Sunday, 31 July 2016

Just how Welsh Speaking is Gwynedd today?

Gwynedd, the home of Snowdon, has for the centuries been a bastion for Welshness.  Whether as the last unconquered Welsh principality in the 13th Century or as the Heartland of Welsh language newspapers, novels and poets in the 19th and early 20th, to say that the region has punched above its weight with regards to Welsh culture would be an understatement.  And of course, in the twenty-first century where Welsh is now a minority language in Wales as a whole, Gwynedd is Wales's most welsh speaking area.   Thus, I, myself a learner of the language originally from London but now living in Wales, wanted to find out just how Welsh speaking Gwynedd is in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.
             The 2011 Census recorded that 65.4% of those enumerated in Gwynedd on Census day could speak Welsh, compared to 72.1% in `1991.  However the Census is not always the best guide to the state of Welsh as a Mother Tongue; the question is on whether or not you can speak Welsh; not whether or not it is your mother tongue.  This is significant since, A Survey Commissioned by Gwynedd Council on secondary schools in 2014, showed how the home language, along with the Home Language of his or her friends, had the greatest impact on a child's use of the language socially.  A far more accurate indicator of the status of Welsh as a mother tongue and community language, than the Census, are school inspection reports by Estyn, the Welsh equivalent to OFSTED in England, which will state the  percentage of pupils speaking Welsh at Home under the section entitled 'Context'.  Thus in a spare weekend this Summer, I noted down the relevant numbers and percentages given in the latest Estyn reports in all 96 of Gwynedd's primary schools into one spread sheet, and, since they have smaller catchment areas than secondary schools they give quite an accurate picture of the town or village in which they are located.  I must add however, that for the primary schools in the Bala catchment area, I used a 2014 language impact assessment report available online via google search instead of going onto the school's individual estyn reports.
            The results showed that of Gwynedd's Primary school population of just under 9500, 59.2% speak Welsh at home (WAH).  This did not surprise me; the survey referred to earlier concluded that 59% of secondary school pupils came from either wholly Welsh speaking or bilingual homes (the former 44%, the latter 15%).  What astonished me about the Estyn results,however, was the variation: The school with the highest percentage of pupils from Welsh-speaking homes (Ysgol Bro Tryweryn in Frongoch) stood at 96% while the 3 most anglicized schools had no pupils from Welsh speaking homes.  In 7 schools the percentage exceeded 90% while in 10 schools it was less than 10%.  There's no other way of putting it, that is an astonishingly wide variation.  Furthermore, Schools above 50% averaged 73.6% while those below 50% averaged 14.4%. Clearly, the state of Welsh as a living vernacular in Gwynedd today varies spectacularly depending on which part of Gwynedd you are in; there are areas where nearly child has Welsh as their mother tongue and areas where literally no child does.   So how exactly does the strength of Welsh vary across the county? I will thus delve into each of Gwynedd's three territorial divisions; Arfon, Meirionydd and Dwyfor: 
          Arfon, in the north of Gwynedd where 60% of pupils speak Welsh at home, contains Gwynedd's two largest towns: Bangor and Caernarfon.  In Caernarfon's primary schools, 81.6% speak Welsh at home; Welsh is clearly the town's living vernacular.  In Bangor, however, it is only 24.3%.   Clearly, although the influx of university students in Bangor does have some impact on the percentage who can speak Welsh there, what matters more is that it simply doesn't seem to be the town's vernacular any more.  Of Arfon's 41 Primary schools, in only 13 do less than half of pupils speak Welsh at home, and of these, 10 are in or around Bangor.  Thus Arfon can be described as an essentially Welsh speaking area in which Bangor is an English speaking enclave.
        In Meirionydd, essentially Southern Gwynedd, only 47% of pupils speak Welsh at Home and only 16 of its 31 primary schools have WAH majorities.  For much of the twentieth Century, before the area of Gwynedd was created as an administrative area, Meirionydd was the most Welsh speaking county in Wales.  The results show that it is now sharply divided and so I will deal with the two halves of Merionydd separately:  the North and East of Meirionydd (essentially mid-snowdonia) is still Welsh speaking with 76.5% of the primary school population there speaking it at home; in Trawsfynydd and Frongoch's primary schools it exceeds 90% while only one school in this region has a WAH minority, Ysgol Bueno Sant in Bala.  Although mostly rural, this region does include two towns; lakeside Bala and the post-industrial slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.  Bala has two primary schools, one, Ysgol Bro Tegid where 64% come from WS homes and the other, Ysgol Bueno Sant where only 36% do.  Blaenau Ffestiniog, the largest of Merionydd's towns has 80% of its pupils speaking Welsh at home and none of its primary schools are below 70%.  It is tempting to think that the Blaenau's slag heaps may have deterred Anglophone incomers from settling there while it will be interesting to see what effect the town's regeneration will have on the survival of Welsh there in the years to come.   
