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Welsh Language Revitalisation: a Failure …

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Welsh Language Revitalisation: a Failure …


Posted by:
Greg Lance – Watkins





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Jacobus J.W. van de Kerkhof

University College Roosevelt
Dr. E. Lahey
Language and Society – A&H 327
MLA – UK English

November 14, 2013

Welsh Language Revitalisation: a Failure

An argumentative analysis arguing the failure of the Welsh language revitalization program


            Welsh has long been a minority language on the British isles, aside from other Celtic languages such as Cornish, Breton, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. English has been the main language on the isle for centuries. In the early 20th century, the usage of Welsh had been shrinking with an alarming rate that suggested the extinction of the language. Well into the 20th century, the usage of the Welsh language was still decreasing, with no hope of increasing anytime soon. In the latter half of the 20th century public protests and government funding let to an attempt to revitalize the Welsh language. It is interesting to see if there are any strides the Welsh language has made since then, and the arguable lack of progress that the Welsh have booked.

A Recap of the Revitalisation Program

            Late in the 19th century, 1891, out of the 1,5 million inhabitants that Wales counted, 54,4% was able to speak Welsh, of this 54% about 30% was able to speak Welsh only (monoglottal) (Parry and Williams). This number decreased in 1911, when 43, 5% of the inhabitants of Wales was able to speak Welsh, of which about 8% spoke Welsh exclusively (The Welsh Records, UK census). The decrease was caused by the fact that there was more power and authority vested in the English language (Dylan V. Jones and Martin-Jones 43-70). These shocking numbers led to the first step towards revitalisation, namely the foundation of ‘Plaid Cymru’, a Welsh nationalist party with big plans towards to promotion and planning of the Welsh language (Davies). The situation of the Welsh language did not improve in the years afterwards and of the 2,5 million heads in Wales in 1931 only 36,8% were able to speak the Welsh language. Only 4% of the total population spoke Welsh exclusively (Hywel Jones).  To quote Williams, who in 1953 foresaw the eventual doom for the Welsh language whilst analysing census results from 1931-1951: ‘Bilingualism in Wales seems inevitable but it may well be one stage towards the eventual extinction of the Welsh language unless the use of the vernacular speech can be invigorated and encouraged amongst the younger generations. The home and the school can be its salvation (Williams).’  However, the decline continued, only 26% of the Welsh population was able to speak the Welsh in 1961 (Hywel Jones), of which about 40000 spoke Welsh exclusively. This is where a legislative process started in order to revitalise the Welsh language. Helped by the first parliament seat of Gwynfor Evans for Plaid Cymru in 1966, in 1967, the Welsh Language act came to existence in the United Kingdom Parliament, allowing Welsh to be used  (to a certain degree) in court (Welsh Language Act 1967). This led to ‘equal validity’ of both languages, and incited the preparation of Welsh documents in court. This was a major step forward from the Welsh Courts act in 1942, which decided that only those who were at a clear disadvantage speaking English (most likely because they were Welsh-exclusive speakers) could speak Welsh in court. The next national act of large impact on the Welsh language was the Welsh Language Act 1993. The purpose:

An Act to establish a Board having the function of promoting and facilitating the use of the Welsh language, to provide for the preparation by public bodies of schemes giving effect to the principle that in the conduct of public business and the administration of justice in Wales the English and Welsh languages should be treated on a basis of equality, to make further provision relating to the Welsh language, to repeal certain spent enactments relating to Wales, and for connected purposes. (Welsh Language Act 1993)

            This was a step forward in the promotion of the Welsh language, since it resulted in the Welsh Language Board. This Board was an acknowledgement of the importance of the Welsh language. The Board ensured the complying of public bodies with the various Welsh language acts, and thus serves as an enforcing entity.

            Other than legislative campaigns in order to revitalise the Welsh language, the Welsh government has taken some measures in the educational department. Welsh medium schools are widely promoted by the government. This leads to approximately 20% to 25% of all pupils in Wales going to Welsh Medium schools according to a census by the Welsh government (Hughes).  In addition, education in the Welsh language on English Medium Schools was made mandatory in 1990. An amendment to this came in 1999, which made said education mandatory until Key Stage 4, which is ages 15-16 (Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills).

