WELSH, A MINORITY LANGUAGE
The True Cost of The Minority Welsh Language – A Reality Check …
OF WALES & THE WELSH
Greg Lance – Watkins
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The True Cost of The Minority Welsh Language – A Reality Check …
The Welsh Language: A Reality Check
By MARCUS STEAD
WE ARE frequently told by the mainstream media that the number of Welsh speakers is growing rapidly and that there is ever-increasing demand for Welsh language provision. But do the facts really back up these claims?
The figures shown on this graph are fascinating. They chart the number of people aged three or over able to speak Welsh according to the Census and according to the Annual Population Survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The ONS statistics suggest a rise from 726,000 speakers of Welsh in June 2008 to 891,100 in June 2019. In contrast, the Census figures showed a decline from 582,400 in 2001 to 562,000 in 2011.
The more fanatical wing of Welsh language campaigners on social media often point to the low Census figure of 2011 and the high ONS figure from 2019 as apparent ‘evidence’ that the Welsh language has grown exponentially in the last decade, conveniently ignoring the obvious flaws.
The ONS figures are a nonsense. Welsh is not spoken by close to a third of the population of Wales. So how have the figures been massaged to give the desired outcome to their political masters, who in turn wish to use it as a justification for increased public spending on Welsh language institutions?
Language statistics are filled in by adults and parents, but include statistics on child proficiency of language. This graph from the Welsh Language Commissioner demonstrates the flaw in the figures:
So how does it happen? Put simply, parents are asked whether their children, having spent years learning Welsh at school, are any good at it. Parents are pretty accurate when assessing their own ability to speak the language, but grossly overestimate the ability of their children to do so.
When people start self-reporting from the age of 18, we see that huge drop-off.
In reality, around 6.5% of children speak Welsh as a first language, and about 7.7% of the population overall. That’s much lower than the Census figure and hugely lower than the ONS population survey.
But even when Welsh is the main language of the family home, it is very often not the language people choose to use when speaking to the wider world, to medical professionals, or to public bodies.
In this BBC Wales documentary from 2010, we see how children attending Glantaf Welsh medium school in Cardiff overwhelmingly choose to speak English rather than Welsh in the school playground and dining room. When they were on exchange and staying with a Welsh first language family in North Wales, the version of Welsh the Glantaf children spoke was regarded as very formal and stiff by their hosts.
This bears out with my anecdotal experiences as a citizen of Cardiff. It is a cosmopolitan city that has seen waves of immigration going back at least 150 years. When I am in the supermarket and on public transport, I frequently hear Arabic, Polish and Spanish spoken, but I very seldom hear the Welsh language. It seems clear that despite Glantaf School having more than 1,000 pupils at any one time, a very large number usually choose not to speak Welsh outside the classroom and do not use the language frequently as adults. There is a community of a few thousand Welsh speakers in the Pontcanna district of Cardiff, and to a lesser extent in Grangetown, but the language is seldom heard around the city beyond that.
Of course, in parts of west and north west Wales, Welsh is the language of everyday life and anecdotal experiences will be very different, though these areas constitute just a small proportion of the overall population of Wales, and consist largely of villages and small towns.
The Census is a compulsory form delivered to all homes once every ten years, and is fully available in both languages. It can be completed in paper or online. In 2011, calls made to the Census helpline were bilingual with the Welsh language option offered first. Every incentive was offered to encourage those able to do so to complete their form in Welsh.
Yet despite this, just 3.4% of family forms online were completed in Welsh, and just 2.9% of individual forms.
Paper copies fared little better for households at 4.1%, but individual forms were substantially higher with a whole quarter filing their copy in Welsh. That fact is intriguing, but as they’re requested it’s not unusual for political statements to be made via Census forms, and with old people’s homes and university halls having many individual forms, a higher return in Welsh is expected.
But overall, just 5.05% of forms were returned in Welsh.
The language preference becomes even more stark when we look at other services. Just 0.08% of driving theory tests were taken in Welsh and just 0.45% of practicals. As for NHS Direct, just 0.6% of phone calls and 0.1% of website visits were conducted in Welsh.
