Investigating vital issues for the future of the Welsh language

A new research project is underway which will investigate why children who are attending Welsh-language schools may be reluctant to use the language outside of school. The research will be conducted by Dr Siôn Aled Owen based at Bangor University.

Figures from the 2011 Census in Wales have revealed that, despite recent signs of revival, Welsh still faces important challenges to its future viability as a community language and one response has been to encourage the further development of Welsh medium education. Yet, although the uptake of both primary and secondary education in Welsh has risen rapidly, pupils often remain reluctant to use the language in their social lives. Dr Owen will be investigating the non-use of the language and also looking at ways of overcoming this obstacle on the path to securing a long term future for the Welsh language.

The 2001 Census showed that, for the first time since records began in 1891, the steady decline in the percentage of Welsh speakers had been reversed, with an increase from 18.7% in 1991 to 20.2% overall, and more than 40% of 3-15 year olds were recorded as being able to speak Welsh. Yet, ten years later, the overall figure had again declined to 19.1% and the gain among 3-15 year olds had not been sustained into the next age group.

“The available evidence suggests strongly that usage is key to language retention,” said Dr Owen, of the University’s School of Education. “However, these figures appear to confirm the perception that when students leave Welsh medium education they often also leave the Welsh language behind, particularly, but not exclusively, in those parts of Wales where Welsh is not a natural medium of communication in the wider community.”

Dr Owen went on to say that there were schools in Wales which were succeeding in reversing this trend and he will be examining how their successful methodologies could be adapted for other contexts. He will also be researching and evaluating methodologies which have been used in other parts of the world which are facing similar challenges such as Ireland and the Basque Country.

Dr Owen’s research will include discussing with the pupils themselves both individually and within focus groups to discover the reasons why they do or do not choose to use Welsh beyond the classroom. Throughout the project he will be working closely with teachers and other education professionals as well as seeking the views and experiences of parents of pupils in Welsh medium education.

In Dr Owen’s view, “It is not an exaggeration to say that the focus of this research is one of the most vital fields of study in relation to ensuring that the Welsh language survives and flourishes as a living language of community.”

Publication date: 28 May 2014