Home » Why can’t the Welsh teach their children how to speak?
Comment Matthew Paul

Why can’t the Welsh teach their children how to speak?

English state schools never had to teach languages well, so they don’t. After all, the King’s English is, if you’ll excuse the expression, a lingua franca for the whole world. From the souks of Casablanca to the sweatshops of Chongqing; from Madagascar to Mynydd Mallaen, you can always find someone nearby who speaks English

If their English isn’t great, don’t worry. It will always be better than your foreign. If the fool doesn’t understand you, raise your voice. If that still doesn’t work, prod him with a furled umbrella and point it in the direction of the task you would like him to perform. History’s largest and wealthiest empire was built without the slightest concession to learning whichever sequence of clicks and grunts was used for local communication. Instead, the English left the gift of Shakespeare’s tongue with every country they civilised.

Among the beneficiaries of this bounty were the people who had happened to colonise the islands of Britain a couple of thousand years before Angles and Saxons turned up. Taliesin’s prophesy –Their Lord they shall praise, their language they shall keep, their land they shall lose, except wild Wales– proved at least one third right, and within the borders of Wales, yr iaith Gymraeg resisted all efforts to suppress it.

Teachers –most of them Welsh– famously walloped the Welsh language out of pupils for generations, but the general understanding is that since devolution, Cymraeg has undergone a renaissance. Certainly, it is more culturally diffuse than was the case twenty years ago, and has greater prominence in mainstream Welsh social, cultural and political life.

17.8% of the Welsh population declare themselves to be Welsh speakers. It’s fair to assume that only a few of these will be hill-dwelling monoglot hermit farmers, so they’re probably bilingual in Welsh and English. Good thing too; bilingualism builds better minds, strengthens cognitive abilities, helps with multi-tasking and makes us culturally more open-minded. There is also some evidence that it staves off dementia and Alzheimer’s. Elsewhere in Europe, being bilingual is the norm. More than half of Europeans speak two languages fluently, a quarter speak three, and one in ten are quadrilingual, or more.

In the light of the apparent resurgence of Welsh, it was a surprise to see figures released this week showing that between 2011 and 2021, the number of speakers in fact declined. 538,300 respondents to last year’s census said they could speak Welsh; 23,700 fewer than did a decade ago. Being optimistic, you might argue that despite the small fall, it demonstrates that the language has at least remained tolerably resilient. Of more concern is that among children aged between 3 and 15, there was an overall reduction of 13% in Welsh speakers.

Welsh Nat Twitter asserted confidently that this is the fault of English incomers. There is, however, sparse evidence of blow-ins actually murdering locals and ethnically cleansing the shores of Oinkmouth (formerly Abersoch) so it doesn’t explain why Welsh speakers haven’t fallen only as a proportion of the overall population, but in absolute terms too.

It also doesn’t explain why the Welsh language is weak where Welsh identity appears to be strong. In Caerphilly, just under 70% of respondents to the census defined their national identity only as Welsh (as opposed to English, British, Welsh and British etc.) The same area saw a 25% fall in the number of children who can speak the language.

If there’s been a tsunami of middle-class English hippies and goodlifers moving into Bargoed, Ystrad Mynach and Nelson; buying up whole rows of dilapidated miners’ terraces and filling them with organic goats, the phenomenon has passed largely unnoticed.

The reality is that people who proudly identify themselves as Welsh are failing to ensure their children are brought up as Welsh speakers.
It is admittedly tricky to pass Welsh on to your children if you never learned it yourself, and this is where you might expect the state education system to pick up the slack. Welsh-medium education has expanded since devolution, but at a slow pace. In 2000, 18% of pupils in Wales attended Welsh-medium schools or were taught in Welsh-medium streams. Now, the figure stands at 24%. Disappointingly, despite this modest expansion fluency appears to have fallen among children in every area of Wales except Cardiff (the capital’s increase of 8.75% –from a small base– can probably be explained by middle-class Welsh-speaking families moving there for work).

Welsh-medium education, it seems, isn’t working.