Last November, I published this article, where I outlined just how few people were using the Welsh language option when accessing the online support videos for Transport for Wales travel card applications.
Both the English and Welsh versions were uploaded on 16 October, and by the time my article was published on 15 November, 12,807 had watched the English language video, while just 247 had watched the Welsh language equivalent. In other words, just 1.89% of viewers had chosen to watch the Welsh language version.
Transport for Wales and its subsidised travel passes are a matter for people from all across Wales, so there can be no accusations of a Cardiff/urban/South Wales bias. This clearly shows that when people are left to their own devices to access a service from their own homes, they overwhelmingly choose the English language version.
The reasons why those with the ability to speak and write in Welsh usually choose to access public services in English are difficult to pin down. Is English better at capturing the complexities of modern society? Or are a lot of these people classed as ‘first language Welsh’ not really using the language as frequently as the statistics suggest? Or is there another reason entirely?
Language is used predominantly for communication, not for ‘feel good’ reasons. Welsh people are no exception. We use the language we regard as most useful. When not obliged to use Welsh by government subsidy or regulation, the people of Wales overwhelmingly choose to use English.
As Kristian Niemietz said in this Telegraph article: “If somebody told you they took maths A-level at school, but have since forgotten how to do basic additions or subtractions, you would not believe them. If they told you they took geography A-level, but can no longer remember what the capital of France is, you would not believe them either. But if somebody told you they took French or German A-level and cannot cobble together a single coherent sentence in French or German, you would believe them straight away.
“I’m a native German speaker. I have been living in the UK for 11 years, but people can still hear that I am not originally from here, and often feel obliged to tell me about the German classes they took at school. This is virtually always followed by a slightly apologetic “… but I don’t remember any of it”.
The reality is that a child can have Welsh lessons at school from the age of five, and stop at 16 after passing a GCSE exam, but will still not be able to speak or write in Welsh to any great extent, and will have forgotten most of it within a few years. Yet according to some statistics, they will be classed as ‘Welsh speakers’.
So why do these misleading statistics about Welsh language demand matter? The Welsh Language Act of 1993 and subsequent legislation puts a great deal of emphasis on the rights of citizens to access public services in Welsh, and as a result, the ability to speak and write in Welsh is a requirement for accessing a great number of jobs across the public sector, as well as in the civil service, the arts, the media and higher education sectors.
Every time a job is advertised requiring the candidate to speak Welsh, it effectively excludes the overwhelming majority of the population who cannot speak the language. Wales is a small country with a population of 3.1 million people. We cannot afford not to have the best people in the best jobs. It is essential that we utilise the talents of all the population. These Welsh language requirements (which are evidently not matched by public demand) not only drive bright graduates out of Wales where they can fulfil their talents elsewhere, they also result in people being over-promoted because they can speak Welsh, which in turn results in poorer policy formation and delivery of services. In other words, everyone, including the Welsh-speaking population loses out.
It affects life in Wales in other ways as well. Take Cardiff City Football Club as an example. During the early 2000s, the excitable Ali Yassine was appointed as stadium announcer. Yassine, from the city’s Somali community, learnt the Welsh language in his 20s, and would use a small amount of Welsh during his announcements.
Shortly before the start of the 2015/16 season, Yassine was relieved of his duties, and as a temporary measure, author, club historian and veteran former radio commentator Richard Shepherd took over announcing duties. Shepherd announced in English only.
The following January, the club pledged to reinstate Welsh language announcements following an online petition signed by fewer than 300 people. To put this into perspective, at that time, the club was typically attracting crowds of around 24,000. So in other words, below 1.25% bothered to sign the petition.
But hang on…..there was no way of verifying that those who signed the petition actually attended matches. Many of the signatories could easily have been Welsh language activists who spread the word via social media. Some (many?) could either have had no interest in the club at all, or had been living hundreds of miles away in Porthmadog. Even if we are to give the benefit of the doubt and assume that every single signatory was a dedicated season ticket holder, the club changed its policy to appease a minuscule number of its supporters. How can this be considered fair or right?
Across Wales, the average pupil at a Welsh language school receives £341 more than English language equivalent.
