Teenage apathy for speaking Welsh reveals struggle to keep it as a living language

What do young people think about speaking Welsh? Vepar5/www.shutterstock.com

Teenagers in Wales believe it is important that Welsh remains a living language, but fewer than half believe they will go on to speak it as adults. This is what we found when we surveyed over 800 young people from across Wales about their attitudes to the language.

Our initial results show that despite the Welsh government’s efforts to create an “infrastructure” for the language so that Welsh speakers can use it on a daily basis, there is still a lot of work to be done.

The narrow vote in favour of Welsh devolution in 1997 was seen as a defining moment in the history of the Welsh language. The Welsh Assembly was heralded as the ultimate tool to safeguard the language, which had consistently been declining throughout the 20th century.

Initially, things looked very promising. The 2001 census results seemed to mark a historic turnaround in fortunes for the language, showing a 13% increase in the number of Welsh speakers since 1991.

Yet this proved to be a false dawn. In 2011, the numbers of Welsh speakers had again declined, with 19% of the population “able to speak Welsh” compared with 20.8% in 2001. Disappointingly, this decline also included the younger age groups, aged between five and 15, which had shown slight increases in ability in previous years.

To address this decline, in 2011 the Welsh government published the policy document Living language: a language for living. Its aim was to ensure that Welsh remains a living language used in everyday life – as opposed to a language merely associated with school or “high culture”.

Over the past few years my colleagues and I at WISERD Education have been visiting schools (both primary and secondary, Welsh and English medium) across Wales surveying different groups of children as they pass through key phases in their education. In one survey done between April and July 2013, we asked 849 students, drawn from Years 8 and 10 (aged 12-13 and 14-15), their views on the Welsh language.

Attitudes v practice

The students were generally positive towards the language, with 75% feeling that it is important that Welsh “remains a living language”. Of those we surveyed, 65% of students claimed it was important for them to learn Welsh – a positive sign for the Welsh government’s strategy – although only 59% stated it was important to “actually speak Welsh”. This also raises the spectre of a disjuncture between attitudes and practice.

Welsh became a compulsory subject up to GCSE level in English medium schools in Wales in 1999. This is still a controversial issue and our findings provide some food for thought. When asked how much they liked Welsh as a “subject”, only 28% of children said “a lot”, while a significant minority – 32.5% – said they did not like it at all.

An interesting link also emerged between attitudes towards the language “in general” and attitudes towards Welsh as a subject. Students who disliked Welsh as a subject were also more likely to think that it is not important to speak Welsh.

Unsurprisingly, when we broke these figures down further, children in bilingual or Welsh medium schools had a more positive attitude towards Welsh as a subject. Where children live was also key: students from the Welsh-speaking heartlands were far more likely to enjoy Welsh as a subject. This may well be down to how relevant the language seems to children in their daily life, and how frequently they hear it spoken in their community.

The significant amount of negative attitudes towards Welsh as a “subject” should be of interest to the Welsh Government, in particular when it comes to sustaining the widespread goodwill towards the language.

Use of Welsh in everyday life

We also collected data about language use outside the school gate. When asked “how likely is it that you will speak Welsh as an adult?”, only 45% of fluent Welsh speaking students stated “definitely”.

When even fluent speakers feel that they will not use Welsh in everyday life, this suggests that the language infrastructure remains weak, and that Welsh remains far from a “living language”.

In a follow-up “snapshot” survey of 366 of the same Year 8 pupils, only a small minority reported using Welsh “infrastructure” in everyday life: only 5% visited Welsh websites, only 9% read Welsh books or magazines, and only 17% watched Welsh television or listened to Welsh language radio.

So positive attitudes towards the language are widespread, but ultimately, goodwill is not enough to sustain a language. For Welsh to remain a “living” language, infrastructure is central. This means that Welsh speakers should have easy access to Welsh language services – transport, customer services, paying bills – so that they can use the language in everyday life.

The Welsh government recognises that this infrastructure needs to be creative and modern, with a vibrant media landscape (including social media) being of critical importance. But there is clearly a lot of work to be done to establish this, as English remains the language of the internet and media, and ultimately of everyday life, with children very rarely using the Welsh language outside school.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.