Minority report – Welsh

The first in an occasional series on languages spoken by fewer than a million people around the world…we start with Welsh

The land of Wales, officially one of the four “home countries” which make up the UK, is famous for its beautiful scenery – usually seen through rain – its coalmines – now largely closed or turned into tourist attractions – its singing… and its rugby!

Wales(Cymru) is also home of course to the Welsh language, or Cymraeg, as the natives call it. Welsh predates English: when the Anglo-Saxons invaded much of Britain and brought with them the Germanic tongue from which modern English is descended, they encountered a Celtic people speaking what we would now call “Welsh”. Modern Welsh is much closer to this old Celtic language than modern English is to Anglo-Saxon.

Gradually, the speakers of Welsh were pushed westwards, until they were only left in what is now Wales. And there the language has survived for the last 1,500 years.

Over the centuries, the proportion of people speaking Welsh has unfortunately declined. Wales was conquered by England in the Middle Ages, and the influence of English grew at the expense of Welsh. Today, out of a total population of about 3,000,000, around 25% of people in Wales speak Welsh as a mother tongue. But whether you hear Welsh spoken on the streets depends very much on the part of the country you’re visiting. Every official signpost everywhere may be in English and Welsh, but if you go to the capital,Cardiff(sorry, Caerdydd) or the second city, Swansea(oops, Abertawe), you may not hear it at all. Welsh speakers tend to live in rural areas and smaller towns, where they’re very often in the majority. So in Machynlleth or Blaenau Ffestiniog (sorry, no English names available), you’d better get out your phrase book!

Well, not really. Pretty much everyone who speaks Welsh is bilingual. In every school, both languages are taught, and Welsh is usually a compulsory subject on the curriculum. Some schools are bilingual, with certain lessons conducted in English, and others in Welsh. Others schools are English-medium, with Welsh being taught as a foreign language. If you attend a debate at the Welsh Assembly, headphones are available so you can listen to interpreters rendering the speeches in English or in Welsh.

Thanks in part to official encouragement, the Welsh language has undoubtedly experienced a resurgence in recent decades. This success is not, however, entirely welcomed by everyone. The 75% of the population who don’t speak Welsh as a native language are sometimes frustrated that a substantial proportion of jobs in the public sector now require competence in the language. Some parents complain that a lot of study time is devoted to the learning a language which may be seldom used in their particular locality.

Two interesting facts with which to conclude:

1. Welsh is also spoken in parts of Patagonia! Settlers from Wales took with them, and retained their mother tongue. And you thought you needed Spanish for Argentina…

2. This year, Wales became the first country in the world to open up a path following the entire length of its

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coastline. If you’re tramping in Wales, just make sure that you walk on the llwybr cyhoeddus!

Though we

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do not yet offer Welsh language training, we do have a range of language courses in Spanish, French, German, Italian and various other European and Asian languages. Check our Euroasia’s language courses in Auckland, Wellington and online.

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Peter is Principal of Euroasia.

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