Councils spend millions of pounds and hundreds of man hours translating every document produced into Welsh, even if it is seldom used. At a time when libraries are being closed and community facilities cut back, voters have the right to question whether this is an appropriate use of scarce resources, especially at this time of drastic economic downturn due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
By the same token, the Welsh Government has stated its aim to ‘create one million Welsh speakers by 2050’. How much will this cost? What will the benefits be? And what dogmatic measures will be imposed on the population to achieve it?
The late Labour politician Cledwyn Hughes earned the respect of the people of Wales, and of Britain, as a man of integrity. He was a first language Welsh speaker, but, as Secretary of State for Wales, he faced cries of ‘traitor, traitor’ when he visited the Eisteddfod one year, following accusations that he had put the building of Wales’s economic base and civil service before the Welsh language. Hughes replied: “Language is a thing you cannot push down people’s throats.”
Hughes was correct. The current path being pursued is seeing the Welsh language dogmatically imposed on the population, which has led to a great deal of resentment among the non-Welsh speaking majority. As veteran journalist John Humphrys put it in July 2000: “There is some unease in some areas of south-east Wales that unless you speak Welsh you are a second-class citizen. There is positive discrimination in favour of those who can speak Welsh. There are many jobs that are barred to you if you don’t speak both English and Welsh and that does create some casualties and some resentment.”
In the same month, another seasoned journalist, Vincent Kane, put it even more starkly, when he said: “There is an elitism built into our society which few nations anywhere in the world would tolerate. The 80% in Wales excluded from positions of influence and authority, no matter how talented they might be, simply because they don’t speak Welsh, are victims of injustice.”
The problem with the current policy is that a self-serving industry has grown around the Welsh language. It is being used as a means by which a small, self-serving elite can extend their grip on so many spheres of life in Wales.
To this day, nepotistic Welsh nationalist and Welsh first language cliques dominate the senior positions at BBC Wales, and recruit and promote other staff from among their own kind. Veteran investigative journalist Paul Starling outlined the scale of the problem in the early-mid 2000s, while Phil Parry, who worked for BBC Wales for more than 20 years, outlined the cosy relationship between BBC Wales and Plaid Cymru for his excellent The Eye Wales website.
Until relatively recently, the Reach Plc newspapers in Wales seemed largely immune from Crachach/Welsh nationalist influence. However, it appears that in recent years, those with Welsh nationalist sympathies have manoeuvred themselves into position and have ‘taken control of the cockpit’.
One consequence of this has been that several of its best-known journalists have ‘come out’ as Welsh nationalists in the last couple of years. The Western Mail’s chief reporter Martin Shipton has written sympathetically about Plaid Cymru and the YesCymru movement in recent years. Carolyn Hitt, known for her articles about rugby and culture from a parochial Welsh perspective, ‘came out’ as a Welsh nationalist during a speech to the YesCymru AGM in a far-from-full small converted chapel in Merthyr Tydfil in January 2020. Younger journalists are either recruited for their Welsh nationalist sympathies, or are at least willing to go along with the agenda. The editorial stance could be politely described as pro-maximum devolution, and more bluntly as increasingly sympathetic to Welsh nationalism, in the mould traditionally seen at BBC Wales.
With long hours, poor pay, and an uncertain long-term future, many journalists are looking for a long-term future in public relations, communications, or as part of the Welsh Parliament gravy train, either as civil servants, press officers, advisers, members of that parliament, or employed by lobbying bodies closely linked to it. Therefore, they are unlikely to be especially critical of any aspect of the Welsh establishment in their work.
The mindset and attitudes of those working for these media organisations puts them at odds with the majority of ordinary Welsh people, namely their readers or consumers. Coming home from work to a house in Pontcanna, and weekend dinner parties with Welsh political figures, S4C producers and Eisteddfod Gorsedd members hardly gives them an understanding of the concerns and lifestyle of the teacher from Treherbert, the plumber from Pontypool or the brickie from Bangor.
The Welsh media is dominated by white, middle class, Welsh speaking people, with a bias towards South Wales and the Welsh nationalist movement. The desire to stay on the right side of ‘important people’ to further their future careers has led to a supine media and a cowed culture. A similar culture exists inside the Welsh civil service, the arts and higher education.
