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Asking about the Welsh Language

Those conducting serious polling, and academic surveys of public attitudes, usually make substantial attempts to ensure that their questions they pose in their surveys are neutral and even-handed. As someone who has been involved in such work for years, I can testify to often prolonged and even agonised attempts to ensure that a question wording is as fair and balanced as we can make it.

Occasionally, however, responsible surveys deviate from this norm: not because they are trying to push respondents to appear to back a particular viewpoint, but simply to gauge public reactions to particular views or political statements. During an elections or referendum campaign, for instance, one might quote the main ‘lines’ from the different campaigns, and ask respondents to indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree with each. Each of the individual statements thus used will very clearly not be balanced; normally, though, various such statements from different viewpoints would be included, thus achieving a broader balance in the round.

This latter form of question was used in the April Welsh Political Barometer poll. To mark the twentieth anniversary of the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, various questions probing public attitudes to devolution was included in the poll. One set of questions was a series of pointed statements, to which respondents were asked to indicate their extent of agreement or disagreement. One of these statements has proven rather controversial:

“The National Assembly has been too dominated by Welsh speakers”

There is a history to this question. The 1997 Welsh Referendum Study, conducted in the immediate aftermath of that year’s referendum, asked their sample of respondents about their expectations of what devolution would mean. Some of their questions were in the form of pointed statements, to which people were asked to agree or disagree, with many of these statements based on the main lines taken by the respective Yes and No campaigns in the referendum. In both the 1979 and 1997 referendums, at least some of the opponents of devolution had sought to suggest that a devolved Welsh Assembly would engender greater domination of life in Wales by speakers of Cymraeg – implying that those who did not speak Welsh had something to fear if there was a Yes vote.

The 1997 study (with which I was not involved, although my Wales Governance Centre colleague Richard Wyn Jones was) therefore included a short battery of statements, based on some of the main concerns raised by No campaigners. The specific question format asked:

“[P]lease say how much you agree or disagree with each of these statements.  A Welsh Assembly would…

– Be dominated too much by the Labour party

– Pay too much attention to South Wales

– Simply mean more jobs for politicians

– Cost too much to set up and run

– Be dominated too much by Welsh speakers”

When I was Principal Investigator of the 2016 Welsh Election Study, it seemed to the team conducting that study that it was appropriate to explore whether some of the fears raised in 1997 had been realised. We therefore ran the following battery of questions, which adapted some of the 1997 questions alongside a few others that now seemed to speak to more contemporary concerns:

“To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following:

 – The National Assembly for Wales should have the same level of powers as the Scottish Parliament

 – Having a National Assembly has improved the way Wales is governed

 – Having a National Assembly has improved the way the UK is governed

 – The National Assembly has been too dominated by the Labour Party

 – The National Assembly has paid too much attention to Cardiff

 – Having a National Assembly has simply meant more jobs for politicians

 – The National Assembly has cost too much to set up and run

 – The National Assembly has been too dominated by Welsh speakers

 – It is often difficult to figure out which level of government is responsible for what

When ITV Wales wished to run some questions for the Assembly’s twentieth anniversary, as part of the team that draws up the questions for the Barometer polls I contributed to the discussion by sharing with them some questions that had been run in previous academic surveys. They decided to run the complete battery of 2016 statements that I have just quoted; results from these questions were then used in some of their programmes, and in my recent blog post: http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/electionsinwales/2019/05/09/devolution-at-twenty-what-do-the-people-of-wales-think/.

It was rather a surprise that Ifan Morgan Jones appeared to suggest online that the question about Welsh speakers was somehow inappropriate; and disappointing to receive some rather unpleasant comments and messages afterwards from others.

The question on Welsh speakers does touch on a sensitive area. But the politics of the devolution referendums was often unpleasant. Sustained attempts were made by some (though certainly not all) No campaigners in both 1979 and 1997 to stir up divisions and fears around the Welsh language. That is why the 1997 referendum study asked about voter perceptions of such fears: it was important for a serious study of that referendum to explore the extent to which such campaigning methods had gained traction with the public.

