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Opinion

The buck stops with Welsh Labour on Cymraeg’s future

10 Dec 2022 6 minute read
Learning Welsh Language

Theo Davies-Lewis

“The year 2050: the Welsh language is thriving, the number of speakers has reached a million, and it is used in every aspect of life.” Etched at the forefront of the Welsh government’s own report is this high bar on language policy.

Rightly or wrongly, anything less will be deemed a failure. At the time, when writing in Cymraeg 2050’s foreword Carwyn Jones and Alun Davies said that after the 2011 census showed a fall in Welsh speakers, things needed to change.

But they haven’t: the number of Welsh speakers continues to fall. Two decades ago 582,000 (20.8%) spoke the language yet that was down to 562,000 (19%) in 2011 and 538,000 (17.8%) last year.

Cymraeg is not skyrocketing among 3-15 year olds, who should be benefiting from greater investment in schools and language courses. Only four local authorities, including Cardiff, bucked the trend to report an increase in Welsh speakers.

Cymraeg 2050 has never seemed so impossible; its target for a million speakers implausible. Other parts of the government’s vision, for example increasing the use of Welsh, are by contrast facilitated by various institutions.

Just look at the Football Association for Wales’ much heralded celebration of culture and history, or Wrexham AFC’s newfound international status, to understand how the language has been embraced beyond its usual heartlands by non-native speakers – who now know the chorus to Yma o Hyd and proudly say Bore Da.

Sport has done more for the future of the language in recent years than politicians. That is not to slate politics: lawmakers (or education) alone cannot secure its future, as Ifan Morgan Jones argued five years ago. The language needs to be exciting, creative, and relevant.

But there is a difference between having Welsh all around us – championed across mainstream public life – and ensuring it is spoken confidently by the public day-to-day in schools, the community and workplaces. It must all come together if we want the language to survive.

Responsibility

We often forget that minority languages around the world are under threat. The Welsh language’s survival to this day remains a miracle. For Carwyn Jones, Cymraeg 2050 was the strategy, though “deliberately ambitious” in its targets, that would help ensure the language “thrives”.

But in its first five years the mountain that the Welsh government has to climb is even steeper. What looked like an arbitrary figure in 2017 looks like an unrealistic target in 2022. And remember: Wales has a reputation for missing targets.

It’s more complicated than that, of course. So, for a moment, let us humour Welsh Labour. See the census not as a definitive reading of progress but in the words of Education Minister Jeremy Miles “one snapshot”.

The fall in the 3-15 category, for instance, could be explained by Covid keeping schools closed and parents reporting skills on behalf of their children. There are positive spins too. As Dyfodol i’r Iaith has pointed to, there was a rise in Welsh speakers in the 16-64-year-olds category in several counties.

You can read the census whatever way you like. Perhaps as a sign of work needed to be done, though still confident in Cymraeg 2050’s ambitions. Or as nothing short of a disaster.

What is surely undisputable is the need for Welsh Labour to take responsibility – as Jones did during an interview with Newyddion S4C – for the fact that a managed decline of the language has happened on their watch.

Alas, the greatest weakness of Welsh politics is that opposition parties fail in their primary function: to oppose.

While Plaid Cymru remain robust defending the language and should be credited for securing several areas where it is featured in the Co-Operation Agreement, they are unlikely to be salient in assessing their own deal’s progress.

And bar minor exceptions, you wouldn’t trust Welsh Conservative members of the Senedd scrutinising language policies in this country – not to mention the thought of them being involved in developing them.

Emphatic advantage

The most robust critics are seasoned campaigners, Cymdeithas yr Iaith chief among them. Protest is in their DNA. “Gweithredwch”, take action, they urged Welsh government in painted slogans on their buildings this week.

A Language Education Act, which would clear the way for all children in Wales being educated through the medium of Welsh, is their solution.

Is that good for Wales? In my view – in cultural, academic and social terms – it is an emphatic advantage to entrench bilingualism in our structures. Readers of Nation.Cymru would probably agree.

Yet is it viable politically? Absolutely not. Mark Drakeford knows that “his party” (his words) would never adopt such a thing, a reflection of the sentiment across many Welsh communities they represent. Unleashing the debate itself would take the language back fifty years and ripe for attack.

But we need bold ideas and aggression. The debate about the language’s future is too serious to be left to a government report that already looks out of date and unrealistic.

Curbing the effects of second homes, adequate training for teachers, economic prospects in rural communities, access to social housing, how we fund Welsh universities, promoting Welsh-centric media and cultural sectors.

All of these (and much more) come into play when assessing how to promote the language, as alluded to in Cymraeg 2050’s vision to create the “favourable conditions for it to flourish”.

Blame

On that point, Welsh Labour would say it is a work in progress. As always.

Fresh from a trip to Qatar, the First Minister might also be confident that he has seen and heard Welsh being used more often and on an international stage.

But it is Cymraeg 2050’s central aim to increase the number of Welsh speakers where he alongside many current and former ministers fall down.

In the Welsh Labour office, there should be a sign: “Who can we blame this time?” Westminster cannot be passed the buck for the language’s troubles, unless we want to go back a few centuries.

The only constant in our politics has been weak opposition and Labour dominance. Overpromise, underdeliver. Repeat.

That formula has miraculously won them elections, but doesn’t make them a competent government.


