Regional and Minority Languages: An inevitable decline?

Martin Dowle, Director British Council Ukraine, presented the language situation in Wales at last week’s Language Rich Europe launch in Kyiv. In this blog post, he summarises the approaches Wales is taking in order to promote Welsh and prevent its decline.

Is it inevitable that minority languages will always suffer decline? The case of Welsh shows this does not need to be the case. Since its low point in 1991, when just 18% of the Welsh population spoke Welsh, it has started to make a modest recovery. Today, 37% of 3 to 14 year-olds are able to speak Welsh, compared to just 15% in 1971, fuelling recovery from the cradle upwards.

Today, there are an estimated 611,000 Welsh speakers in Wales. Of these, 315,000 are native speakers, and the rest have competency, as a second language, to a greater or lesser degree.

Official figures suggest Wales loses between 1,200 and 2,200 native speakers every year. The number of communities – mostly rural — where 70% or more are native speakers continues to decline. But more people now speak (and are learning) Welsh as a second language in cities such as Cardiff than ever before.

In part this reflects a change in attitude to Welsh amongst non-Welsh speakers. Recent polling suggested 80% of Welsh people saw the language as something to be proud of. This is a far cry from the hostility that greeted the decision by the government in the early 1980s to set up a fourth TV channel solely in Welsh. Attitudes have changed, and this matters.

In 2000, the teaching of Welsh became compulsory in all schools up to the age of 16. The number of Welsh-medium schools is growing, as are measures to build the capacity of teachers to teach through the medium of Welsh.

But the Welsh government’s policy argues the school setting is not enough. Policy seems to me to focus on two areas.

First: the home. It encourages mothers and social carers, midwives, and nursery education to help develop the adoption of Welsh as a first language. If two parents speak Welsh, it’s estimated the chances the child will too are around 80%. If only one speaks Welsh, the chances are halved.

Second: the leisure activities of adolescents. The language is at risk if young people don’t see the benefit of speaking it, or think it’s cool to switch to English. So an effective language policy needs to consider youth culture, peer-group pressure, community attitudes, the global media and social networking. Providing enough cultural and social value to tip the balance in favour of Welsh is a big ask – but it’s essential to long-term survival. So policies really do need to focus on the language of ‘interaction’.

Read more about languages in Wales on the Language Rich Europe website and in our previous blog posts:

Language Rich Europe Launch – Wales
– Can Google Speak Welsh?
Speaking Welsh, Living in Brussels

LRE Launch – Ukraine

Language Rich Europe launches the results of its research in Kyiv, Ukraine on Friday 9 November at the Institute of Social and Political Psychology of the National Academy of Pedagogic Sciences of Ukraine.

Ukraine is one of only three non-EC countries participating in the project (the others are Bosnia and Herzegovina and Switzerland).

The programme for the event is as follows:

Welcome speeches by the President of the National Academy of Pedagogic Sciences, the Directory of British Council Ukraine and the Deputy Minister of Education and Science.

Project overview by Eilidh MacDonald, Project Co-ordinator Language Rich Europe, British Council Germany

Cross-national analysis of language policies and practices in Europe by Prof. Guus Extra, Tilburg University

Presentation of the LRE research results in Ukraine – Lyubov Naydonova, Institute of Social and Political Psychology

Presentation on language policies and practices in Wales – Martin Dowle, British Council Ukraine

The presentations will be followed by a round table discussion with the following topics and speakers:

Language Policy Trends in Lithuania, Vilma Backiute, Ministry of Education and Science of Lithuania

Main Aspects of Multilingual Education Development in Autonomous Republic of Crimea: Policy, Identity, Culture – Iryna Brunova-Kalisetska and Yulia Tyschenko, Crimea Policy Dialogue Project

Issues of language policy in higher education – Prof. Stepko M.F, Institute of Higher Education

Presentation by Prof Vasyutynsky V.O., Institute of Social and Political Psychology

Language policy and the language situation in Ukraine, Prof. Masenko L.T., Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Language Rich Europe launch – Wales

At a time of globalisation, troubled economies and increasing migration, knowledge of foreign languages is critical to building social bridges, improving job prospects and enhancing competitiveness in Europe.