For the record, here is the comparison between the 1997 results and those generated by the recent Barometer poll:

Assembly ‘dominated by Welsh speakers’ 1997 2019
% Agree 31% 19%
% Neither Agree nor Disagree 20% 33%
% Disagree 43% 31%
% Don’t Know 5% 18%

The different methods of sampling employed by the two studies may well account for much of the rise in Don’t Know responses. Looking elsewhere at the results, we see equal declines in the percentage both agreeing and disagreeing with the statement, and a rise in those choosing the neutral option. We cannot really conclude from the data that the fears stirred in the referendum campaigns have been comprehensively laid to rest.

The job of social science is to examine society: all of it, including – perhaps especially – the unpleasant parts. The attempts to stir up divisions and fears around Cymraeg in the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums were, in my view, an ugly and shameful part of our history. That is precisely why it is important that we explore the extent to which such attacks still have any resonance today. Sadly, they still seem to have some.

Comments

  • Jacques Protic

    Not a big departure from what you published yesterday and to avoid repeating myself the comments I made still stand:

    https://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/electionsinwales/2019/05/09/devolution-at-twenty-what-do-the-people-of-wales-think/#comments.

    The Welsh language is a conversation that Wales never had and largely imposed by stealth to the detriment of Wales and most of its people.

    To keep my points short and concise I recommend reading Marcus Stead’s observations in his recent article: https://marcussteaduk.wordpress.com/2019/02/26/wales-a-country-divided/

    I still recall fine words of the great Welsh playwright Gwyn Thomas (1913-1981) who warned the Welsh nationalists that imposing a language no longer relevant in Wales would be a grave mistake.

    Time to learn from the Irish and accept that no amount of compulsion will save the Welsh language from fading into obscurity:

  • Trevor Payne

    As a monoglot Southern Englishman, who married into a Welsh speaking family and has lived in Wales for over fifty years, I feel I’m in a sound position to comment.

    My problem with the views of Jacques is that they do not correspond with my experience of the Welsh language’s actual usage, especially by those brought up, like my wife’s family, in communities where the language is just an accepted part of life. There is virtually no politics involved in their thinking. My acquired family is fiercely proud of its Welshness and bi-lingualism, but this pride is not associated with any wish to force the language on others. The language is simply a natural part of their lives. I have never been made to feel uncomfortable about my inability to speak it or my inability to learn it – because I have tried and failed.

    When I first arrived in Wales in the sixties, the country was having a major and prolonged conversation about the Welsh language, sparked by the flooding of Tryweryn. To my recollection this conversation culminated in the decision to support and foster the language. This decision wasn’t imposed on the nation: it was implemented, and continues to be implemented, by democratically elected politicians. If enough people thought the same way as Jacques, it could be reversed.

    Knowing how precious the language is to my wife’s family – as our first language is to all of us? – I have overcome my initial resistance to this deliberate fostering of the language and the positive discrimination it enjoys. They do not want such an essential part of their heritage to wither away. This seems an entirely worthy objective, bolstered by the considerable body of research which highlights the cognitive and linguistic advantages of learning two languages at an early age.

    (See http://www.assembly.wales/NAfW%20Documents/paper_3_-_prof._colin_baker.pdf%20-%2002092010/paper_3_-_prof._colin_baker-English.pdf -.

    Professor Baker has no axe to grind. He is also a Southern Englishman who married into a Welsh speaking family and has lived in Wales for 50 years.

    It is inappropriate to compare the Welsh setting to the Irish. As Mr Stead says in the video, Irish speaking is in decline, despite millions being spent on it. The figures I found were 83,000 Irish speakers in a population of four and half millions. In Wales over 870,000 speak the language in a population of 3 million and that number has increased by 150,000 in ten years. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-45611374) So money well spent.

