded that the Welsh language is safe from dying.
Anxiety about the future of the language is a feeling that many Welsh speakers are accustomed to. In that sense, being a custodian of the Welsh language is a great gift, but also a responsibility that can weigh heavily.
The report doesn’t just predict that the language does not face extinction. It also predicts that the language will thrive. It suggests that almost everyone in Wales will be able to speak Welsh within the next 300 years and half the population will be proficient by 2200.
Researchers at Canterbury University in New Zealand used statistical modelling to look at the trajectory of two vulnerable languages – Welsh and Maori – in order to see if they could predict which would survive.
According to the model, 74 per cent of the population of Wales will be proficient Welsh speakers by the year 2300.
The prognosis isn’t so good when it comes to Maori unfortunately. It predicts that there aren’t enough speakers to sustain it in the long term; at least not without significant intervention. Of the world’s estimated 7000 languages, more than half are expected to go extinct by 2100.
The report says: “The model predicts that the revitalization efforts will be successful and, in the long term, Wales will have a majority of proficient Welsh language users.”
The population is divided into categories of basic, independent, and proficient in households, and these are used to work out how the language would progress in the next few hundred years
The report is a welcome riposte to the naysayers who love nothing more than to proclaim the death of the Welsh language. Its death has been regularly proclaimed since the 1800s. Yet here we are. Yma o hyd.
The report also states: “We parametrize the model using data from the recent resurgence of the Welsh language. Significant development in bilingual and Welsh-medium education and the presence of the language throughout the public and private sectors have positively contributed to an increase in the number of Welsh speakers.”
It is a rebuttal to malevolent suggestions that efforts to boost the Welsh language are utterly pointless. According to the modelling, the interventions made to boost a language do have an impact.
So, if the report looks so rosy, why should we worry at all?
Well, for one thing, it comes with some important caveats.
It says: “However, despite the strong long-term trend, the initial revitalization period for the first 50–100 years is relatively fragile, with continued minority status and slow rates of increase, and therefore potentially sensitive to changes in learning rates or intergenerational transmission,”
This translates roughly into: “Don’t start counting your chickens before they’ve hatched.”
The road ahead is not without pitfalls, booby traps, and bumpy terrain.
Hywel Jones at Cardiff University, is sceptical about the report, and says that the model it employs is built on relatively little data.
He told New Scientist: “You’re putting a model on a tiny data set. As far as usefulness for language planners, I don’t buy it.”
The former statistician at Welsh Language Board also believes that the research also doesn’t take into account the prospect of speakers losing their proficiency in a language because of what he calls “language attrition.”
This is an important point in my view. We need measures to not only create new speakers, but to retain them. We need to ensure that we weave it into the fabric of people’s daily lives.
What the research shows more than anything is that the future of the Welsh language is in our hands. I suspect more needs to be done to safeguard its future than the report implies.
But that does not mean I am defeatist. Whether it lives or dies is up to us. We must not let its future slip through our fingers. If anything kills the Welsh language, it will be complacency.
If we work to secure the future of the language, it will not only survive; it will flourish.