When Newsnight hosted a debate on the level of spending on the Welsh language, author and columnist Julian Ruck was subjected to a tirade of appalling abuse on social media for having the temerity to suggest that extra spending and spending wasn’t achieving the goal of getting more people to speak the language.
As we have already discovered, the true number of first language Welsh speakers is around 7% of the population, or approximately 217,000 people, who can predominantly be found in west and north west Wales, around the Pontcanna district of Cardiff, and in Cowbridge in the Vale of Glamorgan.
As Paul Starling pointed out in one of his newspaper columns: “Our country is run by no more than 50 extended families or individuals.
“They carve everything up for themselves, and each other, behind cupped hands and closed doors. They sideline fierce debate, churn out meaningless pap, and ignore the crushing realities of most peoples’ lives.”
“They try to buy off journalists or frighten us with threats. Any ‘detractors’, they say, will never build up a media career in Wales unless they keep their noses clean and independent mouths shut.”
This network of individuals and families is known as the Crachach, which to some Welsh speakers is considered a pejorative term, though prominent politicians, including former First Minister Rhodri Morgan (himself a Welsh speaker) and former Education Minister Leighton Andrews used it to describe the Welsh establishment. By no means all of those 217,000 or so Welsh speakers are part of it – the overwhelming majority are not, but the influence they hold over public life in Wales, utilising the Welsh language as a weapon, is phenomenal. And they do not like being challenged in any way.
As the late journalist Steve Tucker said of S4C: “You’re more likely, to be frank, to find out the inner workings of North Korea’s ultra-secretive government than fathom what’s going on in the higher echelons of the Welsh-language channel. Like North Korea, S4C keeps its internal workings to itself.
“Like the shady Asian nation, S4C doesn’t like to be disturbed by outsiders. As long as it continues to receive its £101m a year, others can keep their noses out. It doesn’t like to be disturbed by such minor fripperies as, say, whether anyone’s watching or if the programmes are any good. And, like North Korea, regardless of the economic situation, its elite continues to enjoy the good life, with sky-high salaries and gold-plated expense accounts.”
“…Even the most died-in-the-wool nationalist S4C staff themselves are among the first to admit that the channel, awash with cash for so long, has gone about spending it with all the hard-nosed financial sense of Richard Prior in Brewster’s Millions (ask your dad, kids).”
Julian Ruck put it even more starkly in this 2014 speech:
Ruck said: “When anyone in Wales stands up and brutally criticises the Welsh establishment with their own data, one encounters nothing but threats, dirty tricks, you name it, it happens.”
Julian Ruck is correct. Paul Starling is also correct. The Crachach look after their own and threaten ‘intruders’ with lies (often very vague), smears and threats. Vituperative attacks on social media are the favoured tactic in the modern era. A ‘first step’ towards putting things right and building bridges would be for Welsh language campaigners to acknowledge they have a problem with the behaviour of a group of their ‘activists’ on social media. Even among their small community in Cardiff and the Vale, the Crachach are perceived as ‘keeping to themselves’ and work, socialise and marry within their own kind.
In wider society, personal attacks are regarded as a sign of weakness and that you have lost the argument. Lies and smears are the hallmarks of a person who cannot be trusted. Yet among this small, insular section of Welsh society, such behaviour is considered acceptable and normal.
I do not want the Welsh language to disappear. We live in an era of bland conformity, where every high street in Britain is much of a muchness, and where the world is increasingly dominated by the same fast food and coffee chains. Different languages and cultural elements are to be celebrated and enjoyed. But in terms of finding its place in the modern world, the Welsh language has lost its way.
A key mistake was made more than 50 years ago when the plight of the Welsh language became closely aligned with the Welsh nationalist movement. A pivotal moment came in 1962 when Saunders Lewis, the racist and anti-Semitic founder of Plaid Cymru gave a lecture on BBC radio entitled Tynged Yr Iaith (The Fate of the Language), where he predicted the extinction of the Welsh language and declared that the language would die unless revolutionary methods were used to defend it.
