Battle to maintain Welsh as Anglesey’s majority language against backdrop of pandemic

A new report has outlined the challenge facing the Welsh language on Anglesey as it battles to remain a majority tongue, with the pandemic “almost inevitably” resulting in further inward migration and further shifting patterns across its communities.

While long acknowledged as a heartland of Cymraeg and second only behind Gwynedd, it has nonetheless been a pattern of general decline since the 1950s when it was almost always the day to day language and spoken by over 80% of islanders.

But with the latest 2011 census figures showing that only 57.2% considered themselves Welsh speakers, there are fears that inward migration from the east – further enhanced by the pandemic – as well as a failure by some to pass the language on will paint an even bleaker picture when the latest results are released.

While schools have long been considered as a ray of hope of hope for the ancient and native tongue, however, councillors have also raised concerns that not enough children on the island are receiving a fully Welsh-medium education despite four of its five secondary schools designated as bilingual.

A report presented to Tuesday’s Partnership and Regeneration Scrutiny Committee meeting proposed that the authority adopt a new Welsh Language Promotion Strategy to replace its now expired predecessor.

Covering the period from 2021-2026, the paper outlines how the council plans to promote the language and facilitate its wider use on Anglesey, with a target of increasing or at least maintaining its current strength.

With over 40% of the population born outside Wales in many coastal areas of Anglesey, this was compounded by 10% of the total housing stock now being second homes.

But in addition to inward migration, a recent Menter Iaith Môn report found that nearly a quarter of Anglesey households where both parents can speak Welsh are failing to transfer it on to their children before they start school.

It also found that 78% of Welsh-born islanders can speak the language, with another 11% able to understand it, varying from 58.8% around Holyhead to 90.4% in central Anglesey.

But with officers facing over a year’s wait until the 2021 figures are made public, it was also acknowledged that the success of the previous strategy will not be known for some time, having targeted an increase from 57.2% to 60.1%.

Deputy leader Ieuan Williams, who also holds the Welsh language brief, noted, “Despite the hard work that has taken place as a result of this strategy, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on our efforts.

“It appears almost inevitable that the demography of some of our communities will be affected as a result of the crisis.

“This is likely due to the housing market boom of 2020 and 2021 and remote working allowing relocation from urban to rural and coastal areas.”

He added, “Immigration has been a historic challenge to the prosperity of the Welsh language on Anglesey and we must prepare for a further and deeper change in the linguistic dynamics of some communities.

“Pandemic restrictions also impacted opportunities for Welsh speakers and learners to use the language together socially and at work.

“We hope to see Welsh language social activity resume with renewed enthusiasm as we emerge from this challenging period.”

It was pointed out that while the percentage of speakers had reduced dramatically – in line with a major population increase –  the numbers fluent in Welsh had remained consistent.

When the previous strategy was set up in 2016, factors blamed on the decades long decline included a weak economy and unstable local housing market resulting in “real challenges” in retaining young people and families on the island.

Targeting a three faceted approach, its aims were spread across children and families, the council’s workforce and services, and usage within the community.

This has included efforts to gradually make Welsh the main internal language of administration within the council’s corridors, and increasing the use of Welsh in schools and communities where this wasn’t always the norm.

But with the pandemic having revved up the snapping up of second homes and general inward migration –  particularly in tourist-attracting coastal communities where the language already tends to be heard less often – concerns were raised there was little the authority to do to withstand such radical demographic changes in such a short space of time.

Living in the coastal community of Benllech, Cllr Williams added he had himself noticed patterns of increased migration.

“The pandemic has allowed people to work from home, so while before many people decided to retire to Ynys Môn, people are now moving here to work from home too.

“The estate agents were saying last year that the second a home went on the market it was snapped up.”

The report also noted, however, that such practices could also open up opportunities for local or returning Welsh speakers to work remotely from Anglesey, noting there was currently “an over reliance on a seasonal economy linked to the tourism industry, creating unstable employment opportunities.”