              As for the South and Western half of Meirionydd, there, only 20.5% of pupils come from Welsh-speaking homes.  Essentially, everywhere on the Meirionydd coast south of Harlech has been anglicized.  A key example of this is the seaside resort of Barmouth, where in its primary school, Ysgol Y Traeth, no pupils speak Welsh at home. Although centred on the coast, this area of anglicisation does, unfortunately, extend inland and cover much of southern Snowdonia.   In the beautiful town of Dolgellau below Cadair Idris, only 25% of pupils speak Welsh at home and interestingly this is neither a seaside resort nor a university town.  Dolgellau is a key example of how the Census can give a false impression; in 2011, 64.8% of the town's inhabitants reported that they could speak Welsh, inducing one to think that Welsh is still a majority language there while estyn shows otherwise.  Although Welsh is stronger in Dolgellau's surrounding mountainous hinterland than in the town itself, even there, anglicisation is most definitely happening.  In the mountain-village school in Dinas Mawddwy, 73% of pupils came from Welsh speaking homes in 2007, but by 2010 this had fallen to 40%.  Similarly in Ganllwyd, the figure was 72% in 2008 and 50% in 2014.  However, in the villages of Pennal and Corris, for example, the demise of Welsh as the main vernacular for children has already occurred; their percentages were 14 and 6%, at their latest inspections, respectively.   Thus, the future for Welsh in Southern Snowdonia does not look good.
        On a more cheerful note, however, the division of Dwyfor, consisting mainly of the Lleyn Peninsular, is the most Welsh speaking of Gwynedd's three divisions; there, 70.4% of pupils speak Welsh at home.  In 12 of its 23 schools, more than 70% of pupils speak the language at home while in only 3 of its 23 schools is Welsh not the majority mother tongue: Abersoch, Borthyguest and Beddgelert with these 3 schools averaging at 26%; Beddgelert now being at 7% (compared with 50% in 2005).    To me, it's ironic that the attention of organisations such as Cymuned and Meibion Glyndwr were so focused on the Lleyn when this is the by far the language's safest territory.  Even so, it does appear that WAH may become a minority in the seaside towns of Criccieth and Porthmadog in the near future; WAH will be a minority in Ysgol Treferthyr in Criccieth by the next inspection if the current trend continues, while in Porthmadog, it was noted in Ysgol Eifon Wyn's latest inspection report (from 2010),  that although 60% of pupils overall spoke WAH, in the nursery class it was only a third.  Should the percentage in these two schools fall below 50%, Welsh will still be a majority in 18 of Dwyfor's 23 schools but no longer be the majority pupil mother tongue in two of its four urban centres.  
        Thus, Gwynedd can be described as an area in which Welsh is still a majority mother tongue, but in which there are significant areas where it is not, namely much of Meirionydd and the City of Bangor.  As for why Welsh has survived so well in certain areas but not in others, this is something I would welcome some input on.  Feel free to comment; maybe you live in Gwynedd or have a contribution to make, or just want to join in the discussion.  


  1. The reason for the decline of the Welsh language in Gwynedd - and indeed, Ceredigion, N Pembrokeshire and other areas - is tourism and the inevitable influx of colonists that results from tourism.

    Tourism in the past century has done more to anglicise and 'neutralise' Wales than all the medieval armies put together.

    Yet too many Welsh are blind to the danger because they've been brainwashed into believing that tourism is the economic salvation of rural and west coast Wales.

    Either we start waking up to the danger of tourism, which brings few benefits to Welsh people, or we accept the death of Welsh as a community language.

    1. So would you want there to be no tourism at all?

    2. full dependency on an industry in which most companies arent even owned by locals - is a deathknell for local community culture

  2. And Abermaw or an interesting one...the very name Barmouth was made up in the 1700s and forced on the locals through a trade embargo by merchants as the Welsh was too difficult to use officially - this according the author Jan Morris