            Financially speaking the language planning done by the Welsh government is quite costly in this time of crisis. To mention a few things the Welsh government invested in: BBC Wales (167 million pounds), a Welsh version of some mobile phone apps, Welsh government helpdesks (900 pounds per Welsh speaking costumer), Radio Cymru (13 million pounds license money) and Welsh television (900 pounds per viewer), not to mention the costs of the 550 language programs that it supported from 1993 onwards. In a time of crisis where severe budget cuts are made, those numbers may seem quite high, and it is worth investigating whether those investments had any impact on Welsh literacy.

            For the future the Welsh government has stated to have the intentions to continue language planning in this degree. Their goals are defined in a strategy plan:

1 an increase in the number of people who both speak and use the


2 more opportunities for people to use Welsh

3 an increase in people’s confidence and fluency in the language

4 an increase in people’s awareness of the value of Welsh, both as

 part of our national heritage and as a useful skill in modern life

5 the strengthening of the position of the Welsh language in our


6 strong representation of the Welsh language throughout the

 digital media. (Welsh Language Unit)

In this proposal, named ‘A living language: a language for living Welsh Language Strategy 2012–17’  the Welsh government acknowledges that language planning is a long term process, and even states the following: ‘There is little explicit evidence that the provision of services in  minority languages increases language status or use.’ This is interesting as it contradicts the numerous services the Welsh government provides to facilitate Welsh speakers. It indicates that the Welsh government may be taking a gamble on the language revitalisation program.

Language planning in Wales: failure until now

            Noting the amount of measures taken by the Welsh government in order to revitalise the Welsh language, it is interesting to see whether and where they succeeded. Evidence suggests they did not accomplish their goals thus far. This statement rests on 4 kinds of evidence found in literature that suggest that the language revitalisation program had no impact yet in the aims it strives for. These 4 kinds of evidence could be seen as performance indicators of the revitalisation program. These indicators would be census data, literacy data, actual Welsh usage and the threat from English that still exists in the dynamic between English and Welsh.

Census Data

            Firstly, census data. Earlier, some census data were mentioned. Census data can be seen as a slightly inaccurate measure of language usage. Although it covers the entire Welsh population, and provides a trustworthy decennial overview, it does not make distinctions between the ability of one using Welsh or one actually using Welsh (Baker as cited in Hornberger). Since this is a sociolinguistic research, one would be more interested in the latter than the former. The census is the most cited source on Welsh speaking, since provides the longest term results for comparison (the first census was held in 1891) and will therefore be used to be one of the performance indicators. Earlier one could read about the decline in the Welsh language from 1901 to 1991. The percentage of Welsh speakers dropped from 43.5% to just below 20%. Hywel Jones in his statistical overview of the Welsh language describes the period from 1991 to 2001 as follows: ‘For the first time ever, the 2001 Census showed that the percentage of people speaking Welsh had increased. Of the population aged 3 and over, 20.8% could speak Welsh in 2001, compared with 18.7% in 1991. (Hywel Jones)’. This statement seems to be contradicting the earlier made assumption that the amount of Welsh speakers is falling. Jones mentions that some critics may argue that this was because of the change in the census questionnaire. The key question in 1991 used to be: ‘Do you understand, speak, read or write Welsh?’ and in 2001, it was changed to ‘Can you understand, speak, read or write Welsh?’ (Higgs and Williams et al. 187–201). Although some may argue that this is the better way to phrase the question, this question does support the earlier made claim that the census focuses on ability rather than actual usage, and, in contrast to what Jones says: ‘[i]t is unlikely that the effect of this change was large’, it does arguably change the results of the census. Linguistically speaking, answers to questions change drastically when you directly ask for competence rather than a vague competence usage fusion question that the census originally entailed. Directly asking for competence may provide a different (perhaps more positive) image of a language. This can be seen when looking at the results of the 2011 census, where the trend  of decline as seen in the previous years 1901-1991 is continued, as the number of Welsh speakers decreased further. The Welsh government summarizes: ‘In 2011, 23.3 per cent of the population aged 3 and over born in Wales were able to speak Welsh. This compares with 24.7 in 2001. Of those not born in Wales, 8.0 per cent were able to speak Welsh. This compares with 9.0 in 2001. (Luned Jones)’.The fact that the Welsh language further decreased can indicate that after the initial raise in numbers due to the change of question (‘do’ to ‘can’), the language is now continuing the earlier trend of decay. This shows the ineffectiveness of the language planning done by the Welsh government, as the language use is still decreasing. The Welsh government as such did not reach their goal to increase the number of people speaking Welsh.


