Bilingualism Around The World

Wales: Britain’s Hidden Corner of Bilingualism

Tucked away in the corner of the UK, one of the world’s most monolingual countries, you’ll find a beacon of bilingualism for the rest of the world: Wales. Out of the four home nations that make up the United Kingdom, Wales has led the way in its efforts to revive and promote the Welsh language, and has set a precedent for other countries all over the world. What makes this more impressive, is that it has managed to do so while living side-by-side with global giant English.

But only fifty years ago, it looked like the Welsh language was dying out. It was only spoken in remote, rural regions by mainly older speakers. But since 1999, when learning Welsh was made compulsory in schools up to the age of 16, things have started to change.

“I can’t go five meters out my door without knowing that Welsh is around me.”

Laura Simons grew up in Swansea, Wales’s second and famously English speaking city. Yet she still felt a connection with the language, and went on to become a Welsh and Foreign Language teacher: “Where I live has a Welsh street name. Every road sign that we see is in both languages. We have the option of Welsh language TV, and of course by law every official document that we receive has got to be bilingual. I can’t go five meters out my door without knowing that Welsh is around me.”


(C) Henry Spooner

Nowadays, Wales is unimaginable without the Welsh language, but its official status was hard won. The 1960s saw the formation of the Welsh Language Society (Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg), in reaction to the alarming drop in Welsh proficiency from 50% of the population at the start of the 20th Century to below 20% by the mid-20th Century.

The Welsh Language Society organised protests around the country against English-only road signs, TV stations and schools, and slowly won concessions. In 1967 the Welsh Language Act granted the right to give evidence in court in Welsh for the first time. The Welsh-language BBC Radio Cymru was first founded a decade later.


In 1979, when UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced she was discarding her election promise to establish a Welsh language TV station, a wave of civil disobedience followed. People refused to pay their TV licenses, climbed television masts, and even invaded TV studios. The Welsh language station S4C was founded in 1982.

“It just feels strange to be forced to justify speaking your own language, and be asked whether it’s useful, or even a ‘complete’ language.”

Yet problems around the status of the Welsh language still arise today, particularly with its perception amongst English speakers in the rest of the UK. In 2015, 24-year-old Welsh footballer Aaron Ramsey found himself the victim of a torrent of abuse for tweeting in Welsh, which left feelings sore on both sides of the border.

Native Welsh speaker Dan Owen, who now lives in London, says that he occasionally gets “challenged” on speaking Welsh: “It just feels strange to be forced to justify speaking your own language, and be asked whether it’s useful, or even a ‘complete’ language.”

Welsh speakers often code-switch, dropping English words or phrases into their Welsh where it feels natural to do so. Occasionally, detractors seize on this as proof that Welsh is not a real language that exists separately from English.

(C) Alan Fryer

But Laura points out that linguistic influence goes both ways: “My grandma is not a Welsh speaker but will use the word ‘learn’ instead of ‘teach’, because ‘dysgu’ in Welsh means both things. It’s part of the dialect here in Swansea that comes from the old use of Welsh.”

Unless they can be sure, most people probably would still use English to address someone they didn’t know. Dan once tried to buy a ticket on a train in Welsh, but the conductor’s response made him instantly switch back to English. But there are those who would love to practise the language more, with some wear badges asking people to speak Welsh to them.

“My whole family speaks Welsh. My community speaks it. The schools that my kids go to speak it. My kids could go on to primary, high school and even study their degrees all in Welsh. My husband and I have spent most of our working lives speaking Welsh!”

It turns out that speaking Welsh may have some unexpected, positive consequences. Catrin James, a languages teacher from Carmarthen, noticed when she applied for her daughter’s new passport in Welsh that it arrived much earlier than when she’d previously done the form in English. Dan was once attended to instantly by selecting the Welsh option when calling British Gas, rather spending hours in the queue with other English speaking customers.

Welsh has managed to appeal even to those who did not grow up speaking it natively. Apart from a dip in 2011, censuses show an upwards trend in Welsh proficiency, which suggest that far from dying, the language is thriving.

That seems to be Catrin’s experience: “My whole family speaks Welsh. My community speaks it. The schools that my kids go to speak it. My kids could go on to primary, high school and even study their degrees all in Welsh. My husband and I have spent most of our working lives speaking Welsh! There are also a number of people in my social circle who have learned Welsh who are from places like Ireland, France, and London.


Some of Welsh’s successful appeal might be down to the Eisteddfod festival. This annual celebration of Welsh poetry, literature and language attracts huge crowds every year. And by stressing its inclusivity and encouraging non-Welsh speakers to attend too, it has become one of Europe’s greatest minority language events.

Catrin believes that “helps open the door for people to say ‘Actually, a lot of people speak Welsh, so maybe it is worth me learning it!’”

In the 1950s, extinction looked all but inevitable for the Welsh language. But in 2050 fortunes have changed, and the devolved government has now set itself the ambitious target of having a million Welsh speakers.

“Teachers can show vocabulary which is very similar in Welsh, Spanish and French, so the children are able to make the connection. For example: chanter, cantar, canu (to sing).”

By building on the success of making Welsh compulsory in schools, Laura believes that MFL and Welsh as a second language departments could even be working together towards making Wales a “bilingual plus one” country. That is, a country that is bilingual in English and Welsh, and also proficient in a further foreign language.

