Languages around the world are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. But Welsh is making a comeback, and children are leading the way. Now the challenge is to move Welsh from the classroom to the living room. Meet the Steel family of Clydach.
Along the border between England and Wales stand some of Great Britain’s most imposing castles. They are testimony to centuries of conflict between the two countries. The cannons have long been silent, and motorists cross the frontier today without encountering so much as a sign of welcome or good-bye. But in Wales, pride of place and pride of culture are still very much alive.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the effort to promote the Welsh language. In the 1890s, at least 70% of the people of Wales spoke Welsh. By the middle of the 20th century, the national language (known as Cymraeg, related to Cornish and Breton) appeared to be dying. It was still dominant in some areas (mainly to the west and north), but virtually everyone in Wales spoke English, and everything from road signs to traffic tickets were written in the imperial language. Students were punished for speaking Welsh in school, and the mass media flooded the country with English pop culture.
Linguists assumed that Welsh would go the way of Gaelic in Scotland and Ireland – the focus of much nationalist rhetoric, but spoken on a daily basis only in the poorest and most isolated areas.
Today the revival of Welsh is shaping up to be one of the world’s most impressive linguistic success stories. The census of 2001 showed, for the first time, an increase in Welsh speakers both in real numbers and as a percentage of the population. The rise was especially marked among the young, and in traditionally English-speaking areas in the south and east.
“We can now say, hand on heart, that the language is in the ownership of people throughout Wales,” says John Walter Jones of the Welsh Language Board. “It is not something that is being ghettoized and left in a corner. It is there throughout society.”
Language activist Heini Gruffudd credits a century of grassroots campaigning for the resurgence of Welsh. As a young man, Gruffudd would dismantle English road signs in the dead of night. Other activists would ride their bicycles down the wrong side of the street, then refuse to pay their fines until the tickets were translated into Cymraeg.
Over time, the tactics became less symbolic and more practical. In 1971, parents founded the Nursery School Movement (Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin), and began setting up Welsh pre-schools and childcare centers. Today Welsh-medium education is solidly mainstream. About 25% of all primary-age children are enrolled in Welsh immersion schools. Studies show that these schools don’t just provide students with a strong foundation in the national language – graduates also do better in English.
Government has played its part. Laws enacted by Britain in 1967 gave Welsh official status in the courts. In 1993, parliament passed a much stronger Welsh Language Act, creating the language board and erasing the remaining legal inequities. Today the board supports innovative programs like “Twf” – a word that means “growth” in Welsh, and also stands for “Taking Welsh to Families.” In Twf (pronounced “toove”), parents are encouraged to speak Welsh with their children. That’s a challenge in a country where the great majority of young adults are native English speakers.
The Language Board claims that in homes in which both parents speak Welsh, there is a 92% chance that the children will also speak the language. Where only one parent speaks Welsh, the rate for the children drops to about 50%. Jones says English-speaking parents must come to believe that raising bilingual children makes educational and – especially – economic sense. Marketing materials produced by the language board tout the intellectual advantages of multilingualism, and point out that more and more companies require Welsh proficiency of their employees. But learning a new language is a serious commitment, and not everyone is sure it’s worth the effort.
No one in Wales expects Welsh to replace English. Nor does anyone claim that an ability to speak or understand a second language necessarily means that people will use it in everyday life. There may be Welsh classes and plays and poetry readings and road signs, but walk down the street in Cardiff or Swansea and you will rarely hear anything other than English.
“It’s a gradual thing,” says Jones. “You don’t invest in a language today and see the results tomorrow. Language does take time. We lost it over two or three generations. We’re going to regain it in two or three generations.”
– Jonathan Miller