Presented by Dr Laura Arman 

By the time of the 2021 Census, many policies and campaigns had been in place to maintain a steady increase in young speakers of Welsh, but the effectiveness of these efforts had seemingly dwindled in the 20 years since numbers began to rise. The new results show a decrease once more. What, then, are young people’s current views on learning Welsh and is there more to be learnt from these perspectives with regards to effective policies?

The WISERD Education Multi-Cohort Study (WMCS) is an opportunity to ask young people about their experiences directly. Unlike the Census, it gives pupils from schools across Wales an opportunity to share their views directly without us relying on their parents’ or guardians’ perceptions. Although self-assessing linguistic skills is not a perfect way to assess ability and usage (Zajícová 2020), in 2022, we included a suite of questions aimed at better understanding pupils’ attitudes to Welsh. Of the 1154 pupils who took part in our 10th annual study, we received responses from up to 960 pupils to our questions on their relationship with the Welsh language.

In many minority and minoritized language communities, people turn to formal education in a classroom setting as a solution to language shift at a community level (Hermes 2007; Hornberger 2008; Hinton 2011; Pérez Báez, Vogel a Patolo 2019, Riestenberg 2020). Parents tend to stop passing on their native languages due to external pressures; either direct interpersonal pressures or at a national or regional policy level by a government or similar institution. In the UK, decisions were made in the 19th century to provide English-only education – policies similar to those of neighbouring countries – and it was only by the end of the 20th century that the number of Welsh speakers stopped declining, according to Census figures. At that point (2001 Census), it was the number of younger speakers which was increasing – a good sign that the negative effects of past language policies were disappearing, but by 2021 the figures were in decline once more in the younger age groups especially.

Amongst the pupils who “speak Welsh well”, 40% did not speak Welsh at home with their families. This significant figure speaks to the successes of bilingual education in Wales, which often leads the way in language policy studies (De Bres 2008). On the other hand, almost 50% of pupils who speak Welsh well reported that they did not feel confident speaking Welsh in the classroom in front of their teachers (either ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’). The numbers who feel confident decrease significantly amongst those with “a little” Welsh. 63% of pupils in our survey were either unsure or believed that people were not pleased to hear them speak Welsh at school. Our study also shows that there has been a significant negative trend since 2014 in attitudes towards speaking and learning Welsh amongst pupils at English-medium schools. As might be expected, there are other differences by school-medium, e.g. over half the pupils from our English-medium schools felt that the Welsh language is not part of their identity at all.

This seminar will give both an overview of the WMCS results from the questions on the Welsh language and will present a further analysis of the barriers to the increase in young speakers of Welsh.

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