    Finally Jacques cites Gwyn Thomas, who’ warned the Welsh nationalists that imposing a language no longer relevant in Wales would be a grave mistake.’ For 870,000 people and growing, the language is extremely relevant. My grandson has just been accepted into a Welsh medium school. I am delighted for him. I know a bi-lingual education is a privilege for him, not a forced, dogma driven imposition

  • Trevor Payne

    As a monoglot Southern Englishman, who married into a Welsh speaking family and has lived in a largely English speaking area of Wales for over fifty years, I feel I’m in a sound position to comment.

    My problem with the views of Jacques is that they do not correspond with my experience of the Welsh language’s actual usage, especially by those brought up, like my wife’s family, in communities where the language is just an accepted part of life. There is virtually no politics involved in their thinking. My acquired family is fiercely proud of its Welshness and bi-lingualism, but this pride is not associated with any wish to force the language on others. The language is simply a natural part of their lives. I have never been made to feel uncomfortable about my inability to speak it or my inability to learn it – because I have tried and failed.

    When I first arrived in Wales in the sixties, the country was having a major and prolonged conversation about the Welsh language, sparked by the flooding of Tryweryn. To my recollection this conversation culminated in the decision to support and foster the language. This decision wasn’t imposed on the nation: it was implemented, and continues to be implemented, by democratically elected politicians. If enough people thought the same way as Jacques, it could be reversed.

    Knowing how precious the language is to my wife’s family – as our first language is to all of us? – I have overcome my initial resistance to this deliberate fostering of the language and the positive discrimination it enjoys. They do not want such an essential part of their heritage to wither away. This seems an entirely worthy objective, bolstered by the considerable body of research which highlights the cognitive and linguistic advantages of learning two languages at an early age.

    (See http://www.assembly.wales/NAfW%20Documents/paper_3_-_prof._colin_baker.pdf%20-%2002092010/paper_3_-_prof._colin_baker-English.pdf -.

    Professor Baker has no axe to grind. He is also a Southern Englishman who married into a Welsh speaking family and has lived in Wales for 50 years.

    It is inappropriate to compare the Welsh setting to the Irish. As Mr Stead says in the video, Irish speaking is in decline, despite millions being spent on it. The figures I found were 83,000 Irish speakers in a population of four and half millions. In Wales over 870,000 speak the language in a population of 3 million and that number has increased by 150,000 in ten years. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-45611374) So money well spent.

    Finally Jacques cites Gwyn Thomas, who’ warned the Welsh nationalists that imposing a language no longer relevant in Wales would be a grave mistake.’ For 870,000 people and growing, the language is extremely relevant. My grandson has just been accepted into a Welsh medium school. I am delighted for him. I know a bi-lingual education is a privilege for him, not a forced, dogma driven imposition

  • John R Walker

    The National Assembly has been too dominated by Welsh speakers?

    If we just look at plenary the knee-jerk response is probably no. Thinking further about actual domination – the legal framework giving Welsh speakers more rights than English speakers, the pressure exerted by unelected pressure groups making constant demands for more, the pressure from an unelected and barely accountable Welsh Language Board making constant demands for more, the pressure from an unelected and barely accountable WL Commissioner making constant demands for more, and the totally spineless response the political class have always shown to these pressures then the answer has to be a resounding yes.

    If the Assembly and WG have not been dominated by Welsh speakers from within then they have certainly been dominated by Welsh speakers from without.

    The whole of the public sector is now capable of being dominated by Welsh speakers… They do not have to be the majority they simply have to exercise the discriminatory additional legal rights they have been gifted by a spineless political class which would rather appease a chippy minority than represent the majority. Pockets of resistance in the public sector have been rare and usually dissent has been crushed. I don’t recall much in the way of dissent from the AMs though when it came to passing the dreadful discriminatory Welsh Language Measure – appeasement by consensus has been the norm so, yes, the Assembly has been dominated by Welsh speakers and the result is that the L1 English majority have become second class citizens in their own country.

