The census hides the true decline of the Welsh language – it needs to be changed

Children at school. Picture by Lucélia Ribeiro (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Abraham Somers

At every decade since 1891 the inhabitants of Wales have been asked if they can speak Welsh.  Ever since, the question has been used to judge the health of the Welsh Language.

During the 20th century, the census showed a steep drop from just under one million Welsh speakers to around 500,000 in the 90s. But the number now seems to have stabilised.

Of course, despite ‘only’ halving, the number has continued to fall as a percentage as the Welsh population has increased.

However, one gets the feeling that the Welsh Government views this stabilisation as something of a victory in itself. At least the language isn’t losing ground.

The trouble, however, is that this census question has become increasingly useless and misleading as a way of measuring the health of the Welsh language, and is only going to become more so.

The problem is that the Census only asks if you ‘can’ speak Welsh, and nothing more.  No question is asked about whether you actually use Welsh, whether it is your mother tongue or second language, or even how fluent you are.

One hundred, or even fifty years ago, this wasn’t a problem. Then, the vast majority of Welsh-speakers spoke it precisely because it was their mother tongue – the number of second language speakers was much lower back then.

Therefore the Census figures were very much an accurate indication of the numbers and percentages of people speaking it as their day to day language.

Not anymore.  Since then we’ve seen a big increase in the number of second language speakers due to the rise in Welsh language education, and the collapse of Welsh as a mother tongue in areas where Welsh used to be the community language.

As a result, the overall figure in the Census is now wildly optimistic, and gives a very misleading impression of the health of the Welsh language.

Figures from the School Census of 2013, below, allow us to compare the percentage of people able to speak Welsh with the percentages of primary school pupils speaking Welsh at home.

Note that the 2011 Census figures refer to actual settlements, and not necessarily the electoral wards, which may have the same name but cover a smaller/larger area.

Name of Town/Village % of People ‘able’ to speak Welsh in 2011 Census % of PS children speaking Welsh at home in 2013 School Census % points difference, +/-
Llanrug 82.4 90.1 +7.7
Llanuwchllyn 83.5 80.0 -3.5
Pwllelli 78.7 67.9 -10.8
Dolgellau 64.8 30.5 -34.3
Barmouth 41.5 4.2 -37.3

 

What these five examples from Gwynedd show is that the 2011 Cenus is very slow to reflect the linguistic change that happens when a Welsh speaking community becomes anglicised.

Only in those communities where the Welsh language was strongest, like Llanrug and Llanuwchllyn, did the 2011 census give us an accurate indication of the situation on the ground.

In areas where anglicisation is occurring, or has occurred, the 2011 Census figure does a very good job at hiding it.

The census makes us most over-optimistic where we can least afford to be – and that’s precisely due to the way the question is phrased.

What is the Alternative?

The Census Question needs to be changed, and it’s obvious what the alternative is, for that alternative is the one used in most other countries in the world.

In Estonia, in Ethiopia, in Peru, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the main language question asked is/was ‘What is your mother tongue?’/ ‘What was the main language spoken to you at home during your childhood?’

In fact, the United Kingdom already does it with regards to immigrant languages; at the 2011 Census, every resident of Wales was asked if their home language was anything other than English or Welsh.  That question needs to be modified so that Welsh and English are included.

There then needs to be a second question, asking everyone whose mother tongue is not Welsh, to state their level of ability in that language.

That way, we will have a much more accurate picture of who speaks Welsh and to what extent, and our efforts can be more effectively targeted in ensuring that the Welsh language is allowed to thrive in these communities.