Welsh ‘independence’ is not something that instinctively sits comfortably with most of the Welsh population (Plaid Cymru’s vote count and share of the vote has declined for the last three general elections in a row). Only once in its history was Wales ever an ‘independent nation’. That was between 1055 and 1063AD when under the rule of Grufydd ap Llewellyn.
In historic terms, most of the Welsh population has only been here five minutes. Most of us only need to look back four or five generations (if that) to discover that we are at least in part descended from waves of immigration, especially from Ireland, Devon, Cornwall or Herefordshire, and to a lesser extent from other parts of Britain and the wider world.
People in south east Wales think nothing of going shopping in Cribbs Causeway or going to see a theatre play in Bristol. People in Flintshire often spend a significant part of their working and social lives in Lancashire, Cheshire and Merseyside. These are natural economic and cultural links. And, truth be told, most people in Wales don’t have much appetite for creating artificial barriers based on ancient tribal conflicts. They care a great deal more about being able to cross the border for work and leisure than they do about Owain Glyndwr.
We are proud of our distinct Welsh identity, and celebrate it in various ways – our industrial and mining heritage, music – from classical to Tom Jones to the Manic Street Preachers, various sporting achievements, Brains beer, Welsh cakes, a night on the town, our spectacular coast and countryside. But the vast majority of us consider ourselves proudly British as well as Welsh, and do not wish to think of English and Scottish neighbours (who are often also our family and friends) to be ‘foreigners’.
With that in mind, tying the fate of the Welsh language to the Welsh nationalist movement, which has become increasingly left-wing and ‘woke’ in recent years, is a massive turn-off to those who may who would like to embrace the language but are either British patriotic socialists, classic liberals or conservative in outlook.
For many Welsh people, particularly those living in and around Cardiff, the Welsh language is something they associate with the Crachach. It is very hard to ‘love’ a language when it is so frequently used as a weapon with which to ostracise the vast majority of the population who do not speak it.
As we have already discovered, despite all these measures, the Census of 2011 showed that the number of Welsh speakers actually fell in the previous decade. In 18 of the 22 local authority areas in Wales, a minimum of 67% of people were classed as having ‘no knowledge of Welsh’. The lesson that can be taken from this is that dogmatic measures to impose the Welsh language on children do not work. Those who are genuinely interested in seeing the Welsh language thrive on its merits should watch this short film by journalist Eoin Butler provides us with interesting parallels with the Irish language. One particular segment stands out. Butler says:
“I think the truth is that compulsory Irish is a failed policy, but that a network of vested interests have grown up around it, keeping it in place. This network acts as a support system, not for the language, but for itself. It does nothing to really promote the language, or to broaden its appeal.”
Ireland appears to have its own version of the Crachach. Replace the word ‘Irish’ for ‘Welsh’ in that package, and every single word would ring true for the situation in Wales.
Butler offers an interesting solution, by comparing it to the revival and modern-day popularity of the Gaelic games. For 70 years the GAA had a closed, defensive mentality. Its members were banned, not just from playing, but from even attending soccer or rugby matches. Back then, the GAA didn’t have the confidence to believe that their games could survive in open competition with other sports. Archive footage from that time shows that Gaelic games were pretty unsophisticated.
Today, the ban is long gone, and GAA players are elite athletes. GAA, with minimal state involvement and zero compulsion, has never been more popular. GAA was once a minority interest, the way the Irish language is now. If children were encouraged to embrace the language, the way they do the sport, not out of duty or obligation, but out of genuine affection, the Irish language could thrive. The same applies to Welsh. Growth happens by consent, not compulsion or imposition.
Wales is a society where different sections live with their backs to each other. I want the Welsh language to thrive, but the current course of action is wrong, counterproductive, and leads to a great deal of resentment.
Wales needs to have an honest and frank conversation with itself about the sort of country it has become. And the discourse needs to be one carried out in a manner of respect and civility, not abuse or threat. Right now, that feels like a very long way off.
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in the interest of accuracy material in the main text in blue was written by someone other than myself.
When in black text the wording ‘Welsh Language’ means the ‘Language of the peoples of Wales’ and is therefore the majority language ie ‘English’
The ancient language of parts of Wales, varied as it is, as spoken by a tiny minority in Wales is called ‘Welsh’ or ‘the ancient Welsh language’
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