    And many of us are not happy about it…

  • Petroc ap Seisyllt

    Hilarious. If i have more rights than you how come i cant do most services in Welsh eg The OU ( funded by Wales) “policy” allows submission of coursework in Welsh, but there are no resources to help such students, no vocab lists, no tutors no support groups. ie less rights.
    There are no vocational degrees in Welsh for doctors, dentists and vets,(not even a vet school) despite theoretical rights to use welsh in healthcare. ie less rights.
    As for government information in welsh you soon find the links are english only. ie less rights.
    Wales is a bantustan, unlike Scotland. You just think Welsh speakers need to be oppressed.
    There are no welsh medium schools by the way… they are all bilingual. Whereas the 75% of pupils emerging from English medium schools have had monolingual education … and emerge unable to speak Welsh.
    As for pressure groups. … the entire state apparatus in the UK, Wales and local government functions in english, as does this website, Cardiff University does too,
    The welsh speaking heartlands are the poorest in the UK, the young leave for work and study across the UK and can’t in practice return.

  • Petroc ap Seisyllt

    Responding to Rogers article itself, its a valid follow up to the questions put 20 years ago. Its also good to see the improvement in attitudes it shows. I too found it a surprising question, but was not offended greatly.
    Its a reflection of real attitude (and practice) change over 40 years. I know/knew several middle class welsh speakers who chose deliberately not to pass welsh to their children yet remained active in welsh societies and society. Nowadays welsh medium education demand exceeds supply, and potential (ie practicable) demand even more so.
    Clever people are clever at learning languages too, but to “dominate” Wales can still only be done in english.

  • J.Jones

    I find it interesting that the sum of “agree” and “neither agree nor disagree” is the same in both 1997 and 2019. The sum of “neither agree nor disagree” and “disagree” also the same of course but I’m very tempted to surmise that the respondents are more “sensitive” to political correctness in the 2019 sample and therefore the neutral response or “Don’t know” is more prevalent.
    This is what happens in a society dominated by a liberal philosophy; it becomes widely unacceptable to make even the slightest judgement that may be interpreted as being bigoted or intolerant…until there is a populist uprising.
    The populist uprising in Wales gave rise to a Brexit vote almost identical to England’s whilst the media, politicians and talking heads of Wales were utterly convinced that we, here, were a particularly tolerant and inclusive bunch.
    The populist uprising in the US of course was far more serious, giving rise to a resurgence of racism and the rise of an authoritarian state under a president who threatens world peace on a daily basis.
    The Welsh language has moved from a position of being a totemic object loved and treasured by all to being a monstrous bully boy in Welsh society and politics. Jacques is quite right; the Welsh language and Welsh speakers enjoy advantages that the English language and non Welsh speakers do not. The legal statement is this:- “…ensuring that the Welsh language is treated no less favourably than the English language”.
    That statement does not enshrine equality it enshrines a favoured position for Welsh and those wishing to speak it and adds to decades of measures which have legalised discrimination in employment against non Welsh speakers.
    Petroc, above makes a simple mistake in citing all the ways in which he feels disadvantaged by not being able to use Welsh. His argument is fallacious; what he demands is NOT the right to use his language but the imposition on others of a duty to respond in his language. He requires that others who have English as their preferred language set aside that preference in order to bow to his “legal” right to service.

  • J.Jones

    Roger; if you haven’t already got a copy I recommend that you read “The Slow learning Country” by educationalist Terry Mackie. You can get a copy by contacting him on Twitter.
    Coincidentally he made a comment about the status of the Welsh language in Wales and how it effects open criticism:-

    “It has got progressively harder since 1999 to adopt interrogative stances without attracting accusations of being a critical enemy. The Welsh language is considered to be a form of “Tebbit test” and unless one offers uncritical enthusiasm, the Rubicon is crossed. In this sense, Wales is neither open nor a particularly free country under devolution”

    Authoritarianism by political correctness is the bane of modern Wales. The ruling political class is united in trying to use Welsh language education and laws to isolate Wales, to “Build a Nation”, thus there is an all pervasive unquestioning acceptance of language measures and strategies that are in reality utterly counter-productive and illogical.