Literacy Data

            Where many choose to look at the earlier mentioned census data as a performance indicator of the Welsh language, Baker argues to look at literacy rates. He argues the importance of this in the following manner: ‘Second, analyses of Census data spotlight geographical areas where there are relatively higher percentages of Welsh speakers who are not literate in Welsh (Baker, 1985)’ (Baker as cited in Hornberger, 76). This is vital to realise for several reasons.          Firstly, it dramatically changes the results of the Census data. In the data of 1981, for example, Baker shows that the difference between the 19% of the population who claimed they could speak Welsh and the 15,3% of those who claimed they could read Welsh is substantial (Baker). It goes even further when only 13,7 % indicate that they can write Welsh. Also when analysing the results of the 2011 census, it becomes obvious that there is still a gap between those who understand Welsh and those who are actually able to read and/or write Welsh. For example, of the approximately 78000 registered Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire, the area with most Welsh speakers at 43,94% of its total population, only 58321 can speak, read and write Welsh (Office for National Statistics). This would make for 32,8% of the total population rather than 43,94% of the total population. A large difference which is not cited by proponents of Welsh language revitalisation.

            Secondly, in her book on biliteracy Hornberger argues the following: ‘Where there is oracy without literacy, the language is predicted to decline in the coming decades in those areas’ (Hornberger). This is applicable to the Welsh language case, since there is a substantial amount of Welsh speakers who are not literate. Baker concurs: ‘Analysis of the Welsh language Census data show that, where bilingualism exists without biliteracy, there is an increased likelihood of language decay’ (Baker). In addition to this, it is interesting to see whether the language planning policy by the Welsh government, which focuses mainly on writing and reading is successful by looking at the literacy ratings. If the ratings were to decrease, one could say that the Welsh have been unsuccessful thus far in revitalising their language.

If one would track the progress of Welsh literacy ratings from 2001-2011, the time spectrum that is available since the change of the aforementioned question from do to can in 2001, one would see that the ability to read, speak and write Welsh was present in approximately 458000 people, accounting for 16% of the total population (L. Jones). In the Census of 2011, this number had decreased to 430537 (Welsh Language Commissioner).

From these numbers, one can conclude that indeed the rate of literacy is decreasing. This points out that until now the policy of the Welsh government has failed. The Welsh government is known to donate 4587900 pounds per annum to the Welsh book council (Lewis), a substantial sum of money to support an industry with a decreasing number of customers. So far, the subsidies in order to promote Welsh literature have not yet made their impact on the Welsh literacy rates.

Actual Welsh Usage Data

Although the previous data parts may have already touched on this topic a bit, but they did not provide the actual numbers. The question change from ‘do you’ to ‘can you’ has enhanced this, but the census questions were always focused on ability rather than actual use. The Welsh government conducted several surveys in 2004-2006 on the actual usage of Welsh. The results in 2004 were not positive for the Welsh government who is aiming to give Welsh a place in the daily life of the community. The amount of Welsh speakers that use Welsh daily is only as high as 61,6% (Welsh Language Board). The survey also provided some results that were sorted on fluency and age. Of all the Welsh speakers 57% regard themselves to be fluent in the language. Also of the younger generations who have benefitted from the enhanced Welsh education enforced by the government, the majority still found themselves to be influent in the Welsh language. A figure named: ‘Welsh speakers: frequency of speaking Welsh by age and fluency’ provided a shocking image, in which only 75% of the Welsh speakers of the younger generation, 16-29 years old, who regarded themselves fluent used Welsh daily. In the none-fluent significant other age category only 17% used Welsh daily. The Telegraph posted a study in 2013 that argued the low amount of young people using Welsh (Dixon). The numbers would be caused by a fear to use Welsh among its speakers. This would be caused by a fear to make mistakes, the Telegraph argues: ‘One of the main problems, […], was the fear of getting things wrong and therefore people need to be reassured it was acceptable to use “everyday Welsh” peppered with some English words.’ The little use of Welsh that becomes apparent in these studies argue that the Welsh government has not yet succeeded in its aim to provide opportunities for people to use Welsh, or even to become fluent in that language.

