[lg policy] The decline of the Welsh language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Sep 5 15:38:25 UTC 2013

The decline of the Welsh language
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Evan Harris


*Welsh road signs.*

I think it’s time that I took ‘Welsh (fluent)’ off my CV. Yesterday my
housemate asked me to say something in Welsh. I tried to say ‘I’m in my
flat, frying vegetables’ but couldn’t think of the word for vegetables, or
flat and the verb ‘to fry’ is adapted from the English ‘ffrio’. All my
education from age 3 to 16 was in Welsh – I scored top marks in Welsh
language and literature exams – but I can no longer speak it.

The Welsh language is steadily declining and yet, the amount of
Welsh-speaking schools are on the rise. Are the facts being ignored in
order to keep stoking the embers of nationalist myths?

Last week, I learned my atrophied tongue is not alone; I am part of a
trend. A report published by the Welsh Assembly shows only 50% of Welsh
speakers aged 16-24 consider themselves fluent. Only a third use it

Mainstream political support for the language is now reflexive and
uncritical. Welsh politicians and the commentariat are alarmed at the
failure to make Welsh a “living language”. Their solutions to the problem
are inspired, considered, informed: speak it more, make it more relevant,
use it more on Facebook and Twitter. The Welsh Assembly announced the
allocation of three quarters of a million pounds to develop Welsh
technology apps.

Despite significant funding and policy efforts, the language is in decline.
Between the 2001 and 2011 census, the proportion of Welsh language speakers
fell by 2%: 19% of the Welsh population now claims they can speak Welsh. I
stress ‘claims’; it is possible that these figures are inflated. Welsh
nationalist rhetoric creates aspiration to speak the language; the
population is told that it is part of their identity, their heritage (“the
very essence of who we are” - Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones speaking
in the EU Council of Ministers). This is demonstrated in the WA report:
participants’ reported desire to more frequently speak Welsh is stoked by
aspirations to stronger cultural, historical and personal identity.

If identity is the populist vehicle for the Welsh language, at the wheel
is, in fact, ‘status’. Fevre, Denney and Borland identify a small
middle-class status group, the Welsh Class, as the promoter and beneficiary
of Welsh nationalism. This status group is socio-economically advantaged
and is concerned with the honour and prestige of its language and culture.
It is the community at the heart of Welsh nationalism, and has succeeded in
normalising the aspiration to belong to an amorphous national community
whilst remaining aloof as the arbiter of its high culture. To justify the
political and financial investment needed to expand the language, to
rhetorically extend it to everyone in Wales and to facilitate its use in
all public spheres, the Welsh Class and policy makers promote myths about
the instrumental benefits of learning the language and inscribing its
public use in statute. Politically, this instrumental discourse has been
successful, as it has received significant funding and policy commitments.
However, the instrumental myths that legitimate funding and policy are
based on naïve or willful misinterpretation of research. Uncritical parents
internalise these myths; Welsh-medium education continues to expand, but
the language is still in decline. Last week’s Welsh Assembly report
demonstrates that Welsh education does not create Welsh speakers. If, then,
all this funding and policy doesn’t benefit the language or culture, who
does benefit? Sayers notes that Welsh language policy is a social policy
that does not improve people’s capabilities and does not instrumentally
benefit society – it benefits a small status group, it is a conservative

Here are the instrumental myths used to promote the language:

*1. Welsh-medium schools perform better than English-medium schools.*
Gorard and others have published refutations of this claim. This claim is
based on a comparison of raw data. When adjusted for factors such as
socio-economic background - the factor most likely to affect educational
achievement - Welsh medium schools perform no better than their
English-medium equivalents. More generally, the Welsh education system
performs poorly – below the EU average: Michael Davidson, of the OECD and
responsible for PISA – an international evaluation of 15 year olds’ maths,
reading and science achievement – described education in Wales as ‘bleak’.

A further point that is rarely considered: the Welsh language survives
because of coercion and punishment in schools because there are few, if
any, economic, cultural or social incentives to speaking it – the WA report
demonstrates that funding and policy have failed to create these
incentives. The carrots are rotten so they resort to sticks. In my
Welsh-medium school the most likely reason for punishment was speaking
English; that is, you are most likely to be punished for speaking the
language in which you best express yourself. This is punished by verbal
aggression, humiliation and sanctions such as the loss of break time. There
is a paranoid, aggressive siege mentality to the promotion of the language
in schools. Whether you think that the language is under siege by a
cultural imperialist or not, you must wonder whether this is the best
environment for children to learn not only Welsh but other languages such
as maths, science and all the skills that provide students with a
productive future. Imagine the English equivalent: two children, for
example first generation British-Iraqis, in a London school punished for
speaking Arabic at break time. What does authoritarian language prohibition
do to a child’s perception of language, culture, education, authority? Does
it facilitate or inhibit the social use of the language? For some in my
school, speaking English was a defiant act, an assertion of an identity
independent of prescribed nationalism; for most it was just more

*2. Bilingualism makes children more intelligent. *
Yes, it does, sort of. There is no academic consensus, but there is
research supporting the claim. However, there are two types of bilinguals:
simultaneous and sequential. Simultaneous bilinguals acquire two languages
from birth and speak both at home. They have native-level language
structures, and their control of both can give certain cognitive benefits.
However, only 7% of Welsh-language primary school children are simultaneous
bilinguals, a tiny minority.