  • Cwyfan

    The Welsh Language Measure 2011 does not affect the status of the English language in Wales and seeks to ensure that those who wish to use the Welsh language in daily life are able to do so, and that the language is treated no less favourably than the English language. It is in no way at all discriminatory, and is a positive means of safeguarding the dignity and wellbeing of those who want and need to use the Welsh language. In addition, most Assembly Members do not speak Welsh and therefore the Assembly is hardly dominated by Welsh speakers. Language rights and minority rights are human rights, which aim to secure the equality and dignity that every human deserves.

  • Jacques Protic

    I’m surprised that you are surprised Roger, by the comment you got from Ifan Morgan Jones when you dared to ask the Welsh language question.

    On reflection, you make it no secret that you have embraced the Welsh language/culture, made Wales your home and you seem to have shunned your English heritage and roots, so more than likely for you to be perceived as one of the ‘More Equals’ in the Orwellian world that Wales has become and therefore insulated from the abuse that people like me and I get?

    Not long ago, I had Martin Shipton (The ‘lead journalist’ in the Western Mail), telling me that my objections to the imposed Welsh Medium Education are simply a preposterous stance as this is Wales!

    In the process of putting me right, Martin chose to completely ignore the chronic and evidence-based failure of children with no Welsh at home attending the Welsh Medium schools.

    He was joined by Huw Edwards (BBC) who on a similar topic tweeted “Should England continue to support the teaching of English in schools”.

    These people are scared of any form of public scrutiny and will go to any length to stifle/close down any debate on the Welsh language in order to protect their ‘God-given privileges’.

    Wales is imploding and everything that matters or should matter is being damaged (Education/NHS/Economy), by imposing a language and a culture that IMO has no place in XXI c Wales.

    Welsh should be classified as a cultural language of a minority and being supported strictly upon on where practical and reasonable and no compulsion – Remember, Welsh people never had a say on the ‘linguistic equality’ of English/Welsh but had to accept the Welsh Language Act enacted by Westminster, democracy?

  • dave taylor

    Having read the comments on this page I will highlight the particularly important parts as I see it.

    J.Jones May 10 from comment 1
    “The Welsh language has moved from a position of being a totemic object loved and treasured by all to being a monstrous bully boy in Welsh society and politics. Jacques is quite right; the Welsh language and Welsh speakers enjoy advantages that the English language and non Welsh speakers do not. The legal statement is this:- “…ensuring that the Welsh language is treated no less favourably than the English language”.”
    AGREED

    From Comment 1
    “Petroc, above makes a simple mistake in citing all the ways in which he feels disadvantaged by not being able to use Welsh. His argument is fallacious; what he demands is NOT the right to use his language but the imposition on others of a duty to respond in his language. He requires that others who have English as their preferred language set aside that preference in order to bow to his “legal” right to service.”
    AGREED They have always had “the right” to use the language amongst themselves but that is not enough the aim always has been to FORCE the rest of us to respond to them in that language.

    From Comment 2
    “Authoritarianism by political correctness is the bane of modern Wales. The ruling political class is united in trying to use Welsh language education and laws to isolate Wales, to “Build a Nation”, thus there is an all pervasive unquestioning acceptance of language measures and strategies that are in reality utterly counter-productive and illogical.
    AGREED It always has been a political weapon. The case with Welsh language users (not all) that when 50% can fluently read, write and speak welsh it will show we are a different people therefore should be an independent nation”

    From Jaques Protic 11th May

    “On reflection, you make it no secret that you have embraced the Welsh language/culture, made Wales your home and you seem to have shunned your English heritage and roots, so more than likely for you to be perceived as one of the ‘More Equals’ in the Orwellian world that Wales has become and therefore insulated from the abuse that people like me and I get?”
    AGREED No matter how much you embrace it you will never be accepted as an honorary member of the Crachach until you cease to criticise/question it in any shape or form

    “Wales is imploding and everything that matters or should matter is being damaged (Education/NHS/Economy), by imposing a language and a culture that IMO has no place in XXI c Wales.”
    AGREED Education is failing PISA, NHS struggling to get DRs and Consultants ( don’t want to move here and have children in WM being one reason), Economy self evident, we continue to get UK money (disguised as EU grants) because we are below the 75% mark.

