The buck stops with Welsh Labour on Cymraeg’s future
“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.
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.
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”.
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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