Articles via Email

Get instant updates to your inbox

We do not moderate comments before they appear. The views expressed in the comments are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of Nation. Cymru. Please read our community standards and participation guidelines before contributing.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of
kim erswell
Guest
kim erswell

What I find interesting is that the census shows one figure whist a survey by the Welsh goverments StatsWales, as of year ending 31st of March 2017, appears to me to show a figure over 50% higher in their one. I noted in a recent Radio 3 broadcast – Private Passions – the singer, writer, Gwyneth Glyn challenged the lower figure arguing that many Welsh speakers decline to call themselves fluent speakers feeling their Gymraeg isn’t good enough; having hang-ups thinking they don’t speak a “correct Welsh” so decline to answer that they do. I’ve come across this in conversation… Read more »

Trailorboy
Guest
Trailorboy

I’m pretty sure there is a lot of under-reporting as well and maybe the two things balance themselves out a bit. When it comes to the census, there’s a bit of an honesty thing that goes on with the census and I had to ask myself how well can I speak Welsh and decided to put down no-abilities. I’ve made an effort since to try to change that, but both yes and no were both strictly innacurate at that time. As for first or second language – how do you decide on that one – in many cases it will… Read more »

Cymreigiwr
Guest
Cymreigiwr

The problem is that there is no accurate definition of what counts as a Welsh speaker, or as fluency, and arguably can never be. Arguably it’s a comparative term. People’s responses are completely subjective, and very easily coloured by context, the frame of mind they’re in, and the way they feel about it. You mention hangups, Kim – these are a big problem in many ways. Language is a social thing, and the way people feel about it is absolutely critical. The hangups of Welsh families in the Victorian era led them to believe that they’d help their kids by… Read more »

cathasturias
Guest

In 1971 the census asked whether you read or wrote Welsh, as well as whether you spoke the language. The father of a friend of mine spent some time reminding people to whom he delivered the forms that they did read Welsh, when they used their hymnal in chapel/church.

Cymreigiwr
Guest
Cymreigiwr

Byddwch yn ofalus am beth chi’n dymuno – mae’r Cyfrifiad yn amherffaith mewn sawl ffordd ac mae tystiolaeth o broblemau, ond cofia bod unrhyw neges am grebachiad yn gallu creu naratif niweidiol iawn – yn crebachu ffydd a hyder siaradwyr Cymraeg, a’i gefnogwyr, yn eu ddyfodol, ac yn fel ar fysedd gelynion y Gymraeg (maen nhw bendant yn bodoli!) sy’n honni bod dirywiad a marwolaeth yr iaith yn anorfod, ac felly bod gwastraff arian ac amser yw ei hoedi. Mae ‘na wirionedd yn y neges bod niferoedd o siaradwyr rhugl yn weddol sefydlog, a niferoedd dysgwyr gyda rhywfaint o Gymraeg… Read more »

Neil Shadrach
Guest
Neil Shadrach

Cytuno’n llwyr. Byddai’r neges bod y nifer ‘go iawn’ o siaradwyr yn llawer is yn niweidiol iawn

Neil Shadrach
Guest
Neil Shadrach

The assumption that there is a ‘mother tongue’ or single ‘main’ language at home is a false one. Now more than every the home is often a mixed environment linguistically. A significant proportion of native Welsh speakers now have only one parent who is fluent. Removing many of them from statistics by classing the other language, usually English, would be a big mistake. While the distinction between ‘can speak’ and ‘do speak’ is important and useful it would also be a mistake to lose sight of those who can use the language even if it’s not their first choice. They… Read more »

jrsdavies
Guest

The other problem with the census is that only census forms distributed in Wales asked the question about speaking Welsh. In 2011 I was living in Northern Ireland and the form I had to fill in asked me about my ability to speak Irish (which I can’t) and not any other language; census forms in England didn’t ask about ability to speak any of the UK’s native languages (Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Irish or Scots Gaelic). There may be hundreds, if not thousands, of Welsh speakers living outside Wales’s borders. Didn’t our present poet laureate grow up speaking Welsh in London?

Trailorboy
Guest
Trailorboy

dw i’n cytuno, achos dw i’n teimlo fel rhan o’r poblogaeth lle mae’r Cymraeg yn tyfu a mae gen i blant sy’n siarad yn rhugl hyd yn oed iaeth y gytre yw cymysg o Gymraeg a Saesneg. Sai’n gwybod beth yw’r iaith gyntaf i fi neu fy mhlant – mae’n amhosib i ateb. Y problem pwysicaf yw ddelio gyda’r hyderus i ddefnyddio’r iaeth ac mae’n bwysig I ddeall y peth yn well ond y census yw rhywbeth gwahanol a pholiticaidd iawn ond yw e.