Pointing to examples in the south of Wales and the success and revival of Welsh language education, Cllr Williams also tried to paint a more positive picture of efforts that could be taken locally despite acknowledging that the perceived lack of Welsh being heard outside of the classroom was also an issue in schools.

Cllr Vaughan Hughes was more pessimistic over the long-term health of the language, however.

“People who study languages tell us you need a critical mass in a community, and once fewer than 70% speak the language then you witness a major shift,” said Cllr Hughes.

“And as the numbers here, as throughout Wales, is less than 70% then its hard to see what strategy can overturn this.

“Yes there’s always hope but let’s not blind ourselves to the fact that the critical mass is working against Welsh as a community language,.

“The language won’t die but will she live on as a community language? That’s our big concern.”

He added his concern at figures showing that only a third of pupils were receiving their education mainly through the medium of Welsh.

Resulting in assurances from education chiefs that there were looking to increase this figure as part of the strategy, it was noted that in 2019/20 74% (2,585) of pupils received bilingual education.

But Welsh was the main medium of teaching for only 34.8% (1,215) of secondary pupils, with Welsh being part of the education for 39.2% (1,370), and English as a medium of teaching for 24.6% (860) pupils.

As well as the construction of more affordable housing, successes in the previous plan were noted as including:

250 parents indicating that they are working on changing their language habits in the home, with 500 talks held by Menter Iaith Môn with parents about the benefits of bilingualism for their children.

Highest ever Urdd membership (3,000 members) following a successful social media campaign, with a new ‘aelwyd’ established at Holyhead High School

 Estyn finding that nearly all schools inspected made good progress in promoting Welsh and Welshness, also prioritising the implementation of the Siarter Iaith framework and ensuring that primary pupils from foundation phase to key stage three received a Welsh first language assessment.

Rolling programme to increase the use of Welsh within the council’s administration and network of ‘language champions.’

Welcome packs containing information about the Welsh language commissioned with Menter Iaith Môn to distribute to a targeted audience.

As a result, the newly adopted 2021-2026 plan will look at reversing the fall in the number of speakers on the island, which will be further revisited once the latest census figures have been published in 2022 and 2023.

The report proposes to build on the achievements thus far while also:

Increasing awareness of the advantages of passing on the Welsh language by working with Menter Iaith Môn and providing more Welsh language immersion opportunities for younger children.

Reaching out to newcomers, developers, businesses and communities that are less familiar with Welsh, ensuring they understand the prominence of the language in island culture and life while also providing greater opportunities for people to learn, “creating a sense of belonging where all our residents feel ownership of the Welsh language and are proud to live in a vibrant, truly bilingual community.”

Making Anglesey an appealing place for Welsh speakers to live and work, attracting back those who have left the island, making sure that good jobs and social opportunities and high standards of Welsh education are available.

The report concluded, “Although the data shows that the number of Welsh speakers has remained relatively static since 1961, as the area’s population increases year on year the number of speakers as a percentage of the population has steadily declined.

“We need to be realistic and prepare for a deeper change to the demography of the island as a result of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Possible factors include the prosperity of the housing market, increased investment in second and holiday homes, remote working which allows relocation from urban to rural and coastal areas.

“Implementing our second promotion strategy from 2021 to 2026 will allow us to address the above challenges.

“We intend to build on the foundations of our first strategy and will deliberately adhere to our target for increasing the number of Welsh speakers in our area.

“Following a full analysis of the 2021 Census results we will revisit the strategy to assess whether or not our target has been, that it remains appropriate moving forward and to ensure that our plans adequately respond to any changes the linguistic dynamics of the island.”

Partnership and Regeneration Scrutiny Committee members unanimously backed the report, which will now be presented to the Executive and full Council for ratification.

The report in full can be found by visiting https://democracy.anglesey.gov.uk/documents/s18010/Language%20Strategy.pdf

North Wales Chronicle | Anglesey