Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The death of a language

To save the Welsh language speakers may need to look critically at themselves.

This week saw the release of the unhappy but not at all surprising news that the number of Welsh speakers is again on the decline. According to 2011 census figures, only 19 percent of Wales' population –– or 562,000 people –– claim to be able to speak Welsh. This is a drop of 2 percent –– or 14,000 speakers –– from the 2001 census. 

The news is especially heartbreaking for Welsh language proponents because the previous census, in 2001, had seen an increase of speakers after centuries of steady decline. That was the first census taken after Welsh had become a compulsory subject in schools and, indeed, much of the increase in speakers at that time was amongst school-age children. The feeling at the time time was that young speakers meant longevity for the language, but 10 years on that doesn't appear to have panned out.

Parents are generally the ones filling out census surveys and they often have an overly rosy view of their children's abilities. As such, the Welsh Language Board estimated not too long ago that only about half of those speakers listed on the 2001 census were actually proficient (i.e., people who could actually hold a conversation, rather than simply being able to regurgitate answers for a quiz).

For the 2011 census it doesn't appear the situation has changed much: 30 percent of Wales' claimed Welsh speakers are under the age of 15 (Welsh is a compulsory subject to age 16). In trying to soften the blow a little, Wales First Minister Carwyn Jones pointed to the fact that there had been an increase of speakers amongst 3-4 year olds. Toddlers are again being held up as this nation's best hope. At the same time, however, the Welsh-speaking first minister admitted that even he and his Welsh-speaking family default to using English in the home.

The fact is: there are more people in Wales than 10 years ago but fewer of them, in both percentage and numerical terms, claim to speak Welsh. And of those left, half are not really able to speak Welsh, and even fewer are speaking it on a regular/day-to-day basis (I'm fluent in Welsh and have not held a Welsh-language conversation in seven months). Things do not look good for the language.

In the BBC story I linked to above there is an instant analysis side bar from Welsh-speaking reporter Vaughan Roderick, and one can already see who the Welsh-language community will be blaming for all this: those damned dirty foreigners. People like myself and Tony Bianchi and Jerry Hunter have come and driven out the native tongue with our irresistible and unforgiving English patter.

As long as I have been aware of the Welsh-language community it has been locked in a fortress mentality and the early signs I'm seeing from my Twitter feed suggest the response to the 2011 census will be another round of building up the ramparts. Blame the English. Blame modern culture. Demand more legislation. Get Steffan Cravos to chain himself to something in protest. Maybe write a few poems.

One of the things the Welsh-language world will not do, because it is very hard to do, is acknowledge and address the fact that it is itself part of the problem. The Welsh language is struggling because its speakers too often alienate the Welsh.

D.J. Williams, one of the founders of Wales nationalist party Plaid Cymru, said there is no such thing as a Welshman without the Welsh language. Some 2 million people listed their identity as "Welsh" on the 2011 census, which means there are at least 1.5 million people who would seriously disagree with Williams' claim. Unfortunately, Williams' attitude seems to be quietly prevalent amongst Welsh speakers. 

If pressed, I doubt a great number of Welsh speakers would outright say that a person cannot legitimately claim Welshness if he or she does not speak Welsh, though I can certainly think of a few who have. And I can think of even more who are willing to say as much through catchy turns of phrase like the one I heard from a fellow Welsh tutor last year: "Does dim hunaniaeth heb yr iaith" (a).

True, the fault does not rest solely on the shoulders of Welsh speakers, but in the flurry of handwringing, finger pointing and pondering that will come as a result of these census results I feel at least some time should be spent discussing the incredibly poor relationship between Welsh speakers and their fellow Welshmen. There is no Welsh Taliban or any other such nonsense, but it is true that a large number of Welsh men and women feel alienated by and terrible animosity toward their Welsh-speaking countrymen.