She wants to see primary schools focus on using Welsh to give the pupils the confidence, understanding and skills of learning a foreign language, so that they can be equally applied when learning a foreign language. She points out that knowing Welsh can also be a huge advantage for learning other languages: “Teachers can show vocabulary which is very similar in Welsh, Spanish and French, so the children are able to make the connection. For example: chanter, cantar, canu (to sing).”

Catrin agrees that “It’s much easier to teach tu and vous in French, as that system exists in Welsh (ti and chi). You can draw on the parallels.”


Welsh speakers in Patagonia, circa 1900

Dan even had language assistants at school who only spoke Spanish or Welsh, knowing little to no English. They came from the fascinating community of Welsh speakers in Patagonia, Argentina, whose unanglicised retention of the language proved crucial when it came to reviving Welsh in the 20th Century.

So despite its reputation for monolingualism, it turns out that not only can the UK do bilingualism, but in parts it can even do so extremely well! So next time you’re in the country, don’t forget to pay Cymru a visit!

bVdID8LUAlex is Memrise’s Language Learner in Residence. He spends his time working with the Language Research Team, making fun videos about languages, and contributing to the Memrise blog. He tweets @rawlangs_alex.

In his free time he enjoys cooking, watching films, and walking his dog. He also writes books, like this one.

Interested in writing for us? Contact us here!



20 responses to ‘Wales: Britain’s Hidden Corner of Bilingualism

  1. There’s actually a Welsh-language movie. It’s 1992’s “Hedd Wynn”, about poet Ellis Evans. He wrote in his native Welsh but eventually got used as cannon fodder by the British government in WWI.

  2. Up to the time I started school at 4 years of age, then I was told I could not speak Welsh, at 78+ it was my intention To speak Welsh, as I can still speak A bit and Phrases, but not enough to carry out a conversation, I very often talk to myself, nobody can talk about me In Welsh as I understand what is said, I have a course book in Welsh all my other family evan my grand-daughters can carry out a conversation I Welsh their school is Bryn Hyfryd at Ruthin.

    • Like you Howell I went to school at the same age, I had no English, only Welsh was spoken at home, but I did learn English quite quickly at school, and passed 11+ to go to Grammar School.
      I even got an English Prize at the final School I went to (HMS Conway). I have lived in Australia now for 52 years, with quite a few trips ” ir Hen Wlad” Otherwise I would not be sane.
      I also speak Welsh to myself ( generally cursing England) but always Welsh to family and
      friends when I ring “Home”. Pob Hwyl.

  3. A couple of points.
    1. It’s good to read about an “upward trend” in the number of people speaking Welsh. It’s in Cymdeithas Yr Iaith’s self interest to always claim that the language is in crisis.
    2. S4C the Welsh-language TV channel has helped to maintain the divisions between Welsh-speaking and English-speaking Wales. It is now a total irrelevance to 98 percent of English speakers.
    3. Compulsory Welsh to GCSE level has probably proved more effective than the Welsh Not, the nineteenth century method used in some schools to punish pupils for speaking Welsh, at dissuading young people from taking a positive attitude towards the language.

    • Why do you think Cymdeithas are keen to maintain their own existence? Speaking as a member it would totally utterly delight me if our existence was entirely un-needed.

      In what many do you think S4C promotes division? And why do you think a Welsh language channel should seek to be relevant to English speakers? I am genuinely puzzled. Do you feel in the same way that the BBC is irrelevant to Welsh speakers?

      The GCSE though I concur is appalling. (And soon be scrapped, happily).

    • Wyt ti’n gallu siarad Cymraeg Gwyn?
      Dwi ddim yn deall pam dy fod ti â barn mor negyddol am y pethau hyn.
      Why do you have such a negative opinion about Cymdeithas yr Iaith, S4C and studying Welsh to GCSE level Gwyn? Do you want to see the language thrive?

  4. Erthigl da, diolch Alex.
    I can relate to this. Struggled with French at school, but after learning Welsh as an adult found my whole approach to language changed. Only holiday speak mind you, but have found that achieving fluency in Welsh as my second language has given me the confidence to pick up the basics before visiting Spain, Italy, Germany and yes France too. This in turn has greatly enhanced the enjoyment of visiting these places.

  5. What most people fail to realise is that “Welsh” ( the language) was the original language of the island of Britain and that “English” is the foriegn language

  6. Reblogged this on at home in the hills and commented:
    A great, positive article. It is infuriating to have to defend our own language in our own country but you’d be surprised at the hostility we get from people in Wales and England, especially from the English press – there seems to be a revival of this at the moment

  7. Some factual errors (e.g. Welsh has always been a much more urban than rural language with over 80% of Welsh speakers living in industrial South Wales), but good in tone and most welcome. Diolch yn fawr. Erthygl dda iawn ar y cyan.

  8. Third only to getting married & having a family, learning Welsh is one of the best things I have ever done. I relish every opportunity to speak it & have made so many new friends along the way. I don’t think you realize until you learn Welsh, just how many people in the community also speak it. I’ve met two first language Welsh speakers recently who were thrilled to have the opportunity to use their language. I always wear my ‘Cymraeg’ badge & people notice it.

  9. It shouldn’t be saddening to see a respectful article about Welsh – but it’s so rare to find these kind of articles it actually IS. Thanks you for this. 🙂

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