Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Saunders Lewis’s speech on the fate of the language in which he warned that Welsh would cease to be a community language within half a century, the Welsh Language Board released a report on the state of the language last week. The Board, which is soon to be replaced by the new Welsh Language Commissioner, says its report is the most comprehensive statistical portrait of any minority language in the world.
The report precedes the results of the 2011 census, which are expected in a few months’ time. The findings paint a depressing picture for supporters of the language: 3,000 fewer people speak Welsh every year. The decline is due to the death of older speakers, emigration of Welsh speakers and immigration into Wales; 6,500 Welsh speakers die annually and 5,200 move away. The number of children and adults learning Welsh is not high enough to compensate for this loss. The report puts the number of fluent speakers at 300,000, whereas the number of speakers of all abilities had previously been estimated at close to 500,000. This decline is despite the growth in Welsh-medium education and in the teaching of Welsh as a second language in schools.
Although Welsh speakers are now more evenly distributed over Wales, with fewer living in the Welsh heartlands (broadly Anglesey, Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire) these areas, also known as Y Fro Gymraeg, are still home to 56% of fluent Welsh speakers. The report points out that as fewer areas have a concentration of Welsh speakers, speakers are less likely to come across other people with whom they can converse in the language and are less likely to have children with other Welsh speakers.
Whilst acknowledging that nobody can foretell the future, the WLB does not expect a significant increase in the number of Welsh speakers in the near future. The remedy recommended by the Board is for existing speakers’ skills to be maintained through more opportunities to use the language in every aspect of people’s daily lives. It had been believed that the resistance of the Welsh language co-existing with one of the most widely spoken languages in the world was somewhat of a miracle. We can only hope that the current decline is not the first nail in the language’s coffin.