I realised this last week when I found myself strangely defending the language against the vitriol of four Welsh people. My frustrations with the Welsh-language community are well documented and not worth rehashing, however suffice to say I'm probably not going to be hired to do PR for language campaign group Cymdeithas. But in the face of my dinner companions' deep emotional frustration and anger toward the language I was by comparison Welsh's most stalwart devotee.

I feel it's worth mentioning that the people levying these complaints were all university-educated people who were Welsh born and raised. In three cases they are people who have lived elsewhere in the UK and the world, and have come back home because their love of Wales is so great. The reason I feel it's worth mentioning is that criticisms of the Welsh language are nothing new. Welsh speakers will have heard them dozens of times. But usually the only people with the audacity to express such things are chav blokes in Super Dry T-shirts who are four to five pints ahead of you in the drinking stakes, or insufferable cocks who write for sensationalist newspapers. And as such, I've never really listened to the people making criticisms.

Here, though, was a group of intelligent, educated, affluent and, in some cases, influential Welsh men and women who felt deeply angry toward the Welsh language and the bulk of its speakers. They felt that Welsh speakers had placed themselves on a sort of pedestal and were treating the country's majority with arrogant disdain. They felt alienated, pushed out, and condescended to. The latter are all aspects of my own experience in the Welsh community but I at least have the solace of knowing that the "You're Not One Of Us" attitude I've faced is true. I'm not Welsh (b). I'm a fluent Welsh speaker but if both sides of the D.J. Williams argument are conditionally dependent upon one another (i.e., one cannot be truly Welsh without speaking Welsh, but, also, one cannot truly be a Welsh speaker without being Welsh), then I can at least understand the "logic" of why I've failed to gain acceptance within Welsh-language circles. And, hey, I have my own massively larger, more influential and more diverse culture to fall back on.

But for the non Welsh-speaking sons and daughters of Wales it is an alienation that breeds a deeper bitterness than even I possess. As I ran through the standard responses to criticisms (c) one of the people I was speaking to grew so upset that she was shaking. She had spent two years in Welsh courses as an adult, she said, and had eventually given up because she felt she was being talked down to and patronised.

The other three all had their own stories of unpleasant interactions with overly aggressive Welsh speakers (sometimes campaigners' zeal for the language hurts their cause more than it helps) and the deep emotional frustration they carried as a result. I've heard similar stories over the years, and have had my own embittering experiences. Many Welsh speakers would be keen to do so, but I don't feel these negative attitudes should be wholesale ignored.

Welsh speakers' insular, alienating temperament is not the only reason the language is suffering. There is also the simple truth of living on a planet for which English is ever more the lingua franca –– especially in commercial terms. Wales, too, is an area with an infrastructure that is in some cases nonexistent and in most cases decades behind the curve. It lacks entrepreneurship and sufficient support –– both governmental and public –– for enterprise. Its folk traditions have been all but abandoned by even the most dedicated patriots, and it is part of an island that at certain times can feel very much like it is on the verge of becoming the 51st U.S. state. All that lack of uniqueness or self sustainability makes it hard to argue for learning a language that, with only insubstantial exception, is not spoken anywhere else.

There are a lot of pressures facing the Welsh language, but when its speakers make enemies of their own countrymen I can't help but fear it is heading incorrectably toward total novelty.

Welsh will never really die. Britain is too full of quirky enthusiasts and academics to let such a thing slip away completely. But at the moment, as things are, I don't see how it will survive as a legitimate language for too many more generations. Already it is estimated that only 3-5 percent of Wales' children come from a home where Welsh is the primary language spoken. How long before that percentage becomes zero? How long before no one ever really feels things through the medium of Welsh? How long before Welsh becomes only the purview of academics?

(a) There is no identity without the language.

(b) Indeed, lately, independent of any feelings toward Wales, I have found myself strangely and unintentionally resurrecting my Texas accent.

(c) Interestingly, the strongest defense I have found is one that no "true" Welsh speaker would ever use: that Welsh should be protected and nurtured because it is an intrinsically British thing.


Leroy said...

