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Opinion

Should we stop asking people whether they speak Welsh?

05 Nov 2022 4 minute read
The 2021 Census

Dafydd Trystan

In less than a month the latest set of census data will be published including the number of Welsh speakers in Wales. Many column inches will be filled as people study the figures in great depth.

Some will search for confirmation that Cymraeg is thriving will others will seek out evidence that the language is on its last legs – and more or less any option in between!

But, there is a very real danger in placing too much emphasis on the census figures. At the last census in 2011 a little under 600,000 people said that they spoke Welsh. The most recent figures from the annual population survey found 900,000 people saying they spoke Welsh, and opinion polls have recorded over a million Welsh speakers over the past decade.

Surely they can’t all be correct?

The somewhat surprising answer is that it’s perfectly possible that all those surveys are consistent. The census asks ‘Can you understand, speak, read or write Welsh?’ and respondents are asked to select each option that is relevant to them.

But language skills are not suited to a binary Yes/No question. Think for a moment about a language you may have learnt at school and used on holiday in Europe. If you were asked whether you spoke French or Spanish, the chances are you would respond by describing your skills in the language. ‘I speak a little’, ‘I can take part in most conversations’, ‘I can order meals, drinks and talk to people in shops.’ etc.

Yet, when we come to talking about skills in Welsh we ask people to say YES or NO.

I remember vividly a conversation with a family member about what they’d put on the census some years ago. They explained that their Welsh wasn’t ‘proper Welsh’ and given that the census was ‘official’ they didn’t want to give a false impression. The conversation took place entirely in fluent, idiomatic Welsh – and they resolved to tell the census that they didn’t speak Welsh!

Majority

Therefore, rather than shoehorning people into an arbitrary yes/no choice, we’d be far better off asking people – how much Welsh can you speak? By asking such a question, we would begin the process of developing a far more nuanced understanding of the Welsh language skills of the population.

We might well find that far fewer than 600,000 people are fluent and confident in all contexts in the language; and yet I suspect we’d find a majority of the population have some level of skill in speaking Welsh.

In public policy terms, this is important as we work towards the national ambition of a million Welsh speakers by 2050. If there are hundreds of thousands of people, maybe even a million already who can speak some Welsh but don’t do so regularly – public policy could and should be geared toward supporting them to make use of their skills. Because language skills are like any other skill – the more we practice the more confident and proficient we become.

If we don’t speak a word of Welsh after leaving school, then our skills will decline; but if for example, we regularly serve customers at the local coffee shop in Cymraeg – confidently serving them their coffi and chatting briefly to them, then our skills will no doubt improve.

The further advantage of developing a shared understanding of a language continuum will be to help employers as they consider what language skills are required for jobs. For starters, we could consider a level of courtesy Welsh to be essential for all customer service jobs. This is just about being able to accurately pronounce place names where the people we serve live and to greet them in Cymraeg as we serve them.

This may sound ambitious, but consider for a moment the excellent 10-hour introductory courses offered by the National Centre for Learning Welsh; which would introduce anyone who needed them to the basic skills required. Thousands of apprentices are already taking a version of these courses that we have developed at the Coleg Cymraeg and they are being delivered by apprenticeship providers across Wales.

By understanding better the actual position in relation to the Welsh language in Wales, by acknowledging and better understanding that language skills exist on a continuum, we would make a major contribution to developing effective public policy to support the many thousands of people in Wales who can speak Welsh, but who for a whole variety of reasons will not have ticked the required box in the census!


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23 Comments
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Frank
Frank
1 month ago

Asking Welsh people if they speak Welsh!! How shameful is that? Can you imagine asking a Frenchman, an Italian, Spaniard if they speak their country’s language? They would probably think it was a joke. But here in Wales…..

Paul
Paul
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank

It would be a joke because because almost all Frenchmen speak French, almost all Spaniards speak Spanish etc … but that is not the case with Welsh. The primary language of any country is the language used by most of its population. In Wales today that is English, as it is in Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and other countries where it has been imported in the last few centuries.

Last edited 1 month ago by Paul
Emma Howells
Emma Howells
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul

Just because we speak English aswell, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t at least have the curtsey to ask.

Adrian Meagher
Adrian Meagher
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank

Mae gan y ddraig dwy iaith

Crwtyn Cemais
Crwtyn Cemais
1 month ago

Cytuno cant y cant a Dafydd Trystan ~ Completely agree with Dafydd Trystan

Knight G1
Knight G1
1 month ago

Trystan is falling into the usual trap of grading Welsh speakers based on the level of their knowledge of the language. Census forms have never been accurate and never will. It’s about time that people were stopped being treated as second class speakers by being called by the insulting term ‘Welsh learner’. Dysgwr y Flwyddyn should be banned from the Eisteddfod. No-one ever asks an immigrant to Britain are they an ‘English learner’. It would be more useful if crachach yr iaith and language police stopped looking down their noses and correcting treigladau of those whose language skills are less… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Knight G1
Gwen
Gwen
1 month ago
Reply to  Knight G1

No-one ever asks an immigrant to Britain are they an ‘English learner’.”