How well is Wales responding to these challenges?


The Welsh launch of Language Rich Europe will take place on Tuesday 9 October at the Pierhead Building, Cardiff. 

The programme is as follows:

Welcome and introduction from Simon Dancey, Director British Council Wales

Address by the Presiding Officer, Rosemary Butler AM

The Importance of Multilingualism, overview from Professor Colin Williams, Cardiff University

Language Rich Europe Cross National Findings – Aneta Quraishy, Senior Project Manager, British Council

Language Rich Europe Wales and UK results – Dr Lid King, Director The Languages Company

Panel discussion – Aled Eirug (British Council Wales Advisory Committee Chair), Professor Colin Williams (Cardiff University), Professor Stephen Hagen (Newport University), and Dr Lid King (Languages Company)

Can Google speak Welsh?

Languages have been making the news in Wales in the past couple of weeks. Most recently, the National Assembly of Wales has announced it is considering proposals that would see Welsh and English become its official languages. Meanwhile, another article from the BBC quotes Assembly Member Aled Roberts (Liberal Democrat) as saying that new plans for housing developments in North East Wales could have a negative effect on the Welsh language.  

This follows on from controversy last week when it was reported that the National Assembly of Wales had recommended that records of debates should be translated into Welsh using Google Translate.

I have to admit, I quite like Google Translate. I used it last week when I was researching the blog entry Does Age Matter?. I don’t speak Dutch so I copied and pasted the article from De Standaard into the site and from the resulting translation I could get a reasonably good idea of what was being talked about.

But it is by no means perfect. Here is an example of what Google Translate came up with:

Original: ‘Volgens m’n eigen studies verandert er wélietsin de hersenen: kinderen die vóór hun puberteit naar een ander taalgebied verhuizen, raken soms de correcte uitspraak en de grammatica van hun moedertaal volledig kwijt’

Translation: ‘According to my own studies, will change somethingin the brains, children before puberty to move another language, sometimes hitting the correct pronunciation and grammar of their native language completely lost.’

Dutch-English speakers will have to verify the accuracy of the translation but I presume that the original was slightly more coherent than the Google Translate version. This is not surprising – it is a computer programme and, at the moment anyway, technology is just not sophisticated enough to pick up all the nuances and subtleties of language. In this case, however, I didn’t need a professional translation – I just wanted to quickly gain an overview of an article that looked interesting and for this, Google Translate sufficed.

This is very different to using the site to create official documents, even if, as proposed by the Assembly, a proof-reader will be employed to check it. The debates that are being recorded are important; they can lead to policies that will affect the people of Wales. Having a general idea of what is being said is not good enough in this context; the detail is vital. And for this, a professional translator would surely be required?

Having said that, I can sympathise with the Welsh Assembly’s predicament. According to articles on both the NPLD and BBC websites, officials researching different options have stated that ‘any new arrangement would need to be sustainable in the long term and provided at a reasonable cost.’ In the current economic climate, with pressures to reduce public spending, I can see why Google Translate would be an attractive solution. It is currently free to use and having someone proof read it would cost less than paying someone to do a full translation.

But Wales has made the news in the past because of translations  – have a look at this road sign for example. Should this make the Welsh Assembly more cautious? Should they show more support towards professional translators? Or is Google Translate a good compromise? 

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this in the Comments section below.

Interview: Speaking Welsh, Living in Brussels

Stefanie Poulton moved to Brussels from North Wales in 2009. Today she works in British Council Brussels as PA to Regional Director EU. She shares her views about multilingualism and having become “Welsh Stef” in Brussels for our blog. Interview with Canan Marasligil.


Are you originally from Wales?
I was born in Chester, England and have two English Parents; my Mother is from Sheffield and my Father from Manchester. They moved to Wales the day before I was born…

The actual day before you were born?

Are they still in Wales?
Yes, they’re still living there today.

Did you learn Welsh at school?
I attended the local primary school where we were taught Welsh from very early on. During my secondary education the Welsh Assembly Government amended the curriculum, making Welsh a compulsory subject to be sat at GCSE level, when prior to this pupils had the option to discontinue it as a subject if desired at 14. I therefore studied it until I was 16.