This point of view is one that is commonly held but rarely voiced. I wholeheartedly agree: for Welsh to survive and perhaps even thrive, it must look to itself and be critical. I love the language and I'm passionate about the culture, but the insular, them-and-us attitude of many speakers has got to stop before its too late. We should be cheering to the rafters every time someone uses the language and looking for as many ways to encourage this as possible, but often when I have a go I'm greeted with indifference, embarrassment or, worse, ignored. Not by everyone - there are some passionate welsh speakers out there that live to hear people trying to learn - but by enough to put you off.

I think we should make Chris Cope some kind of Welsh Tsar. It needs a passionate, knowledgeable outsider to be objective, constructively critical and removed enough not to get bogged down in the crap and actually do things that make a difference to the people that really matter in this debate: welsh learners and non-welsh speakers. Fancy staging some kind of coup?!

Anonymous said...

Well, +/- 2% on any survey is normal, so perhaps the number of Welsh speakers remains pretty constant (he said, glass being half-full). There is though definitely a demographic shift as older folks pass on, inward/outward migration and the number of speakers in non-traditional areas increases - so lets hope it's for the good somehow as these youngsters consume, work and vote in years to come.

I do take your point about the "us-and-them" aspects you allude to though Chris.

Interestingly we had a 14 year old from Germany with us this summer on a school exchange and his knowledge of American/English popular culture was astonishing, as was his command of English. He said using English was cool among his friends and speaking German wasn't - so perhaps yr hen Iath's ability to fight and survive( perhaps more so as we're in the UK) should perhaps be somehow celebrated, given the steamroller of American/English culture.

Anyway, nice to see you're writing and I trust you and your fiance are in fine fettle and that your work is interesting and fulfilling.

Have a lovely Christmas.

Dinas Powys

Ifan Morgan Jones said...

This is an interesting blog, and I apologise that I don't have time to pick up on everything.

However there's one thing I've noticed and as a first language Welsh speaker would like to ask for a bit of enlightenment on.

I've often heard this complaint from people who learn Welsh that they feel alienated and patronized by first language Welsh speakers.

But I'm not sure if that isn't just a bit of paranoia on their part. Welsh is just a language at the end of the day. There's no particular reason why anyone should go out of their way to befriend them or accomodate them, just because they speak the same language.

I often feel 'left out' and that Welsh speakers are being unfriendly, as I often feel the same way about English-speakers.

Might it not be the case that these Welsh-speakers are just acting like normal human beings, but that the Welsh learner imagines that he or she is being rejected for linguistic reasons?

In my experience most people can come across as being quite cold and aloof, unless you make a big effort to get to know them.

Rhys said...

Lots to comment about on this post, but not at the moment, although one thing that comes up in the post and all three comments so far is to do with perception.

The perception of the language itself is what has the effect on Welsh speakers themselves (do they use it and pass it on to their children), with the perception that others have of Welsh speakers being secondary as they can't stop anyone from speaking Welsh (unless you're trying to have a conversation with them, obviosly, or if they have any influence on public policy).

I'm obviously going to say this, but I'm with Ifan on this and think this 'us and them' idea is in the heads of those who don't speak Welsh, born out of paranoia.

On two occasions, on reavealing to strangers that I speak Welsh (one a white Welshman at a printing company in Caerffili, the other being an asian English guesthouse owner in Swansea), I've had to listen to two tales of '"racism" that both suffered in north Wales at the hands of Welsh speakers.

If you're of a nervous disposition I urge you to stop reading now as their tales are quite harrowing and may make you feel frightened.

Both stories were very similar, both "racist" incidents took place in a pub, and on both occasions somebody else (another local they presume) got served before them, EVEN THOUGH THEY WERE THE ONES THAT WERE SUPPOSED TO BE SERVED NEXT! I know, it makes one feel sick inside just thinking about it.

As you can imgines I was quite upset at hearing these disgusting stories, epecially as it brought back memories of similar "racist" behaviour that I'd experienced towards myself while waiting to be served at the bar in pubs all over Wales and beyond, where another person was served before me.