No, they ask them ‘is English your first language? ‘ or ‘are you a native speaker?’. The question is asked just the same.

Knight G1
Knight G1
1 month ago
Reply to  Gwen

Immigrants are asked simply if they speak English and not if they know enough to pass an English language A level.

Ingrid Lohr
Ingrid Lohr
1 month ago
Reply to  Knight G1

Hmh… I sort of agree with your argument, but I actually don’t mind me being considered “a Welsh learner”… when I say it to people it is a sign for them to go easy on me… slow down…pick easy words. I think it depends on what level you are. English is not my first language, but I would feel insulted, if someone called me an “English Learner”, as I find I am past that first stage of fumbling for words. In Welsh I am still very much IN that phase, so much appreciate if people slow down and give me… Read more »

Connoisseur of Understatement
Connoisseur of Understatement
1 month ago
Reply to  Knight G1

I think Dafydd Trystan is actually singing from the same hymn sheet as you! He’s suggesting that the question in the census is too simple; and he cites the perception of a relative who’s fluent in colloquial Welsh. If the question were re-worded as “For which of the following do you use *any* dialect of Welsh?”, then Mr Trystan’s relative could tick “yes” for “talking to family/friends” and “listening to family/friends”, but would be free to tick “no” for “composing strict-metre verse”.

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
1 month ago
Reply to  Knight G1

I have never met a Welsh speaker who looked down their nose at my limited abilty to speak Welsh, but living in London I have met many English speaking people who look down their nose when they hear my Welsh accent. I am often questioned, a few times a week on how and why I come to be in London, or how I was able to have a good job while being Welsh, or how I still have my accent. Once I was even asked why I hadn’t called my dog Dylan Thomas. A few times when peope haved discovered… Read more »

Sais bach
Sais bach
1 month ago

I think the question about which languages you speak should be on the British census and Welsh should be there as a question for the whole of the UK after all the city with the largest number of native Welsh speakers was at one time Liverpool. There were more native Welsh speakers in Liverpool than all the cities of Wales combined. Welsh mariners and others escaping the b*****d cerrig made up the number and worshiped in 94 Welsh chapels in Lerpwl prif ddinas Cymru.

Roderich Heier
Roderich Heier
1 month ago

What about those of us in the diaspora who can understand Cymraeg tipyn bach, but whose speaking skills are not so good.

Ingrid Lohr
Ingrid Lohr
1 month ago
Reply to  Roderich Heier

I am in exactly that spot… but if we don’t get challenged we won’t learn… because humans are naturally lazy learning… 😉 So I would be grateful if people were more upfront about speaking Welsh and I had to scramble to understand and learn and fumble for words… 😉

Rhufawn Jones
Rhufawn Jones
1 month ago

Dw i byth yn gofyn. Cymraeg yn gyntaf bob tro. Yn enwedig yn y Fro Gymraeg, neu’r hyn sy’n weddill ohoni beth bynnag.

hdavies15
hdavies15
1 month ago
Reply to  Rhufawn Jones

Fawr ddim ar ol o’r Fro Gymreig go iawn mwyach. Lawer gormod o fewnfudo gan bobol hunanol heb ddim diddordeb mewn gafael yn yr iaith a’r ffordd o fyw lleol. Gwladychu heb drais corfforol

Richard
Richard
1 month ago

Rather than just asking people Yes/No general questions they should be asked whether or not they can use Welsh in a number of different situations and how much use of the language they use in different areas of their lives.

Ingrid Lohr
Ingrid Lohr
1 month ago

As a German national living in Wales and a Welsh learner I agree with the author – stop asking, just speak to Welsh in people and show that being a Welsh speaker is nothing to apologise for, but something to be proud of! It will be a huge incentive for people to speak more Welsh and help to keep this amazing part of your heritage and future more vibrant.

Emma Howells
Emma Howells
1 month ago

The person will tell you if they can speak it or not. But if its on a form and asking if you want your form or letter to be in Welsh or English that’s ok. But it also shows day by day trying to erode the Welsh language rather than preserving it like we should be doing, its a part of our culture, which we also need to preserve.

Last edited 1 month ago by Emma Howells
Rhosddu
Rhosddu
1 month ago

Perhaps they should ask “Are you a Welsh speaker/learner?” and thus allow both groups to give a “Yes” without differentiating between them.

Gruff Williams
Gruff Williams
1 month ago

I think just as important is the percentage who identify as Welsh. We are in for a massive shock. Demographic change will see us finally absorbed. Cheque-book cultural genocide.

Peter Cuthbert
Peter Cuthbert
29 days ago
Reply to  Gruff Williams

I think that you are too pessimistic Gruff. My perception is that those of us who live in Wales and partivipate in local life consider ouselves Wesh by residence, marriage or intent. We don’t get to choose our parents of where we are born but we do get the option to choose where we live and whether we wish to adopt that country as our home.

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