Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Collapse of the Welsh Language is a Lesson for the Rest of the World

People often say that non-Welsh in-migration is, and has been, the downfall of the Welsh Language.  Certainly, if you were to compare the strength of Welsh in, say, Blaenau Ffestiniog to the strength of Welsh in, say,  Barmouth, you will definitely reach that conclusion.

However, in-migration has not been the only factor in the collapse of Welsh as a living community language, and its importance, I think is overstated.  You may think, that as an Englishman, I would say that anyway, but bear in mind that in Argentina, for example, some 52% of the country is of Italian descent, and yet, no, Argentina is not an Italian-speaking country.  In London, where I am from, in-migration has in no way weakened the local language, English.

So why is the situation so different in Wales?  In London, everybody is expected to, and kinda has to, speak the local language, regardless of what country they’re from, and this what I have always considered to be the ‘normal’ situation.  Even in the most Welsh-speaking areas of Wales, however, people who aren’t Welsh generally won’t speak Welsh. 

An obvious reason behind this difference is the fact that every adult and teenage Welsh-speaker in Wales can also speak English, meaning that if you are an English-speaking incomer, there is little obvious need to learn Welsh.

Bilingualism in Wales is hence very one-way, with 100% of Cymry Cymreig also speaking English, and only 10% of native-English speakers in Wales also speaking Welsh.  And it’s One-way Bilingualism that is the problem. 

One-way Bilingualism means that if you have three Welsh-speakers and one English-speaker in the conversation, all four will have to speak English together, even if they’re in the heart of the Fro Gymraeg.

One-way Bilingualism means that if, in a Welsh-speaking area, the village shop is owned by someone who isn’t Welsh, then the rest of the village will not be able to shop in their own language, in their own country. Where I live in London, the nearest bakery happens to be Romanian, but that does not mean that we have to speak Romanian whenever we want to get good quality bread.

One-way Bilingualism has resulted in a situation where I have met countless locals in the Aberystwyth area who are non-Welsh-speaking merely because one of their four grandparents happened to not be Welsh, and that therefore English was the home language for the whole family from that point on. 

In London, such a situation would be, quite rightly, inconceivable. One-way Bilingualism has made the situation for Welsh much, much worse, when it should have survived much better during periods of higher levels of in-migration. Indeed, when you did have English incomers moving into majority Welsh-monoglot areas, they did indeed learn Welsh, as I discovered when looking at the 1911 Census returns for Bethesda, Gwynedd.

The trouble was, however, that areas like Bethesda were no longer the Welsh norm, and that even in 1911, some 81% of Welsh-speakers in Wales also spoke English.  Therefore, when you had large waves of English in-migration, such as into the South Wales coalfield, the incomers had no need to learn Welsh.  English was therefore the common language, and factors such as inter-marriage diluted the Welsh-speaking population very quickly,  and the rest is history.

The sad thing is, that this need not have happened, since Welsh-speakers at the time were much better at English than other non-state language groups were at their rulers’ languages.  For example, in around 1910, only half of Breton-speakers in Lower Brittany knew how to speak French, and the percentage of Czechs, Slovaks and Slovenes, etc, who were able to speak German was similarly around half.

If the Welsh had been more like those other groups at the time, then we would most likely have a very different Wales today.

Thus we have seen how One-way Bilingualism can lead to language death, and a situation where it’s the indigenous people who are being assimilated in the the newcomer’s culture and not the other way round. 

However, this is not the only disadvantage of One-way Bilingualism; OWB can also have negative consequences for society as a whole and can even lead to social tensions.

One-way Bilingualism’s Effects on Community Relations and Cohesion
One-way Bilingualism, where it does not lead to all-out language death, can result in segregated communities where residents who don’t speak the local language feel excluded by, and resentful towards, the locals who do, as the 1989 A Study of Language Contact And Social Networks in Ynys Môn, by Delyth Morris, showed, which looked specifically at the village of Bryngwran.

Sadly, my own experiences appear to support her conclusions; I all too often heard Welsh-speakers being described as an insular and parochial group who lived in their own ‘bubble’, speaking their own language which ‘nobody else understands.’ In London, such accusations would never be made against the locals, since the ‘English world’ is something which every newcomer here is forced to join, and therefore, it is not a ‘bubble’ to them.

Likewise, when I was in Brittany after completing my French A Level, I was saddened to note that there was some bad feeling among the locals towards English ‘Expats’ there due to the perception that most did not make enough effort to learn French.

A Lesson for the Rest of the World
The Welsh example therefore shows that One-way Bilingualism can lead to unforeseen consequences which, I imagine, no country would ever choose to have in their society.  The sad thing is, that despite this being a post-imperial and post-colonial world, One-way Bilingualism appears to be becoming more common across the world, and not less common.

I have often heard a joke, that if, in Dubai, Qatar, Stockholm or Amsterdam, you want to find someone who speaks two languages (ie, the local language, and English), you should go to a ‘local’ school, while if you want to find someone who speaks just one language (ie, just English), you should go to an ‘International’ school. 

I also read the story online of a lady from South East Asia who had moved to Finland as a twelve-year-old.  Naturally, she wanted to learn the language of her new home and become part of the society there, yet even though she tried, she didn’t truly become fluent as a teenager because her high-school classmates insisted on always practising their English on her. 

Why should she be denied her chance to integrate into her new country's culture and become Finnish, despite her best efforts, just because, a long time ago, England once had an Empire? 

If her story is not enough, then the Welsh experience shows that One-way Bilingualism does not end well.  Let that be a wake-up call.


  1. It should be 'Cymry Cymraeg' = Welsh-speaking Welsh. 'Cymreig' means Welsh but not (particularly) the language.

  2. This extensive research may be of interest.

  3. English as a language no longer exist as it amalgam of different languages.The English spoken worldwide is american. But English of England has disappeared similar to Latin and if you look at software and see the different English of the countries around the world. Welsh will survive only if the Welsh want it to. But that is also changing with the modern influences.

  4. What doesn’t help in any way, is the acceptance by Europe that, The English Language is the “working language”. I wish now thinking about it, that the French would have got their own way.

  5. Another lesson: "Welsh" has Germanic roots. The word itself meant "foreign, strange". Anglo-Saxon invaders applied it to British Celts, in essence branding them as strangers in their own lands.