Threat of English to the Welsh language

The reason there are so little people interested in reading Welsh is because of the prominence of the English language in the Welsh book market (Baker in Hornberger). Since the 18th century the English language has had a growing dominance in the Welsh community. Of course, as the ruling class, the English did have a power position and their language was able to spread quickly because of it. The effects of this are visible in the earlier mentioned census- and literacy data, but also in the geographical situation of Wales, in which it becomes apparent that the areas which are the furthest from England removed have the highest amount of Welsh speakers (Gwynned and Anglesey). This is due to the influence of the English language in the border areas.

Another demographic change, namely the increase of immigrants from outside of Wales is a challenge for the Welsh language. The amount of immigrants that move to Wales every year is approximately 9000 (Whiffen). None of those immigrants are likely to learn Wales, or already be competent in the language. They only speak English, which is a threat to the already decreasing use of the Welsh language.

In addition to this the language of instruction for the vast majority of the schools is English, not Welsh. As the language of the national (UK) government, it is viewed to be ‘more important’ than the Welsh language, in addition, it is more universally spoken among students and teachers, which creates a vicious cycle. Due to the fact that English is the language used in class many students will gain an insufficient amount of competence in the Welsh language, which leads to them not being able to use the language, which will than lead to a decrease in the Welsh language as we are now seeing. Baker shows this attitude change in his book ‘Attitudes in Language’. He argues the results of his experiments: ‘Attitudes to Welsh became less favourable. […] reactions to positive items (e.g. I like speaking Welsh) tended to be less positive than two years before ‘(Baker). With the English language being as dominant as it is in Welsh education, the chances are slim that Welsh will ever become a dominant language again argues Baker.

Language Planning in Wales: Failure in the Future

One can see, there are more than enough arguments at disposal to establish the fact that the language planning in Wales thus far has not been a successful endeavour. One should however realise that the Welsh government has only actively started promoting the language after the Welsh Language Act of 1993, so it may be difficult to see the results after just 20 years. It is therefore key to establish what is likely to happen in the future when the Welsh government chooses to continue to pursue their language policy.

Census Prognosis

More than attention has already been paid towards the recent Census data of 1901-2011. Of course one cannot be certain of what will happen in the future, but Hywel M. Jones in his statistical overview of the Welsh language has attempted to make a prognosis of the amount of Welsh speakers in the future censuses.

Table 1 – Projections: % and number able to speak Welsh, 2011, 2021, 2013






Total Aged 3 and over: %able to speak Welsh





Number able to speak Welsh





In the projection for the future made by Jones he predicts stagnation in the percentage of the population able to speak Welsh. Hywel Jones argues the following:

According to these projections, the number of Welsh speakers in Wales in 2011 is almost unchanged since 2001. The percentage who can speak Welsh could be a little lower than in 2001. This document should have provided sufficient background for these results to come as no surprise. After 2011, the projections suggest that the number of speakers could increase more substantially by 2021. All the same, because of in-migration, they do not show an increase in the percentage of people who can speak Welsh over the same period. (Hywel Jones, 118)

Hywel Jones seems to believe in the successfulness of the promotion program by the Welsh government, however recognizes the aforementioned threat of immigration to the Welsh language. His reasoning seems solid, however he did not take the impact of the question change into account, an issue that was addressed earlier, which may strengthen his belief that the Welsh revitalisation program works better than it actually does. In reality, if one takes the results of the change of question into account, one could see that Hywel Jones falsely projected the 2011 Census outcome, which actually was 19% rather than the 20% he projected. If one would follow this line of thought, one would come to the conclusion that his prognosis of the amount of Welsh speakers may even be lower in the years 2021 and 2031, which would prove the attempts by the Welsh government to revitalise the language to be futile.