Cofi Dre
Guest
Cofi Dre

Well, one stick used to beat Welsh with is that even people who speak it can’t write it etc, and that is used to underrepresent Welsh. But actually, many English speakers in the UK can;t really ‘write’ English either, but they’re never asked the question about confidence and writing skills. I’ve seen people with better Welsh than the English of people who claim to be totally comfortable in English putting themselves down as not being able to write it fluently etc. While I accept totally the case for sorting out our language policy and safeguarding Welsh, the questions are always… Read more »

kim erswell
Guest
kim erswell

True, Cofi Dre, no one using a strongly Geordie accent infused with local dialect would ponder whether they speak English or not on a census. Same for a Glaswegian or my own Thames estaury accent which people in other parts of Britain wouldn’t see as standard BBC and difficult to follow.

Capitalist and Welshnash
Guest
Capitalist and Welshnash

Aelod Seneddol Alun Davies’ white paper recently stated the need for more frequent and localised assessments of Welsh speakers and their statistics as part of its 1 million speakers plan. Whilst I sincerely support this recommendation, no government is going to be the wind behind the sails needed to increase the Welsh Language. It’s up to Welsh speakers themselves to mobilize more efficiently and to organise in to structures that get the job done without outside help if Welsh Labours ambitious plan turns out to be a ‘sweep it under the rug’ ploy to allay responsibility in the same way… Read more »

Cymreigiwr
Guest
Cymreigiwr

OK. I’d argue Welsh speakers are already ‘mobilised’ – what d’you want us all to do exactly, that we’re not already doing? We all only have so much free time. This sounds like an argument against publicly funded involvement. Obviously that’s not enough on its own, but it is absolutely the job of government to arrange provision of facilities and to coordinate promotion and marketing of the language. Who else is going to be able to fund/resource that?

Capitalist and Welshnash
Guest
Capitalist and Welshnash

Gai Toms sang a song that went something similar to this: ‘Pam ges i ngeni mewn gwlad mor ddi-asgwrn cefn?!’

John Jones
Guest
John Jones

The opening sentence is wrong in fact. Although a question on ability to speak Welsh has been asked since 1891 the question wasn’t “can you speak Welsh?” until the 2001 census. Prior to that the question was “Do you speak Welsh”. The change in question was responsible some thought to the apparent increase in the percentage and number who said that they could speak Welsh in the 2001 census. You can see the analysis of various ways of finding the numbers of Welsh speakers, and the varying result, here:- http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20040722055520/http:/www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_compendia/fow/WelshLanguage.pdf I did ask the All Wales survey about the apparent… Read more »

Trailorboy
Guest
Trailorboy

If the census numbers are going to be used for making future funding and planning decisions then how well the language is spoken may not be that relevant – anyone learning Welsh and maybe classing themselves as a non speaker is still very likely to be a viewer of S4C or listener of Radio Cymru, likely to want services in Welsh and likely to be somone who needs to visit libraries to take out Welsh books to read etc. In terms of provision of services and allocation of funds then the level of ability is useful in some instances for… Read more »

Tame Frontiersman
Guest
Tame Frontiersman

Yes, the self reporting of capabilities and reporting of children by parents in the census is open to considerable interpretation.

A more serious criticism of relying on census data is that censuses are once every 10 years. This is too long to wait to evaluate the success or otherwise of interventions and action plans and then spread the good-practice

John Jones
Guest
John Jones

That parents are often misled about their child’s Welsh language ability is suggested by the census returns for the LAs with low percentages of adult Welsh speakers. In La’s with a moderate percentage of Welsh speakers, like Conwy, Denbighshire or Pembrokeshire, parent’s seem to have a fair appreciation of what it means to “be able to speak Welsh”. The number of children reported by the household reference person as “able to speak Welsh” is very close to the number of children in Welsh medium and bilingual schools. In Monmouthshire, Newport and Blaenau Gwent for instance. parents reported far more children… Read more »

nic
Guest
nic

A question about reading and writing in Welsh is only required if it is a survey about the nation’s literacy. To my knowledge, the census in England does not ask this re. English so I don’t know why we should. I think it also inclines people to answer negatively regarding speaking Welsh because they think they must be linked, that you should only really tick ‘yes’ if you’re completely fluent in speaking, reading and writing. My father and one friend both speak Welsh but wouldn’t feel comfortable stating that they can read and write in Welsh due being products of… Read more »