Sure, I'd try to play the whole thing down and fool myself that it had nothing to do with my race, my nationallity or my language. I'd even try to attribute it to the fact that I'm bold, that I wasn't wearing a low cut top, that I'm not as pushy as the other person, or that the barman was so busy it's hard to keep track of who's next to be served, but now I realise, it was blatant racism.

Only when we all have the courage to speak out will we bring down the tyranny of the Welsh speakes.

Chris Cope said...

Rhys, I went out of my way to point out that there is no tyranny of Welsh speakers. I also went out of my way to point out that the "You're Not One Of Us" mentality doesn't apply to all Welsh speakers. Indeed, often when I hear people speaking in absolutes about the language (e.g., They're ALL unfriendly) I will namecheck you as an example of the sort of Welsh speaker who takes great pains to "welcome" people into the language –– I know that from my own personal experience.

And you and Ifan make fair points about the fact that one aspect of a person doesn't necessarily dictate another. There are plenty of unfriendly people regardless of their mother tongue. In Minnesota, for example, people have a reputation for being friendly but ultimately hard to know, something that is commonly referred to as "Minnesota Nice." But the difference is those barriers can eventually be worn down.

Here, I have been told to my face in a Welsh-language context that:
- I will never be accepted because I'm not Welsh.
- I will never be accepted because I learned Welsh.
- I can never be a true Welsh speaker because I learned Welsh.
- I can never be a true Welsh speaker because I'm not Welsh.
- I am somehow physically incapable of understanding an argument or premise because I'm not Welsh.

I have been passed over for Welsh-speaking jobs, I have been locked out of Welsh-speaking social situations, and I have -- on so many, many occasions -- been spoken to as if I am a child.

I know of people who have come to this country, learned the language to fluency and become so dejected they have since left. The Welsh-language community is small enough that you can probably guess who I'm talking about.

It is not a matter of someone getting served at a pub before me, or imagining that people in a pub have switched to Welsh simply because I showed up. I have had numerous real experiences of being pushed out.

For a long while I told myself that it was just me, that I'm just a difficult dude to love. But, unfortunately, I have met too many people with similar experiences to buy completely that it is simply just one of those things. Yes, there is certain truth to your and Ifan's statement (I mean, hey, if you were go to Minnesota it's entirely possible that you could meet an insufferable asshole -- that happens sometimes), but I think there exists something in the core of the Welsh-language community that pushes away even more so than in other cultures.

The great difficulty is what could be done about it. If more Welsh speakers were like yourself, Rhys, people would be falling over themselves to be a part of the community. How on earth, though, would a culture go about changing itself and its image? That's a question I don't have an answer for.

Ifan Morgan Jones said...

I'm saddened and disappointed to hear about your experiences, Chris. I can't imagine what could have brought about such behaviour.

I agree that there is certainly something insular about some Welsh speakers. I see this in my interaction with students from different backgrounds at university. The English language lot tend to be far chatty than the Welsh language speakers, who are more reserved.

But I think this has more to do with background rather than language. The English speaking students tend to come from large urban areas while the welsh speakers are from villages and small towns.

Even in Cardiff much of the influx of Welsh speakers are people from rural backgrounds in the west of the country.

I think that’s just how people from west wales are. They tend to be more taciturn and cliquey, because that’s the kind of attitude growing up in small villages tends to foster. The same thing is no doubt true of rural areas in the rest of the country.

Perhaps the growth of the Welsh language in cities such as Cardiff will change that as the second and third generations of these Welsh speakers grow up in an urban environment.

Anonymous said...

I've been learning Welsh for some years, though I live in Canada, and in my visits to North Wales have met with nothing but kindness, enthusiasm and support when I try out my very "basic" version of the language. Indeed, the kindness of local Welsh speakers on those occasions have become treasured memories of these visits. Ann

Anonymous said...

