Tilting at linguistic windmills: a million Welsh speakers

The target of creating one million Welsh speakers in Wales by 2050 announced by the Welsh Government as the central goal of its Welsh Language Strategy (‘Cymraeg 2050. A million Welsh speakers’) has captured the headlines: and why should it not? After all, that would mean effectively doubling the number of Welsh speakers. It would signify the reversal of the long-term process of the increasing adoption of the English language in Wales, to the detriment of the Welsh language – a process known as reversing language shift. But, there is a problem, writes Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost. While eye-catching, the target itself is contrary to strategic planning and thinking.

welsh cymraeg

‘Siarad Cymraeg’ – ‘speak Welsh’. Illustration, unknown origin. Nic Dafis via a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

The rise of language strategies

Internationally, governments concerned at improving the condition of a particular language, or languages, have increasingly adopted language strategies as a means of organising their policy intentions and activities. Early examples are to be found amongst the governments of the various Autonomous Communities of the Spanish State, beginning with Catalonia in 1995 and the Basque Country in 1999. In Canada, also often a model of language policy for practitioners in Wales, the first national strategy aimed at promoting the official languages of French and English took the form of the Action Plan for Official Languages launched by the federal government in 2003; this was followed by ‘Roadmaps’ for the same in 2008 and in 2013.

Closer to home, Scotland got in on the act with the creation, in 2007, of the first in a series of national strategies for Scottish Gaelic. The Irish Government adopted the first national plan for the Irish language in 2010 in the shape of a twenty-year strategy. In New Zealand, a Maori language strategy was adopted by the government in 2014. Estonia has adopted successive national strategies for the Estonian language since 2004. In the case of Northern Ireland, language strategies are noticeable by their absence: in 2017 the Executive, or government, was found by the High Court to be in breach of a legal duty to adopt an Irish language strategy. It is also under a duty to adopt a strategy for the Ulster Scots language.

Unscientific target-setting

The term ‘Language Strategy’ implies strategic planning and thinking but those pertaining to the Celtic tongues – Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh – seem to suffer from a propensity to set targets that run counter to that. For example, in the case of the Irish language in the Republic of Ireland the target of the strategy published in 2010 was to increase the number of individuals that speak Irish on a daily basis outside of the education system from the current level of ‘around 83,000’ to ‘250,000 by 2030’. According to the results of the 2006 Census 72,148 individuals spoke Irish on a daily basis outside of the education system. By 2011 that number rose to 77,185 according to the results of the Census of that year but by the 2016 Census the number fell back to 73,803. In other words, to hope to reach the target of 250,000 by 2030 seems wholly unrealistic.

As regards Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, under the first National Gaelic Language Plan published in 2007 a target was set of creating 100,000 speakers of the language by 2041. According to the results of the 1991 Census they numbered 65,978; by the 2001 Census they numbered 58,652; and by the 2011 Census they numbered 57,602. Simply, the direction of travel is wholly wrong.

Turning now to Wales, this is not the first time that such an uncomplicated target has been set in a national strategy for the Welsh language. In the first such strategy, published in 2003 just prior to the release of the results of the 2001 Census, the target was to increase the proportion of Welsh speakers by 5% by 2011, using the results of the 2001 Census as the baseline. According to the results of the 1991 Census the proportion of Welsh speakers in the population of Wales as a whole was 18.7%; in the 2001 Census it rose to 20.8%; and in the 2011 Census it fell back to 19%. In other words, no meaningful progress at all was made towards attaining the target. Moreover, the failure to reach the target engendered very little serious scrutiny.

Strategy as position

Historical experience tells us that meeting the target of one million Welsh speakers in Wales by 2050 is unlikely to be met. But of course, the Welsh Government that set the target will never be held accountable for it, notwithstanding a most dramatic transformation in the nature of democracy in Wales. In the shorter term, it is worth noting that the Welsh Language Strategy is accompanied by a ‘Work Programme’ for the period 2017-21. In contrast to the strategy itself, that document, however, is rather unambitious in its language wherein it is noted that for these ‘initial years’ the approach taken ‘may lack any obvious signs of success’.

Iconic targets – 100,000 (Scotland), 250,000 (Ireland), 1,000,000 (Wales) – are useful political devices as they readily capture the public imagination. In the case of Wales, the adoption of the target of attaining one million Welsh speakers by 2050 from the manifesto of the Welsh language lobby group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg [the Welsh Language Society] of July 2015 by the Welsh Labour Government, announced at the National Eisteddfod of August 2016, wrong-footed Plaid Cymru, the political party most closely associated with the Welsh language in historical terms. Since then Plaid Cymru have been obliged to follow the agenda set by the Welsh Labour Government, culminating in the publication in March 2017 of their own plan for reaching the target. This is a case, therefore, of strategy as position, as Mintzberg would put it. In other words, the strategy, and in particular the target, has allowed the Labour Party to position itself as the political party leading the national conversation on the language.

In addition, it is of interest, in this era of research impact, that each of these organisations claims that its work on this subject has been informed by expert advice. I wonder, did the expert advisors advise against the target or advocate for it? Or did the experts they engaged decide simply to remain silent? No public evidence has been presented to explain to what extent there is any scientific basis for the target. The setting of iconic targets such as this is not the product of strategic thinking informed by robust social science.

Neither is the target emblematic of long-term strategic planning, and proponents of reversing language shift are all convinced of the need for long-term planning. Rather, it mostly provides for, somewhat ironically perhaps, short-term political advantage. To say one million Welsh speakers by 2050 is a case of good politics but bad science. The problem is that this iconic declaration distracts from the fact that the real challenge lies elsewhere – numbers of fluent Welsh speakers are falling, in increasing parts of the language’s traditional heartlands the proportion of Welsh speakers is falling below 50%, and there is significant under-use by Welsh speakers of public services in the Welsh language. The intervention of government ought to be wholly focused upon those issues, in the here and now: to do otherwise is to succumb to the quixotic.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

diarmait mac ghiola chriostProfessor Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost is based at the School of Welsh, Cardiff University. He is the author of six single-author research monographs, one of which was nominated for the Orwell Prize, and he is a Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Geographical Society.

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