The majority of Welsh-language students, half of whom lose fluency when
they leave school, are sequential bilinguals i.e. they acquire their second
language in a formal setting. There are no clear cognitive benefits for
sequential bilinguals i.e. there are no clear cognitive benefits for the
vast majority of Welsh-language students. Further, bilingualism is shown to
restrict vocabularies in both languages - this can be overcome by better
education; again, in Wales this is shown to be sub-standard.

*3. Bilingualism makes easier the acquisition of other languages.*
There is evidence suggesting that bilingualism increases metalinguistic
ability – the awareness of language structures and sounds – which better
facilitates further language acquisition. There is no consensus however;
this claim is contested. Further, in research where this claim is made,
education and native language proficiency are factors controlling language
acquisition. Again, Welsh students, on average, perform worst in the UK.
Further again, any metalinguistic ability is squandered if there is no
interest in, or sufficient provision for, the acquisition of foreign
languages. Welsh students are below the European and UK average for
language qualifications, and the number of Welsh students studying a
foreign language is in decline.

*4. Welsh bilingualism makes you more employable. *
Research suggests the contrary. Compared to Anglophones, in Wales, Welsh
speakers better achieve educational and occupational attainment, but are
comparatively underpaid for those attainments. A suggested reason for this
is that bilingual workers are immobile their advantage exists only in a
small enclave and employers exploit this immobility. When there is a
shortage of bilingual jobs in the enclave, workers migrate and lose their

There is no evidence of increased workplace productivity in bilinguals, but
there is a small premium for bilingual workers, which is accounted for by
employers’ needs to comply with government policy. That is, there is a
small premium for a small proportion of the population because some public
sector jobs must comply with bilingual policy. Evidence of better
employability in the private sector is weak.

These negligible benefits for a minority of the population – a minority
which is likely to anyway be socio-economically advantaged – occur in the
context of the 2nd worst employment figures in the UK, the least productive
UK regional economy and a per capita GDP decline. This is despite continued
EU Objective One funding in South and West Wales, funding designated to the
areas of the EU most in need of development. Wales has appointed the UK’s
first ever poverty minister, as between a third and a quarter of citizens
live below the breadline and besides London, Wales has the UK’s worst child
poverty. In this context, Welsh nationalism is the old man in his shed busy
with a hobby only he can appreciate whilst his family starves at the dinner
table. Language advocates are not responsible for Welsh poverty, but they
do not help as they persist with myths that the language has instrumental
value to learners. It doesn’t.

Williams, in 1989, the period leading up to the Welsh Language Act, wrote:
Thus we are faced with a generation of bilingual school-leavers who have
been socialised into believing that their bilingualism is prized by
society, which on examination turns out to be a rather narrowly
constructed, middle-class public sector society, which rewards its own
purveyors of information and knowledge. There are clear class implications
in the development of an administrative bureaucracy, which is both the
principal agency for change and the principal net beneficiary of change.

We are now twenty four years later; twenty four years of policy and
investment in the language. Plus ça change. Use of the language has
increased and has perhaps peaked, but benefits to those who have learnt the
language have not followed its growth. Rhetorically, the Welsh people have
been invited to join the Welsh Class, but few have achieved that social
movement. The economic benefits of bilingualism are limited, and limited to
this already advantaged group of people. So too the prestige of speaking
Welsh and the aspiration to speak it, is now widespread, but few are fluent
and even fewer use it in a way that the Welsh Class can. Welsh language
education does not, and perhaps will not, give students access to the
benefits the Welsh Class enjoys – what gives students access to these
benefits is class movement, something the Welsh education system and
economy facilitates for few.

Let’s be clear, for intrinsic reasons, I am not advocating the death of the
Welsh language. When a language dies a history and culture goes with it, a
unique human subjectivity is lost. But if nationalism adopts instrumental
rhetoric then it must be repudiated – the literature shows that the
language and culture is not instrumentally beneficial to learners. What
reasons remain for its policy support are status and identity. But speaking
Welsh does not, should not, connote a more prestigious or authentic ‘Welsh
identity’. The idea that a middle-class bilingual from Gwynedd or Cardiff
Bay is more authentically ‘Welsh’ than a working-class anglophone from
Merthyr is self-evidently repugnant. Those who will claim this is not the
Welsh nationalist rhetoric are naïve, but this is the rhetoric used in
schools, in political chambers, is implicit in policy documents and is
evident in people’s reported desire to use the language so as to feel more

The preservation of the language and its minority culture may not be
mutually exclusive with an egalitarian, social politics, but currently
contributes very little or nothing to the lives of an economically and
educationally disadvantaged majority. Patriots like to think of Wales as a
nation of story and song; these are not attributes that create good policy.
The country is in a mire, the elites tell tales and point at dragon shadows
in the mud.


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