Continued Threats by the English Language

            Earlier mentioned was the impact English as a dominant language has had on the usage of Welsh so far. For the Welsh revitalisation program it may be interesting to see what impacts it may have in the future. The concern by the Welsh language community becomes obvious in protests like the ones done in South West Wales in 2011 (Morris). Where the county council made plans to build 11000 new homes in the region, the inhabitants of the region feared for their language. Many of the new home-owners would be retired elderly from other parts of the UK. This group of ‘immigrants’ would form a threat to the Welsh language usage in said region as the fear is that they would not bother to learn the language of the region they live in. The complaints were voiced by language campaign group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg who even go so far as to use the words ‘national crisis’. The situation in South West Wales is universal throughout Wales, where indeed immigrants will form a large threat to the Welsh language. Recently more complaints from Welsh speakers arose over housing plans in the neighbourhood. This fear was verified by the Welsh Assembly Government in their policy statement Dyfodol Dwyieithog/A Bilingual Future (Welsh Assembly Government). Also validating this fear are the earlier stated research outcomes worded by Luned Jones, which stated that of those who are born in Wales almost 23% speaks Welsh, of those who are not born in Welsh just over 8% is competent in Welsh.

            Here the Welsh government is in a dilemma which it had not foreseen in its revitalisation projects or housing projects. Where the construction of new housing, which will inevitably attract inhabitants from outside Wales due to the low cost prices of property, may be socioeconomically beneficial, those new inhabitants do most likely not have a knowledge of the Welsh language (looking at the earlier mentioned difference in language competence between those born in Wales and those not born in Wales which was 23 vs 8 percent (Luned Jones)) and will therefore contradict the government’s plan to increase the number of people who both use and speak the language. Here it seems that the language revitalisation prevents the Welsh community from expanding, which is not the aim of the Welsh government. This is another indicator that the language revitalisation has failed.


            All in all, this essay provides a concise overview establishing that the Welsh language revitalisation program with its aims has failed. The census data show that the Welsh government has failed to increase the number of people that speak Welsh, and there has even been a decrease in that number. In addition the literacy data has shown that people do not have an increased amount of fluency or confidence in the Welsh language, and that a vast amount of Welsh speakers is even unable to read or write Welsh. The literacy data has also shown that despite the language revitalisation program the Welsh literature is also not increasing in popularity among the Welsh community and that therewith the position of the Welsh language in the community is not strengthened. This is also shown by the negative reactions of many students to the usage of Welsh as shown in Baker’s study. In addition, the actual Welsh usage data provided has shown that the Welsh government has also failed in providing opportunities to use Welsh, as little people actually use Welsh on a daily basis. In addition, the Welsh suffer from the constant pressure of the rise of English to be the dominant world language in the form of English ‘immigrants’ moving to Wales and not being able to speak Welsh.

            Also, the future of the Welsh language despite the revitalisation program appears bleak. Statistical prognoses indicate that there will be an on-going decrease in the amount of people that speak Welsh. In addition to that the Welsh housing and expansion plans are interfering with the purpose of the revitalisation program. This all leads to the conclusion that the Welsh language revitalisation program is failing.

Some Heartfelt Advice

            The author’s opinion on the matter was beautifully phrased by an anonymous internet forum visitor: ‘If a language needs government support to keep living, maybe it does not need to live anymore’. The language revitalisation program does not appear to work and seeing the amount of money it costs and the amount of unrest, strains and limitations it puts upon various aspects of daily life in Wales, it may be worth considering minimising the governmental efforts to keep the Welsh language alive. If there is a need for Welsh to stay alive, as there may be in some of the more Welsh-favouring communities in the South West or Anglesey, it will survive, if not, then the world of languages will have another casualty.


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The True Cost of The Minority Welsh Language – A Reality Check …

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