Census shows decline in Welsh language

welsh flag

Fewer than one in five Welsh residents speak the ancient Celtic language, a recent language census reveals.

The results of the survey, done in 2011 and released this week, represent a decrease from the last census, completed in 2001.

As of 2011, the number of Welsh who speak the language has fallen to 19 percent, down from 21 percent a decade earlier.

Overall, Welsh speakers have fallen from 582,000 in 2001 to 562,000 last year, despite an increase in the size of the population, according to the BBC. Nearly 2.4 million Welsh said they were unable to speak the language.

Figures also suggest Welsh is now a minority language in two heartland areas, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, while just two areas, Monmouthshire and Cardiff, registered a percentage increase.

“The Welsh government said it took some comfort from the fact there were considerable increases in younger children who spoke Welsh,” the BBC reported. “This is seen as a sign that efforts to promote the language amongst young families were paying off.”

There are differences within age groups, with increases in the number of Welsh speakers among younger children aged three to four, a slight increase for adults 20 to 44, and decreases for other age groups.

It has also been suggested that parents have previously over-estimated the ability of their children to speak to Welsh.

This is because the numbers of younger adults who said they spoke the language had fallen in comparison with figures from 2001, even though many of them may have attended Welsh-speaking schools, the BBC reported.

“It could be over-estimating by parents. It could also be outward migration from Wales as people who are well-qualified are more likely to leave Wales,” said Pete Stokes of the Office for National Statistics. “It could be that people when they leave education don’t use Welsh in their day-to-day lives.

Welsh emerged in the 6th century from British, the common ancestor of Welsh, Breton, Cornish and the extinct language known as Cumbric.

Even as late as the end of the 19th century a majority of people in Wales spoke Welsh, while a huge percentage couldn’t speak English, according to Vaughan Roderick of the BBC.

However, Welsh began to lose its place as the predominant tongue of the region to the west of England with advent of the Industrial Revolution. An influx of English workers into Wales beginning about 1800 led to a substantial dilution of the Welsh-speaking population of Wales.

English migrants seldom learned Welsh and their Welsh colleagues tended to speak English when Welsh and English individuals interacted.

In addition, as was often the case throughout the British Empire, Welsh residents were discouraged by government and education leaders from speaking their native language well into the 20th century, with precedence given to English.

The 2011 census findings came as a huge surprise to Welsh Language Commissioner Meri Huws.

“Perhaps there has been a danger for everyone to be lulled into a false sense of security 10 years ago, believing everything would be alright, and that the growth in some areas would make up for the decrease in other areas,” she said.

“If that was the case for the past 10 years, the alarm clock has rung very loudly this morning, and there are very definite challenges to be faced here, and urgently,” Huws added

Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, identified part of the problem when he noted that his own children speak English to each other, despite going to a Welsh-language school.

Jones said the next challenge for the Welsh language was to ensure young people spoke it outside the classroom.

“Cracking that is going to be crucial to the future of the language over the next 10 years,” he said.

Robin Farrar, chair of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (Welsh Language Society), said the language faced a crisis.

“This news reflects very badly on the Welsh government who set a target of increasing the number of Welsh speakers by 5 percent over the decade. Over the last 10 years, they have failed to support the Welsh language in the way they should,” he said. “The people of Wales are very supportive of our unique language, but the government isn’t matching their ambition.”

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9 thoughts on “Census shows decline in Welsh language

    • I’m optimistic that the technology may allow us to save many of the endangered and less-used languages. Fifty years ago, the idea that you could pop a CD into your car stereo to listen a language tape wasn’t even fathomable. Today, with the Internet, it’s possible to access hundreds of languages online.

      While that’s no substitute for truly learning a different language, it seems in many respects that tongues that would have died out hundreds of years ago have a better chance of surviving today.

    • Have you ever tried to read Welsh? Just looking at it, I can’t imagine trying to convert the vowels and consonants into something that anyone anywhere could possibly understand. Yet it sounds wonderful when spoken by a native. Another one of the wonders of linguistics.

  1. There are so many languages that have been lost before we realized their importance, it is sad to think of one declining when there is the opportunity to save it.

    We have many many different indigenous language groups here in Australia and only a few of them have been recorded.
    I think the problem is that there are fewer and fewer people left who speak these languages, so even if they are preserved they will get to a point where they will never be used properly again.

    Thanks to a conversation yesterday with one of my regular readers I have the perfect thing to end my comment with.

    Nadolig Llawen! (merry xmas)

    • Yes, just as you need a certain number of any species to ensure its viability, you need a certain level of speakers of a language to ensure it will continue to be passed down and remain a viable means of communication. Once a language exists in nothing more than books and videos, it ceases to truly be alive. I do believe technology offers us a better chance of keeping languages alive, but there has to be a critical mass of speakers if they’re going to continue as anything more than novelties.

      Oh, and a Nadolig Llawen to you, as well.

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