Hywel M
Guest

It would be helpful if views on the census were given to consultations by the ONS. The results of one about language questions for 2021 were published in May last year: https://www.ons.gov.uk/file?uri=/census/censustransformationprogramme/consultations/the2021censusinitialviewoncontentforenglandandwales/topicreport11language.pdf I disagree with the suggestion that there would be a benefit in asking about whether Welsh is the home language, for the same reasons as those given above by Neil Shadrach and Cymreigiwr. In addition, depending on the precise wording adopted, it could put Welsh on the same footing as immigrant languages rather than treat it, as required by law these days, on the same basis as English.… Read more »

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

A Needed article….but this news site, needs more positive stories and not get to tied up in a 100% negative story cycle

THERE ARE PROBABLY 125,000 – 150K WELSH SPEAKERS IN ENGLAND ALONE…maybe upto 200k according some estimates

kim erswell
Guest
kim erswell

Wow! With the StatsWales figures of 855,000 Welsh speaker numbers and yours of between 125k to maybe 200k the million by 2050 number has been achieved already…Seriously though I believe it can be reached if dark forces dont stand in the way to denigrate Y Hen Iaith..

sibrydionmawr
Guest

But that highlights a problem, we simply just don’t know how many Welsh speakers there are in England or elsewhere.

John Jones
Guest
John Jones

The One Million figure is attainable by changing the census wording to “Do you speak SOME Welsh.” The real question that the country faces is…has the Welsh language got a future as a preferred language for a substantial number of people. In Welsh schools at the moment 8.3% of pupils “speak Welsh fluently at home.” That is it; the future. You can speculate about the number of Welsh “able” who are in England but logic (and research by Hywel Jones) suggests that those English domiciled Welsh speakers are not predominantly fluent Welsh speakers. Year after year the BBC runs its… Read more »

Capitalist and Welshnash
Guest
Capitalist and Welshnash

Quite.

Im not interested, as it were, in the bureaucratic jargon, im interested in results.

Can i walk into the popty and and ask for bara and talk about the tywydd without the illiterate countergirl looking at ME like im Im the illiterate one? If I cant do that and take it for granted, it doesnt matter how many people can say ‘iachyd da’ and tick the I speak Welsh box.

Statistics are useless, we need capitalism in Welsh.

sibrydionmawr
Guest

So you keep telling us. Bur how about this, it’s capitalism that is destroying the Welsh language and many other languages as well.

sibrydionmawr
Guest

Are you suggesting that those of us who speak Welsh in the more anglicised areas of Wales should be denied access to services in Welsh? It certainly would seem so. As a Welsh speaker living in Cardiff, I expect to be able to receive services from my local council and housing association, and in fact I demand that. I suspect that there is more to the story when it comes to teacher recruitment, given that the job is relatively poorly paid in regard to the responsibilities and workloads imposed on teachers, added to the fact that it’s an increasingly unpopular… Read more »

Capitalist and Welshnash
Guest
Capitalist and Welshnash

I never suggested that.

Anytime you buy bread, that’s capitalism.

I simply want business in Welsh, and a pro-entrepreneurial attitude which rewards people with a can do attitude who give people jobs. In Welsh.

sibrydionmawr
Guest

Buying bread is not in of itself capitalist, which is not to say that capitalists don’t make bread, (they do, but it’s not generally very wholesome). I make my own bread, mainly so that I know exactly what goes into it.

Apart from that, my comment was actually directed at John Jones’ comment, so sorry, this time you weren’t the subject of my criticism.