    Welsh should be classified as a cultural language of a minority and being supported strictly upon on where practical and reasonable and no compulsion – Remember, Welsh people never had a say on the ‘linguistic equality’ of English/Welsh but had to accept the Welsh Language Act enacted by Westminster, democracy?
    AGREED

  • dave taylor

    Jacques the biggest damage done to Welsh education was the coalition assembly when Plaid got their hands on some of the reins of power. Alun Ffred was an absolute disaster in education. In an interview just before the end of that term he actually reluctantly admitted that the number who could speak Welsh in theory ( I had been forced to learn it in school) was not the same as the number that do speak it.

  • J.Jones

    “Professor Baker has no axe to grind. He is also a Southern Englishman who married into a Welsh speaking family and has lived in Wales for 50 years.”
    It is interesting that Prof Baker and many others in Wales continually quote research from Canada (Ellen Bialystok, Yorke University) on the bilingual advantage when there have been studies elsewhere and in Wales itself which have found no bilingual advantage. Indeed, the paper mentioned below from DeBruin in Edinburgh University goes some way to explaining why we hear so much about positive studies “showing” bilingual advantage and nothing when those same studies are replicated and no bilingual advantage is shown.
    https://www.thecut.com/2014/12/bilingual-advantage-may-not-really-be-a-thing.html
    In reality the much trumpeted advantage in academic attainment enjoyed by pupils in Welsh medium schools was shown to be a trick of socio-economic advantage by Prof Gorard as far back as 1998. Even today Welsh language activists regularly trumpet the success of Welsh medium schools but ignore the damning analysis of the last PISA study by Jerrim and Shure showing that Welsh medium pupils who answered in Welsh were the equivalent of one year behind similar pupils in English medium schools who answered in English.
    Each year I compare GCSE results for Welsh medium schools and English medium schools with schools grouped according to percentage eligible for free school meals. Every year the same picture emerges; pupils in Welsh medium schools are well behind pupils in similar English medium schools. The reason is easy to see; pupils who are from English only homes but placed in Welsh medium schools are way behind their classmates who have Welsh speaking parents.
    https://gov.wales/2018-gcse-data-0

    You may feel that after a lifetime in Welsh medium schooling all pupils, whether they have Welsh as a home language or not, will be equally bilingual. Unfortunately not so:-
    https://gov.wales/welsh-first-language-gcse

    More Welsh medium schooling is merely a subterfuge to disadvantage English first language children and gullible parents. Welsh medium schooling prepares an elite to remain an economic, political and social elite and of course to sow the seeds of greater division between Wales and England.

  • Tegeingl

    Perygl i mi ddefnyddio’r iaith fain yma am fod hen droliau diflas yn dyfynnu. Diolch byth bod ystadegau yn faes syml, clir ac yn ddiffuant.

  • John R Walker

    ‘Diolch byth bod ystadegau yn faes syml, clir ac yn ddiffuant.’

    You could have fooled me! About the only thing that’s clear about stats is that groups with an agenda consistently choose methods which they are reasonably confident will support their agenda. They also cherry-pick data which supports their agenda and ignore inconvenient conflicting data.

  • Kenneth Vifian

    The struggle to protect Cymraeg has defined the identity of Wales and the Welsh for two thousand years; without the language there would be no ‘national’ historical record or culture of real merit (or any nebulous reason for Anglos of Wales to call themselves Welsh). Many people would, like the Cumbrians and Cornish, enjoy full immersion with the English – and why not? – but those who have always ignored Welsh Not attacks ensure that ‘the old and haughty nation’ continued and continues to survive.

  • Kenneth Vivian

    Cymraeg gave and continues to give Wales and even Welsh people their identity, history and culture. Without the language there would be no Cymru (or even Wales) – a situation that might well please advocates of the Welsh Not. And why not? Citizens of Cumbria and Cornwall seem happy enough though submerged by England. But struggles, conflicts and prejudices pertaining to a unique culture have been permanent features of this little corner of the world ever since fifth century barbarians regarded indigenous populations of occupied lands as being welsh (foreigners).

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