The results of the 2011 census released on 11 December 2012 show a decline in the number of Welsh speakers. The proportion that can speak the language has dropped from 21% to 19% of the population of Wales, which is twenty thousand fewer than at the last census.
Figures have been released for the unitary authorities (counties) – more detailed ward figures will be issued later. The language is stronger in the west than the east – with the Welsh-speaking heartlands known as ‘Y Fro Gymraeg’ going from Anglesey and Gwynedd in the north west via Ceredigion in the middle to Carmarthenshire in the south west (shown in darker green on the map). Anglesey and Gwynedd have seen some reduction and Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire now have over 50% of their population unable to speak Welsh, with Carmarthenshire, the county with the highest number of Welsh speakers, seeing a shocking reduction of 6% down to 43.9%.
Gwynedd in the north west still has the highest percentage of speakers with 65.4% and Blaenau Gwent in the south east has the lowest with 7.8%.
We reported earlier this year on predictions that Welsh was declining as a community language in its heartland. However, experts were then suggesting that this decline could go hand in hand with an increase in urban areas in the south east. This increase has not materialised – Cardiff has only seen a small rise of 0.1% to 11.1% and Monmouth an increase from 9.3% to 9.9%.
The figures for the Welsh language have been in decline since the question was first asked in the census of 1891 in which 54% of the population declared that they spoke Welsh. The decline accelerated in the 1960s when playwright Saunders Lewis called for revolutionary measures to save the language. This downward trend continued until the census of 2001 when an increase was recorded for the first time. In 2001, it was reported that 55% of children between ten and fourteen years old could speak Welsh. This was widely believed to be an exaggeration of the effectiveness of Welsh lessons in schools on the part of parents.
People say that there are ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’, but as statistics go, the national census is probably among the most reliable. This year respondents were able to choose between reading, writing, understanding, speaking or any combination of skills, but there were no options for differing levels of competence, which may have dissuaded some learners. Welsh speakers living in England were not able to answer the detailed question on knowledge of the Welsh language.
Language campaigners, political parties, government and others will be discussing the implications of these results over the next few weeks. In 1961 Saunders Lewis predicted that Welsh would “end as a living language, should the present trend continue, about the beginning of the twenty-first century.” Fortunately, he has so far been proved wrong, but this week’s figures mean that nothing can be taken for granted.