Daniels y Gwair
Guest
Daniels y Gwair

Take a look at linguistics and “language death.” The concept of a “prestige language” is very important. One significant step forward would be for the Senedd to use Cymraeg exclusively in its day to day business. That really would set the tone for our linguistic future!

Adlewyrchiad
Guest
Adlewyrchiad

Ah Mr Jones, either you are holding back or you have become slightly more sympathetic to the cause of the Welsh language?! A couple of discrepancies in your analysis though. There are many, many fluent Welsh speakers who have gone through WM education and are actually more fluent in Welsh than English- I’ve met many. It’s hard to measure but I think that taking the number of Welsh at home can be a sticky one. I would bet a large proportion of children from English households, i WME in Gwynedd and Y Fro would almost certainly be fluent- of course… Read more »

John Jones
Guest
John Jones

My opinion has been constant for as long as I can remember. I’m hardly to blame for its mis-representation. However, having grown up in Gwynedd, having gone through primary school and secondary school here and having gone to a very Welsh university and, I would add, putting 4 children through WM schools I think that my opinions are at least worth considering…whether you like them or not. I disagree that the “right” of first language Welsh speakers should be provided for in all instances in all parts of Wales in either the public or private sector. If nothing else look… Read more »

sibrydionmawr
Guest

Okay, you’ve had your rant, and maybe exposed yourself as a Gwynedd nationalist! Perhaps you’d also rather categorise anyone from outside Y Fro as just ‘Welsh’? Whilst it may be idealised, I still think we should be aiming for the ideal of a Wales where speakers of Welsh are respected wherever they are in Wales, no matter whether it’s Blaenau Ffestiniong or Blaenau Gwent. You make great mention of ‘first language Welsh speakers’ but I only spoke about those fluent in Welsh, as I don’t distinguish between whether someone is a first or second language speaker. That they can do… Read more »

Capitalist and Welshnash
Guest
Capitalist and Welshnash

That’s like the 3rd time youve let off a page long rant. Seriously, there must be other issues you are dealing with, are you okay?

sibrydionmawr
Guest

I’m fine, thanks for asking. I’m merely doing what everyone else here is doing, though perhaps with a little more verbiage. I’m unsure what you mean by ‘other issues’ but will interpret it benignly, and just hope you are not insinuating that there anything wrong with my mental state. I do have some other things I’m doing, but none of them have any relevance here.

Emlyn
Guest
Emlyn

Carmarthenshire has more Welsh speakers than Gwynedd, but why does no-one seem to care that we are having our linguistic rights eroded just as quickly as our fellow Cymry in Meirion and Arfon? I know I’m looking through the rose-tinted specs of, oh, 10 to 15 years ago, but it really is noticeable how quickly the number of 18-60 year olds who can use Welsh as a day-to-day language has decreased in this county. What I’m talking about, basically, is if I’m having a business transaction (of whatever sort) with someone in my home county, the chance of my being… Read more »

John Jones
Guest
John Jones

To understand the erosion of the world that Emlyn wants you need to look at school figures. Only in Gwynedd is there a majority of school children who speak Welsh fluently at home. That isn’t the same as a majority who speak some Welsh at home (11-12%) for Wales as against 8.3% who are fluent Welsh at home. I maintain that even first language English speakers who go through WM schools will not use Welsh either after school in childhood or by choice in adulthood. Think about it. Welsh speakers frequently demand their right to “live my life in Welsh”.… Read more »

Adlewyrchiad
Guest
Adlewyrchiad

I have to disagree on some of your points based on personal experience rather than statistics. Of the families I know with one Welsh speaking parent, here in Cardiff, most if not all of them have sent their children to WME, and the kids speak it fluently. Just because your vocab is higher in another language that doesn’t reflect the utility of Welsh. From, my experience when two Welsh speaking adults have a conversation, they will almost always, unless there the conversation has a non Welsh speaker, use Welsh as the medium. Who cares if they don’t know what ‘extemporaneous’… Read more »

Robert Ian Williams
Guest
Robert Ian Williams

The decline is due to a collapse in the birthrate amongst first language families.It can only be reversed by having a minimum of four children per family.