I'm an Englishman living in England but learning Welsh because of an interest in history of place names locally. I think there could be some interest in rekindling a 'British' language across the whole of Britain rather than just in west Wales. Welsh is the only surviving Brythonic language now.

I can understand the alleged hostility and insularity of native speakers against the backdrop of the relentless advance of English that is still happening now even without the sword. Echoing the point you make though, the Welsh advocates should embrace learners and be sympathetic and encourage it's use across the kingdom as we all have a right to claim an interest even though we were not born in Wales.

Annette Strauch said...

I am a fluent Welsh speaker from Germany (and there are quite a few German people who can speak Welsh and who are learning the language right now). I taught myself Welsh in the 90s. I am happy that I can speak Welsh and I can understand Chris totally when he writes about being accepted in some of the Welsh communities.

I could write a lot about this subject but sometimes it makes me angry, too.

I used to explain about Wales on mainland Europe, sometimes I still do this enthusiastically, sometimes I ask myself why because sometimes Welsh-speakers are not interested in what goes on outside their circles.

The Welsh language will survive. Mae'n dda!

Anonymous said...

Hello, as a fluent Welsh speaker still currently in a Welsh medium secondary school, I know exactly where you're coming from.

In school (or our school at least) there is a distinct separation between the "Welshies" and everyone else. "Welshies" being the general term for first-language Welsh speakers who have grown up in a Welsh-speaking home.

Many students (I think 90%) in school come from a non-Welsh home, and have learnt Welsh since primary school as a second language. Generally people converse in English, despite it being a school rule that only Welsh is to be spoken.

But the Welshies stick to their cliques. They will speak Welsh amongst themselves, and if you were to go and speak to them they would immediately switch to English. They are however quite friendly, but as one could imagine, this makes it difficult for those of us from non-Welsh households to practise our conversational Welsh with Welsh speakers.

Coming from Pembrokeshire, a lot of this may be down to the historical Landsker line, separating the Welsh speaking north county from the English speaking south county. The Welsh cliques tend to be from north county, and most other people from south county and bits of the north.

Not sure how much use this comment is, but it's some insight into a Welsh medium school through the eyes of a student who has learnt Welsh since they were 2 years old but still doesn't feel like part of the gang.

Carwyn said...

I'm with Ifan here, yes they are some Welsh speaking idiots who who say stupid things as well as english speakers say stupid things. But the vast majority really appreciate ones efforts to speak the native language. Stop hanging around twats would be my advice.

Yr Eiddoch yn gywir

Anonymous said...


I'm really glad that you post the occasional blog in English as this is an issue which needs to be understood by everyone. You did a really good thing in finding out the cause of why your guest were so upset. Although they probably only mentioned one incident to you it's possible that there were actually a few over quite some time. As I guess they were all from or closer to Wales or the language it was all the more hurtful for that. Leroy makes the point perfectly that while ever Welsh speaker is divided against every other Welsh speaker (and I don't just mean first-language against learners) then this is ultimately very damaging to the language. The "class-system" of Welsh speakers that we now have is a relatively new phenomenon and it's no wonder that it's easier for some to stop speaking Welsh altogher.

Ifan Morgan Jones is actually a lecturer in Welsh. I'm surprised he isn't familiar with the Morris/Gruffudd report outlining many unpleasant and clearly intended responses from some speakers to those who had learned the language. The problem seems to be widespread even in South Wales. I'm sure not all first-language speakers hold these attitudes but it's fast becoming seen as the case, especially when an authority figure like Mr Jones purports to speak for first-language speakers. Anonymous gave a very informative account of life in a Welsh school and how the dynamics work there. The last sentence says it all. What is the school doing to redress this? Perhaps Welshness needs to become part of diversity training and this issue should be talked about among the students. If not the divide carries on into adulthood when there is more chance of these divisions becoming entrenched. Given the choice between being excluded or getting abuse in Welsh or getting respect and being treated as an equal in English which choice are most people going to make?