Did you like studying Welsh?
At the time it wasn’t something I had wanted to necessarily study, as I felt learning another, more widely spoken language such as French or Spanish would be more beneficial. In hindsight, having grown up in Wales I now recognise the importance of language learning in relation to the shaping of identity and culture and although my Welsh is pretty basic and something which I am unlikely to use again, I think learning it and growing up in Wales has impacted on me in more ways than I thought; Now in Brussels I am referred to as ‘Welsh Stef’ – something I don’t necessarily consider myself to be!

How did learning Welsh affect who your cultural identity?
While I was growing up, learning Welsh always felt a bit alien to me.  I knew that because I lived in Wales, in school we were expected to learn it.  However with it being a language you would rarely hear being spoken and not coming from a Welsh background and mixing with friends who were in a similar position to me, it often led to some confusion and perhaps some resentment to it.  The year I was choosing my options for my GCSE’s is when the Welsh Assembly Government made learning Welsh compulsory across the curriculum until the age of 16.  I don’t think this contributed to myself having any feelings of being Welsh, but perhaps the opposite!  I suppose it began to change when I left Wales for University and then moving to Belgium. As soon as you mention where you come from people are very interested in whether you can speak Welsh or not, it is usually one of the first questions! And then I feel quite proud to answer that I learnt it at school and am able to explain a bit about the language, its uses in Wales – how and where it is spoken and its history and origin, which people do seem interested in, given its reputation of a ‘dying’ language.

What place does Welsh have in your personal and professional lives today? Today, apart from the name I have inherited, Welsh plays little part in personal and professional life.  Most of my friends, even if they were from Welsh speaking families have left Wales and when I return it is to visit my Parents.  I have definitely noticed an increase in the about of Welsh visible when I go back, on sign posts, in shops and on literature in my Parents house which get’s posted through the door and do feel proud that I can understand it where as perhaps the previous generation to me would not!

Do you think Welsh helps you learning other languages or opening up to other languages?
I’m not sure if learning Welsh made me want to learn other languages.  I think at the time because it felt forced upon me and because I struggled to contextualise it, it made language learning feel like a chore and therefore I didn’t appreciate its importance.  However today, this has of course changed and living in Brussels where there are so many languages and dialects being spoken around you, I feel pleased to have studied one other than my mother tongue, even if it can’t be used!


Stefanie Poulton works in the Brussels office as PA to Regional Director EU; Rosemary Hilhorst OBE. Stefanie moved to Brussels in 2009 from North Wales to work at the European Parliament as Parliamentary Assistant to a British MEP. Although a varied role, Stefanie particularly enjoyed the PA element to the position and was keen to further her career working in an international environment in this area. Having gained a Master’s Degree in Creative and Cultural Management from the University of Chester before moving to Belgium, the work of the British Council complements her personal interest in intercultural dialogue and cultural management.


Some 50 million EU citizens, 10% of the EU population, speak a regional or minority language

Some of my recent posts (Reindeer racing in Sápmi, Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Duit, etc.) have been triggered by news items I’ve spotted in the Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity’s  website. The NPLD is a pan-European network which covers regional, minority, indigenous, cross-border and smaller national languages to promote linguistic diversity in the context of a multilingualEurope.  Some 50 million EU citizens, 10% of the EU population, speak a regional or minority language.

The network currently includes representatives from the following languages: Finnish, Basque, Catalan, Breton, Occitan, Cornish, Welsh, Swedish, Lithuanian, Irish Gaelic, Frisian, Estonian, Sami, Corsican, Galician, Meänkieli and Karelian.

Their aim is to facilitate the sharing of existing best practice and the development of new and innovative ideas across the field of language planning in education, the home, the workplace, legislation and the media in the contexts of constitutional, regional and smaller state languages.

NPLD website

According to the network: “as language planners we are aware that many of the issues facing these linguistic communities will be very similar and that sharing good practice is a must if these languages are to survive and flourish.” 

Further information can be found on the NPLD website ( which includes news stories concerning the network and European multilingualism, which brings me back to where I started.