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.”
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.
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.”
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!
Alex 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.
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