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John Williams
John Williams
1 month ago

The buck also stops with individual Welsh speakers. We need to use our Welsh at every opportunity, with strangers and not just people we know; to avoid defaulting to English because we believe our Welsh “isn’t good enough”; to continue speaking in Welsh if we can see that someone understands even if they only reply in English; to, at least, begin every conversation in Welsh until it becomes clear that someone doesn’t understand. It may feel uncomfortable at times, it may feel too much of an effort to do it, with too many obstacles in the way, but unless each… Read more »

Stephen Owen
Stephen Owen
1 month ago
Reply to  John Williams

Yes it is also the responsibility for others to try to learn the language, even if only to a basic level. Another important issue is to see signage in Welsh, not just in the public but private sector too where sadly must things are written in English only and Welsh is not even thought considered

Another Richard
Another Richard
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Owen

Good point. I have never seen a Welsh-language menu, for example. I have no idea whether the staff who serve me in shops, restaurants and pubs might do so in Welsh. How many transactions and longer conversations take place in English that might have happened in Welsh? Many millions a year, I’d reckon. Welsh speakers and learners perhaps need an easy way of identifying themselves to each other.

Dai Rob
Dai Rob
1 month ago

“Unleashing the debate itself would take the language back fifty years and ripe for attack.”
Absolutely……it would signal the end for Cymraeg!!!

Arwyn
Arwyn
1 month ago

I’ve always believed that the survival of Cymraeg depends on collective effort, consensus and the cultural/social angle. Just depending on education and legislation alone doesn’t cut it. I have first hand experience of Welsh Medium education. I can honestly say that 13 years of Welsh Medium education does not make it a given that any one person leaves the sector a Welsh Speaker. They will have knowledge of the language … all too often they never use it again. There’s a few things that can help. One would be to fully devolve Arts, Culture and Media to the Senedd. That… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Arwyn
Iago
Iago
1 month ago

Not a Labour supporter, but the buck stops with EVERYONE in Wales. We can’t keep blaming some politicians, the establishment, or even the English. It doesn’t matter your politics, if you’re a Welsh speaker or not, or your age, the buck stops with YOU! We ALL have to do something or we all have to face reality and accept the language will be dead within a century.

NOT Grayham Jones
NOT Grayham Jones
1 month ago

To blame Welsh Labour for the decrease in people speaking Welsh is rather short sighted. To be fair to Labour they have tried in numerous ways to help increase the numbers, but they and the rest of the Language brigade cannot accept the reality that we live in the 21st Century and that Welsh last thrived as the first language in Wales about 150 yrs. ago. Since then, the world has been opened up at an increasingly fast pace by TV, Film, Pop, and lastly the internet. All of which are dominated by English and American institutions who speak English.… Read more »

Arwyn
Arwyn
1 month ago

Good grief.

Wrexhamian
Wrexhamian
1 month ago

That attitude was popular among influential people in England in the 19th Century, but it bears no relation to current national sentiment in Wales itself. The age range of Welsh speakers is not predominantly 60+. I will believe you when you say that you are Welsh and a Cymraeg-speaker, but yours is very much not the normal discourse of such a person, and you did, after all, once make the questionable claim to have 100% Welsh DNA while making comments dismissive of Welsh objections to holiday homes in the playground areas in the same sentence.

CJPh
CJPh
1 month ago

Diar annwyl. HOW? How does it hold us back? This is what has never been stated. Here’s a counterpoint to your halfway-to-a-cogent position; Welsh medium education, which regularly outstrips Wales-based private schools for results, also tend to produce a higher number of kids going on to higher ranked universities, a higher number of individuals who go on to earn higher wages, a vastly higher number of individuals in high-status fields like the arts, media and sport. The language being at the core of the education at these schools certainly doesn’t seem to be hindering them. Imagine stating extant circumstances and… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by CJPh
Jon_S
Jon_S
1 month ago

As others have pointed out, it is individuals and communities who can do most to save the language, and not politicians. It also speaks volumes, though, that this article, and site as a whole, are written in English, for commercial reasons or for matter of reach, I suppose.

Richard
Richard
1 month ago

The buck stops with us all – no ifs – no buts and no blame.

We all benefit from the delights of a beautiful, bilingual, inclusive and caring nation.

We need to empower our elected leaders with the encouragement and enthusiasm we see in places like the Urdd and National Eisteddfodau..

While there will always be a few who seek to scare and divide for their own agendas – all polls show good will for Cymraeg 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿.. .

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
1 month ago
Reply to  Richard

Yes, “the world language is (bad to terrible) English” is the general cry, but long term this will probably not be the case, with USA and UK in decline. One can see a time when China and India become 1 and 2, now that Europe has cut itself off from the commodities that Russia supplied. We will live in a multi polar world where more languages become important to learn again after the American retreat. So, now is the time to boost our own language, bathing our kids in it, thus fostering the skills to learn others.

I.Humphrys
I.Humphrys
1 month ago
Reply to  I.Humphrys

After making this comment some time ago, I happened to be looking at some geopolitical videos on the Net and saw “Arab countries now beginning classes
on Mandarin”, most notably Saudi Arabia. Watch that space!

Mike Flynn
Mike Flynn
1 month ago

Despite a fortune being spent on trying to revive the language through the bilingual programme the fact remains the majority of the population are monoglots.There is nothing that can be done to make these people learn or use the language. The school system may well teach a foundation but this is far removed from day to day use. The majority of school leavers abandon it. I was taught French at school in Wrexham six decades ago but have never had to use it. Across Europe and the world English is the international language. The other issue is cross border migration… Read more »

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