Teenagers are apathetic about learning Welsh. Can we keep the language alive

Teenagers in Wales believe it is important that Welsh remains a living language, but fewer than half believe they will go on to speak it as adults. This is what we found when we surveyed over 800 young people from across Wales about their attitudes to the language.

Our initial results show that despite the Welsh government’s efforts to create an “infrastructure” for the language so that Welsh speakers can use it on a daily basis, there is still a lot of work to be done. The narrow vote in favour of Welsh devolution in 1997 was seen as a defining moment in the history of the Welsh language. The Welsh Assembly was heralded as the ultimate tool to safeguard the language, which had consistently been declining throughout the 20th century.

Initially, things looked very promising. The 2001 census results seemed to mark a historic turnaround in fortunes for the language, showing a 13 per cent increase in the number of Welsh speakers since 1991.

Yet this proved to be a false dawn. In 2011, the numbers of Welsh speakers had again declined, with 19 per cent of the population “able to speak Welsh” compared with 20.8 per cent in 2001. Disappointingly, this decline also included the younger age groups, aged between five and 15, which had shown slight increases in ability in previous years.

To address this decline, in 2011 the Welsh government published the policy document Living language: a language for living. Its aim was to ensure that Welsh remains a living language used in everyday life – as opposed to a language merely associated with school or “high culture”.

Over the past few years my colleagues and I at WISERD Education have been visiting schools (both primary and secondary, Welsh and English medium) across Wales surveying different groups of children as they pass through key phases in their education. In one survey done between April and July 2013, we asked 849 students, drawn from Years 8 and 10 (aged 12-13 and 14-15), their views on the Welsh language.

Attitudes v practice

The students were generally positive towards the language, with 75 per cent feeling that it is important that Welsh “remains a living language”. Of those we surveyed, 65 per cent of students claimed it was important for them to learn Welsh – a positive sign for the Welsh government’s strategy – although only 59 per cent stated it was important to “actually speak Welsh”. This also raises the spectre of a disjuncture between attitudes and practice.