Thursday, 14 November 2013

Carwyn's Big Convo on the future of Welsh

The first findings of the First Minister's Cynhadledd Fawr have been published. Has the
big issue - demographic shifts - been acknowledged but largely overlooked in favour of easy options?
(Pic :

Over several months, First Minister Carwyn Jones led a "Big Conversation/Conference" (Y Gynhadledd Fawr) on the future of the Welsh language following the disappointing 2011 census figures. The process included open meetings and online surveys. In total, Y Gynhadledd Fawr resulted in almost 2,400 responses to the online survey alone and around 400 people attended the meetings.

On Tuesday, he updated AMs, highlighting the key issues raised, and outlining policies the Welsh Government have already enacted, like £200k for digital projects.

Labour and Opposition AMs broadly welcomed the initiative itself, albeit with concerns about financing future measures. There were discussions on teaching Welsh as a second language, and opportunities for young people "to have fun" through the medium of Welsh – in particular sport. Though when mentioning the Urdd, Carwyn was reluctant to display his dancing prowess, the Earth's crust breathing a sigh of relief.

A report on the initial findings of Y Gynhadledd Fawr was published by Cwmni Iaith towards the end of October (pdf), and the First Minister said a follow-up statement will be made next spring.

The report itself reads like good PR, saying participants appreciated their chance to have their say, and that Welsh Government language policies (like its five year strategy) were "on the right track" etc. It also summarised, from those surveyed, thoughts and ideas to help the language thrive.

The Report's Conclusions

Demographic Mobility

This was said to be the biggest challenge facing the Welsh language, which I presume refers to the churning of Welsh-speaking populations in Y Fro. Young Welsh-speaking people leave and are replaced with older monoglots from within Wales - and, yes, England - in addition to natural wastage through mortality.

Media & Society

In order to bring Welsh into the 21st century and maintain it, TV and radio are said to make a valuable contribution, while Welsh needs to be a standard operating language on computer programmes (as Irish and Catalan often are) and available/seen on more digital platforms.

Do S4C and Radio Cymru need to do more to
promote the Welsh language to non-Welsh speakers?
(Pic : S4C)

One key recommendation is widening choice of Welsh-language media. I've suggested a Welsh language children's channel, and a competitor to Radio Cymru before, but I don't see the point of increasing Welsh use in English language programming (as suggested) unless the shows themselves are bilingual. Of course, there's the Papurau Bro and Welsh-language blogosphere on top of that.

Both Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys M
ôn) and Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) suggested - at the most recent meeting of the Assembly's Cross-party group for Welsh - that S4C and BBC need to be "ambassadors of the language" and "promote the language to non-Welsh speakers and abroad". I noted in September that S4C should have statutory PSB responsibilities towards Welsh-learners, for example.

None of that is within the Assembly's remit as broadcasting isn't devolved, however.

Things like increasing Welsh on social media are simple to do, and it appears there's a wide choice of Welsh-language literature – recently added to by Amazon e-books - and contemporary music out there that perhaps needs better promotion.


Promoting WM education is an obvious solution, but more importantly – and it pops up in the responses – improving the overall teaching of Welsh as both a first and second language.

Having had an EM education, I remember far more Welsh from primary school. The teachers seemed more engaged and it was more exciting to learn a second language. Secondary teachers tried their best, but seemed frustrated at having to teach "illiterates" (from their perspective), instead concentrating their efforts on those sitting GCSEs and A-Levels.

I was part of the last year group not to sit a compulsory Welsh GCSE, and was taught French, German and Welsh as second languages. When it came down to choosing GCSEs, I chose German – because the teachers were enthusiastic, the syllabus seemed relevant and it was taught brilliantly. I'm not a fluent German speaker as a result, but I know enough to get by. Guess which language would be more useful to me now? Ich halte es ist wahrscheinlich nicht Deutsch.

Teaching Welsh as a second language should focus at primary level as that's perhaps the best time to learn a second language, cognitively speaking. A compulsory Welsh GCSE in EM secondaries (especially the short course) is utterly pointless, but the idea of a compulsory second (or third) language isn't - and that could indeed include Welsh by choice in EM schools.

Use of Welsh

This is as important as education to the survival of the language, with not enough opportunities – or a reluctance – to use Welsh socially, within families, at work and when receiving public services.

Measures proposed here include maintaining and expanding things like Twf (0-18months) and Mudiad Meithrin (voluntary Welsh-speaking nurseries), both of which count as practical support towards teaching pre-school children Welsh. Young people in particular would prefer to do more recreational activities in Welsh – like sports and arts – in addition to Welsh on social media and Welsh language computer games (like Enaid Coll).

