What is Fluency in Welsh?

This post was going to be a comment on a post on the National Left blog but has grown too long.

The background is that on Tuesday the Welsh Language Board issued a report that claimed that the number of Fluent Welsh speakers was declining by about 3,000 per year despite the fact that the 2001 and probably the 2011 census results have / will show an overall increase in the numbers of Welsh speakers. If rumours are correct the 2011 census will show that Welsh is now spoken by slightly more than was the case forty years ago in 1971.

The Welsh Language Board claims that the census increases might give false optimism for the fate of the language because heads of households might think that because their offspring do Welsh in school that they are more capable in the language than is practically true, so the census results are very subjective.

I agree.

The problem with the WLB's report is that it is also based on self reporting and is probably as subjective as the Census results. Many first language Welsh speakers feel that their Welsh isn't good enough, despite the fact that they use the language naturally and properly on a daily basis, so they don't declare themselves as fluent.

A few years ago I was in a pub in Llanrwst where two women were complaining to me about an advert for a job in a local retirement home being advertised as one where an ability to speak Welsh is essential. They thought that this unfairly discriminated against them because they were prohibited from applying for the job. The complaint was made in very down to earth colloquial Welsh. When I asked them what the problem was they both replied that our Welsh isn't good enough! They didn't perceive themselves as matching the WLB's fluency threshold, despite being native Welsh speakers!

For us to be able to measure how the language is fairing and in order to enhance its use we need a much more objective way of measuring language skills than either the Census or the WLB's surveys!

I live in a village where the 2001 Census claims that about 35% of the villagers speak Welsh.

I can make a case that puts this as a gross underestimation. I suspect that around 90% of my neighbours understand and use Welsh terms such as "croeso", "bore da", "iechyd da", "paned", "Ysgol", "Ysbyty" etc daily. They know how to spell Betws y Coed, and live in streets called Ffordd---, Rhes---, Bryn---, Maes--- know how to pronounce them properly and know their meaning – I think that such people should be encouraged to consider themselves as Welsh Speakers, as owners of the language and stakeholders in its future.

I could also make the case that the 35% is a gross over exaggeration. I very much doubt that 35% of the villagers actually converse in Welsh on a daily basis, feel comfortable speaking Welsh or would prefer to speak Welsh rather than English.

We can't have an objective assessment that covers everybody in Wales, but a generic Welsh in the Workplace qualification which ranges from the greeting knowledge that 90% have at level one to the specialist proofreading knowledge that perhaps 1% have at level 7, that tells the people of Wales when the Welsh that they know is good enough and encourages them to improve on it might be a step in the right direction.


  1. It's a measure of a language community lacking in self-confidence when so many people say their Welsh isnt good enough. When did you last hear an English speaker, even the most inarticulate, say that?
    We're all learners - some "ar lin mam", some through school or as adults - so we need to encourage everyone to see themselves on that language continuum rather than as being Welsh Speakers vs English Speakers.

  2. Alwyn,

    Although we took somewhat different approach. I feel we are in agreement I'm glad you decided to post it rather than just make a comment on my blog.

    I would back your Welsh in the Workplace qualification indeed you should develop this.

  3. Gosh, just imagine the impact upon our daily lives if we'd spent as much money and time promoting and learning Mandarin (standard Chinese form).

    Maybe we'd even have a few more jobs by now.

  4. The ONLY way to become fluent in any language is to USE the language, so there's clearly a cyw iar and wy situation here. Some people are under the very erroneous impression that if they haven't "mastered" the language by the time they leave school or finish their adult learner course, then they can't use what they've got. Nonsense! The message has got to be: just get on with it and you'll "master" the language as you go along. More action, less "pride".

    As for Mandarin kp, just remember the Chinese are learning English, so we Welsh can meet them on neutral ground.

  5. Post diddorol. Dwi'n cofio Nic Dafis (lluniwr maes-e) yn codi pwynt tebyg. Roedd e'n dweud ei fod yn addysgu Cymraeg i oedolion, a bod nifer o'r dysgwyr hynny wedi dweud wrtho eu bod nhw wedi nodi yn y cyfrifiad nad ydyn nhw'n siarad Cymraeg, er eu bod nhw wedi bod yn dysgu Cymraeg ers sawl blwyddyn, ac yn gallu sgwrsio'n ddigon hyderus yn yr iaith (ac o mwy na thebyg â gwell gwybodaeth ramadegol na llawer o Gymry Cymraeg!)

    Yn nhafarn y Prince ym Mhorth-y-rhyd, y pentre lle ces i fy magu, byddai rhyw hanner y mynychwyr yn dweud nad ydyn nhw'n siarad Cymraeg, ond byddwn i'n gallu cael sgwrs yn Gymraeg gydag o leiaf 3/4 ohonyn nhw. Yng Nghaergybi wedyn, mae bron i genhedlaeth gyfan yn eu 30-50au sy'n dweud nad ydyn nhw'n siarad Cymraeg, ond mae'n nhw'n deall Cymraeg yn iawn, ac o'u gwthio, fe allen nhw siarad cryn dipyn hefyd.

    Fel ffordd o gael gwell syniad o faint o bobl sy'n gallu siarad Cymraeg / lefel eu Cymraeg, falle y gellid cynnal arolwg o chydig filoedd o bobl. Eu holi beth oedd eu hateb yn y cyfrifiad, a hefyd gwneud asesiad bras o'u gallu yn y Gymraeg a'u defnydd o'r Gymraeg.

    Wedyn gellir defnyddio'r canlyniadau i helpu i bwysoli canlyniadau'r cyfrifiad. Hynny yw, falle y canfyddir o'r arolwg bod 1% wedi ticio eu bod nhw'n siarad Cymraeg yn y cyfrifiad, ond mewn gwirionedd dim ond dwsin o eiriau maen nhw'n gwbod, a braidd byth yn eu defnyddio, ond wedyn bod rhyw 4% wedi ticio nad ydyn nhw'n siarad Cymraeg, er eu bod nhw'n defnyddio Cymraeg (go fratiog efallai) yn rheolaidd yn y dafarn ac ati.

    Iwan Rhys

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  7. The report lays the blame NOT on fewer fluent welsh speakers, but the fact many are migrating away from Wales. My area has actually seen an upsurge of demand for welsh medium schools. It is widely acknowledge bi-lingual education is superior to the conveyor belted English only medium schools Wales has, that increasingly is not equipping welsh kids with even basic literacy.

  8. MM, the report doesn't lay "blame" anywhere. It notes a number of reasons why "fluency" is decreasing whilst absolute numbers are rising, these include migration out of Wales but also internal migration; people moving from the "heartlands" into places like Cardiff where they may be more likely to use the language in work, but less likely to use it socially.

  9. I stand corrected. I always suspected Cardiff was the root of most welsh problems.... too many English living there, and the M4 links them to London.... when it should be linking them to Mid and North Wales. My area has an upsurge in demand for learning welsh, but it is a problem with so many in South Wales wanting Welsh Language access removed.