Monday, 5 December 2016

Census No Longer Reliable in Revealing the True State of the Welsh Language

Whenever I have read Welsh Language Policy documents produced by local authorities, other people's blog pages, books on the state of the Welsh Language or media by pressure groups (such as Cymdeithas Yr Iaith Gymraeg), I see that the Census seems to be the standard data that is used to study the state of the Welsh Language in any given area.  This is very unfortunate, since, the truth is that the Census has become at best inaccurate and at worst downright misleading when it comes to giving an accurate picture of the state of Welsh as a mother-tongue.
        That this is the case shouldn't be that surprising since as many of us will know, the Census question merely asks one if they 'can speak Welsh,' followed by similar questions on one's ability to read, write and understand it.  No question is asked on whether or not it one's mother tongue, or on one's level of fluency or on how often one uses it.  How then are you able to distinguish mother-tongue speakers of Welsh from second language speakers of varying fluency who may never have used it after leaving school? The truth is, you can't, and as a result, pretty much everyone from public policy makers to Non-Governmental Organisations (such as pressure groups) and individual enthusiasts are basing so much on information that is inevitably going to be misleading some of the time .
       Here are some examples.  The town of Dolgellau in Gwynedd is, according to the 2011 Census, 64.8% Welsh speaking.  One would guess therefore, that Welsh was the majority vernacular in the town.  However, the 2015 Estyn report on the town's primary school,  Ysgol Gynradd Dolgellau, indicates that only 25% of children there come from Welsh-Speaking homes, painting a completely different picture.  On the other hand, in Y Felinheli, where 64.3% could speak Welsh in 2011, 75% of children in the village's primary school came from Welsh-Speaking homes according to its 2014 estyn report.  The 2011 Census recorded that the towns of both Bala and Blaenau Ffestiniog were around 78% Welsh speaking yet the percentages of their respective primary school populations coming from Welsh-Speaking homes varied spectacularly.  The figures were, 54% and 80%, for Bala and Blaenau Ffestiniog, respectively.  (The figures for Bala, coming from a 2014 Language Impact Assessment Report, page 8)  I could go on, but you get the picture.
       Thus the Census can, and often does, provide a misleading picture of the state of Welsh as a vernacular in any given area.  Don't get me wrong, there is of course a correlation between the percentages of people able to speak Welsh at the Census and the percentage of people who are daily mother-tongue speakers but the former is no longer a reliable indicator of the latter.  This is more the case now than in the past, since the growth of Welsh Medium Education is producing more and more second language speakers of Welsh who will, of course, put themselves down as Welsh-speaking on the Census even if it is their second language and they may have never used it since leaving school. In addition, you have those who have learned it at school as a compulsory subject who are often not fluent at all while you also have adult learners, me being one of the latter.  When I took part in an Office for National Statistics survey this summer, I was advised to report myself as a Welsh speaker even though my Welsh, although improving is far from fluent (although I can assure you, I am trying!)
         It is worth stressing that the position of Welsh as a language of the Home in any given community, is noted as a very strong influence, if not the strongest influence, on whether or not it is used by children in the playground and the street; rather than merely the percentages being able to speak it .  Both a 2014 survey commissioned by Gwynedd Council and the language impact assessment referred to earlier point to the language's position in the Home as being the leading factor.
        There is no doubt in my mind, as you can imagine, that the Census questions relating to Welsh need to be changed in time for the next one.  There should be one question on fluency and another on whether it is one's mother tongue or second language and why not also have a question which asks Second Language speakers how often they use their Welsh?  Until a Census is taken with such changes made, I suggest that any individual or body interested in the state of the Welsh Language as a community language should use the percentages of children speaking Welsh at Home, provided by Estyn in their school inspection reports, as the primary Data to use, as that is much more useful in ascertaining the percentages of children being native Welsh speakers.   That is why, when writing my blog on the status of Welsh in Gwynedd and on Anglesey, I decided to use Estyn and not the Census as the basis for my research.

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