I think a particular problem there is – outside of Y Fro and WM schools – no critical mass of people to support regular, structured WM activities. Also, activities for Welsh-learners usually fall under arts and culture and are - more often than not - at the top of the list when it comes to local authority cuts.

Economy & Services

Not only do general economic issues in rural parts of Wales need to be addressed, but the Welsh language needs to be tied to economic development. That includes seeing Welsh as a sometimes necessary skill when taking into account the influence of bilingual labour markets and workplaces.

Do Welsh-speakers themselves, especially outside Y Fro, need to
make better use of available schemes like Iaith Gwaith?
(Pic : Golwg360)

Many of the proposed measures include marketing Welsh as a USP for tourists, more support for Welsh-speaking entrepreneurs and mainstreaming the use of Welsh in the workplace.

Signs and badges that show that Welsh language services are offered – like the Iaith Gwaith scheme – are also highlighted, along with support for maintaining a visual "official bilingualism" on signs etc.

Next, there's ensuring public services meet obligations to Welsh-speakers, and that's – in part – the responsibility of the Welsh Language Commissioner.

The sorts of services people said needed special focus were essential and statutory public services like : emergency services, health, and local authority services like libraries and leisure. Respondents also include some private companies like banks and high street shops.

Planning, Housing & Policy

It's said the Welsh language as a planning consideration (TAN 20) needs to be strengthened, while there's also a critical lack of affordable housing in many parts of rural Wales. In wider terms it also includes more support for young first times buyers in general, limiting residential rights in caravan parks and taxing second homes.

There were additional concerns not only in terms of maintaining investment – currently £8.8million is said (in the report) to be spent on the Welsh language by the Welsh Government - but government policy. It was also acknowledged that "a small minority of people" opposed any and all state support for the language, but they were said to have failed to understand the point of the exercise. Well, there's a shock.

What can we take from Y Gynhadledd Fawr?

The Welsh language shouldn't be seen as a subject in itself, but closely tied to other areas -
like the economy and housing - perhaps stimulating creative solutions for problems that
affect everyone as a result. Low cost, modular housing for example.
(Pic : Coed Cymru)
I'm sure many people actively concerned about the future of the language will see Y Gynhadledd Fawr as a load of hot air.

I doubt there's any grounds to complain on those terms. It was called a "big conversation" and it's exactly that – a massive public consultation exercise. I doubt it was ever envisaged to lead to dramatic policy shifts. Though now, the First Minister has the perspective of ordinary Welsh-speakers to help guide future policy.

A big problem with the findings (duly acknowledged) was that few Y Fro residents - who are more likely to encounter/use Welsh in their daily lives - filled out the surveys. 21% of responses came from Cardiff. Another problem was that a lot of the things respondents said should be done are being done - and it's not making a difference, is it?

I worry we're heading down the Irish route of creating an equivalent of the Gaeltacht (technically we already do by using terms like Y Fro Gymraeg), where the language becomes ghettoised, slowly squeezed to death as the country changes around it. Measures have to be taken across Wales, otherwise there's no point.

We've repeated many mistakes the Irish have made. Irish is a hobby horse for committed activists, seen as something for isolated rural communities and the urbane middle classes (including busing pupils to bilingual schools because they perform better), and self-referential about itself. Also, like Welsh, the Irish language is still in relative decline.

It's best to look further afield to the Basque Country to draw inspiration – especially in education, the arts/media and the use of a minority language in public life.

The language is as old as the people who speak it. I've said it a few times, but rural Wales needs to become noisier and dirtier to retain young Welsh-speaking families, not a quaint chocolate box cover fit for granny farming.

The challenges are systemic. Welsh isn't in flux because there aren't enough Welsh tweets. It's because of demographic changes in Welsh-speaking Wales prompted by migration (in both directions), economic problems and affordable housing shortages. If you can match the solutions to strategic aims like tourism and the green economy – even better.

But the solutions are going to be hard to swallow, especially for those who hate wind turbines, oppose new road schemes and don't like housing developments.

You don't solve it by taking a knee-jerk, veiled anti-English, "drawbridge mentality".

You solve it by taking away the reasons people move to, and away from, Y Fro in the first place – the romanticised preservation of a "precious landscape", and the "peace and quiet" caused by a weak economy and no major urban centres.

Don't take Y Fro to Cardiff, take some of Cardiff to Y Fro. Unleash the diggers. Make sure Welsh-speakers are the ones wearing hard hats and hi-vis jackets, and moving into new communities, businesses and homes they built and designed for their own ends.


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