Saturday, 26 August 2017

Will there still be a Fro Gymraeg?

A question that has been asked a lot is whether or not the Welsh Assembly Government will be able to meet its target of having one million Welsh speakers by 2050.  For me, a more burning question is whether or not there will still be any Welsh-speaking areas by then.  What I wanted to see, therefore, was whether or not Welsh was continuing the survive in its remaining heartland, and what the future might have in store.  To do this, I looked at school census data from 2013, 2016 and 2017 for primary schools across Anglesey, Gwynedd and neighbouring Conwy, seeing what percentages of pupils spoke Welsh at home, and also compared those results with contextual information produced by school Estyn reports dating back more than 10 years. 

Those of you who have read my blog about Welsh in Gwynedd will know that even there, there are areas where Welsh-at-Home (WAH) children are now in the minority – mainly Bangor, most of coastal and southern Meirionydd, along with enclaves elsewhere such as Abersoch and Beddgelert.  Similarly on Anglesey, most of the coastal areas are no longer Welsh-speaking, with WAH children being the majority mainly in the interior of the island.  WAH children are also the majority in significant rural areas of Conwy.  So how are these remaining Welsh-speaking areas doing?

The good news is that many areas do appear to be holding out, for now at least, and these areas include the notable Welsh-speaking towns of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Caernarfon and Llangefni.  However, there is not much to celebrate.  In Criccieth, 64% of the town’s primary school children spoke Welsh at home in 2004.  Thirteen years later only 42% do.  In Beddgelert, it’s fallen from around 50% in 2005 to under 10% now but that is nothing compared to Dolbenmaen, where it has fallen from 77.5% to 52.3%, just since 2013.  The town of Bala has seen the percentage of children speaking Welsh at home fall from 60% to 49% just in those last four years.  Up in Arfon, the English-speaking enclave of Bangor has stopped being an enclave; Rhiwlas and Tregarth at the head of the Ogwen valley have already fallen; in the latter, the WAH in its primary school has fallen from around 50% to 26.8% in less than 10 years. Worse still, the trend appears to have spread further up the valley; the figure for Ysgol Abercaseg (Babanod), the infants school in Bethesda, fell from 70.6% to 55.7% between 2013 and 2017.   In Llanberis, the base of Snowdon, 69% of children in 2013 spoke Welsh at home but in four years it’s fallen to 51%.   Yes, you read that right, playground Welsh appears to be dying a sudden death in areas where it was the norm as little as four years ago.  And then there are places which are being anglicised, albeit more slowly in comparison, such as in the town of Pwllheli, where 61% of primary pupils spoke Welsh at home this January but where, at the current rate, could become a minority as soon as 10 years from now.

And here is the thing, the national census that everyone focuses on is so incredibly useless at revealing such disasters when they happen, or giving any correct impression on the state of Welsh as the home language in any given community.  Who would have thought that only 32% of primary school children in Dolgellau speak Welsh at Home (2017), when the 2011 Census said that 64% of the town’s population could speak Welsh? Who would have guessed that less than 10% of children speak Welsh at Home in Holyhead when the 2011 Census said that 42% of its population could speak Welsh? The truth is that the general census, in only asking you if you can speak Welsh, can be positively misleading.  It needs to be changed so that we can stop misleading ourselves. 

Why does it matter?
The mind-blowing speed at which what's left of the Fro Gymraeg is being destroyed is, as far as I know, unparalleled in 21st century Europe; other minority language communities in Europe, such as the Finland Swedes, the Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia and the German speakers of South Tyrol, Italy, are not seeing their remaining language-territory being eroded like Welsh-speaking areas still are in 2017.  It's important that we know that what's unfolding in Gwynedd is not the 21st European norm, so that we don't feel that we have to accept it as being an inevitable part of globalisation and modernity.

I’ve heard some people say, however, that it doesn’t matter if the Fro Gymraeg disappears, and that as long as more people in Cardiff learn Welsh as their second language, that's enough to compensate. I would show them the table on the right.  What it shows is that there is an indisputably strong correlation between the percentage of children speaking Welsh at Home, and it being used in the playground.  In other words, in order for Welsh to be heard in school playgrounds and in skate parks, you need to have children who speak Welsh at home, and they need to be surrounded by other children who speak Welsh at home;  otherwise they will just speak English, regardless of the language the actual lessons are in.  For that reason, there needs to be communities of native Welsh-speakers, not just individual Welsh-speakers scattered around the place, as is increasingly the case.  Therefore, for it to truly be a living language, it needs to have a territory. 

For that reason, the survival of the Fro Gymraeg is the difference between Welsh being a fact of life, and it merely being a school subject.  And readers, ask yourselves this, if a language reaches a stage where there are no school playgrounds left where it can be heard, can it still be considered a living language; even if it does have a million (mostly second language) speakers by 2050?

8 comments:

  1. these figures are really worrying, but only state what aware Cymry Cymraeg know is happening. Why are we so helpless ? Something must be done, but what and by whom?

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    1. The first step has to be to stop Welsh Govt plans to build hundreds of thousands of un needed and unaffordable homes. Many of these are planned for the various communities of the Fro. The impact of these new developments will be the end of the Fro. http://deffrorddraig.cymru/west-cheshire/the-plan/


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  2. First of all, something needs to be done about the Census Question so that we don't delude ourselves, like we have with places like Llanrwst and Dolgellau. But definitely, there needs to be a debate. And it shouldn't be seen as racist to be concerned about the impact of leisure in-migration on the survival of Britain's oldest language.

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  3. Your piece does not compare like-for-like situations - if you're going to mention Sewdes in Finland, Hungarians in Romania and Slovakia and the German speakers of South Tyrol, Italy - why not mention Welsh speakers in Argentina, where the language thrives?

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  4. I moved to Corwen some 40 years ago. Back then Ysgol Glyndyfrdwy and Ysgol Carrog were Welsh. Today Glyndyfrdwy has closed and Carrog is English medium. On the positive, Llangollen now has a Welsh primary school, I recently met a young joiner who immediately started speaking to me in Welsh. He told me he was the only Welsh speaker in his family, he'd learnt Welsh in Ysgol Gymraeg y Gwernant Llangollen.

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    1. How Welsh-speaking was the community of Corwen back then would you say?

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    2. 40 years ago Welsh was the language most heard in Corwen,Llantisyllio, Cynwyd and Llandrillo. Even Glyndwyfrdwy was about half and half.

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  5. Housing is clearly a key issue and it's not just inmigration it's also the lack of reasonable rent social or (better still) council housing in Welsh speaking areas. Given that Welsh speaking Wales is the poorest region in the EU, things will only change with massive investment to secure housing and jobs in these communities.

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