Support 100 years of independent journalism.

1 March 2013

Don’t lose an ancient language out of social awkwardness

Happy David's Day.

By Olivia Williams

Today of all days we should celebrate how miraculous it is that we in Wales, conquered in the thirteenth century and living in the shadow of one the world’s major lingua francas, can still speak our own language. After our long history of foreign rule, that Welsh people can still stand in a room surrounded by their English neighbours and have a totally private conversation is truly remarkable.

The latest census, however, shows that we cannot be complacent. Decline is once more creeping in.  Hearteningly, we are still up on the 1991 level of 508,000, but now the proportion of Welsh speakers is down 2% from 2001 at 562,000 (19%).

So the question that was thankfully drawn to our attention with such distinction by Saunders Lewis’ 1962 speech ‘Tynged y Iaith’ (The Fate of the Language) is sadly back – how do we ensure this ancient language does not die out on our watch? Nobody wants to be the generation that has to admit they let it wither on the vine.

I have never lived in Wales, I only know Welsh from speaking to my family and from when I went to the Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain until I was six. I know just how difficult it is to keep Welsh going when you don’t use it all the time.

That’s why we need to shift the whole way we approach the language.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

To enforce Welsh to GCSE level is tokenistic if it does not then go on to be the language of the playground, the pub and the shop. A big part of the problem is pure social awkwardness.

Out of politeness a lot of Welsh people speak English in public to avoid excluding people who may not be able to speak it. However, to make Welsh a more natural, popular language this has to change. Welsh people are so well versed in English it’s all too easy for us to adopt it as our lingua franca too, particularly when so many English people are moving in to Welsh towns and villages these days to take advantage of the cheaper house prices.

I’m not at all against English people, or indeed anyone who doesn’t speak Welsh, moving in, but they have to accommodate Welsh people and not the other way round. Once you have a critical mass of non-Welsh speakers in a small town it can very quickly tip the balance of moving that community into speaking English in public, leaving Welsh only for the home.

It would be far less of an effort for learners of all levels if we secured Welsh as our default public language. I have heard many lament not getting enough practice and I experience it too. Unless people are certain that you speak Welsh, they generally assume that you can’t, leaving your hard work wrestling with grammar and pronunciation going to waste.

My favourite recent initiative is the little orange Cymraeg badges that staff can wear to show they speak Welsh. It avoids all that awkward guesswork and encourages learners and native speakers alike out of their shell.

Having a more popular language also involves being patient. The natural tendency is of course to ‘rescue’ someone who is stumbling over their words by swiftly swapping to English but that’s actually so counterproductive. How will they ever improve? We should all persevere more – whether we’re speaking or listening.

For children keeping Welsh up outside school can be a problem when some parents seem sceptical about the value of it, particularly if they don’t speak it themselves. Part of this is an old-fashioned idea that their English will suffer if children juggle another language, but that is hardly borne out by experience. English is so dominant in Britain that children tend to become fluent bilinguals – with all the benefits of two languages, two cultures and two job markets. European children speak many languages with no trouble. There’s no reason that should not be the case here in Britain.

Once the Welsh Language Board would have overseen these matters, but it has been disbanded to make way for the Assembly’s new Commissioner. The Assembly is not famed for its creative edge and I fear that its ‘strategic plan’ for the language, due this year, may prove as clunky and unimaginative as its other policies.

So I really hope the Assembly will be doing some practical, local-level thinking. They have a tendency to focus on officialdom – having gas bills or council tax forms in Welsh and such things. I hope they will think outside that bureaucratic box now they have given themselves the responsibility of safeguarding our language.

I hope for more ideas like those little orange Cymraeg badges. It’s an idea that’s so simple, but it’s about practical encouragement, everyday life, and a sense of community. Everything, in short, that a language policy should be. 

If you going around speaking Welsh in public makes a few people uncomfortable, so be it. You can’t let a whole language go for the sake of a few awkward moments. Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant Hapus – Happy St David’s Day.