Languages of Wales
Wales has many voices
Welsh and English are Wales’ official languages, but people here speak many other languages. Like two-thirds of the world’s population, many people in Wales are bilingual or multilingual.
It is not easy to find reliable statistics about languages other than Welsh or English, because there isn’t a question about them in the census. In 2006, Amgueddfa Cymru collected the names of 78 languages from people who spoke those languages and lived in Wales. A survey by CILT Cymru revealed that at least 98 languages are spoken by school pupils in this country.
Contrary to expectations, many different languages were heard in Wales in medieval times too. They were spoken either by invaders, people who came here to work or those who had prolonged contact through trade.
Help us find out more about Wales’ languages. If you live in Wales and your language community isn’t included here, tell us about yourself.
For the majority people living in Wales, English is their first and only language. This was not always so..
Only 400 years ago English had only 7 million speakers and was mostly unknown outside the British Isles. Welsh was the language of most of Wales, apart from a few Englishries such as South Pembrokeshire and the Gower peninsula. It was even spoken in some parts of Herefordshire and Monmouthshire, across the border in England
Between the reign of Elizabeth I (1603) and Elizabeth II (1952), the number of English speakers increased to about 250 million. Since the 1950s the speed of expansion has been even more staggering. An estimated quarter of the world’s population now has some English, and the number is still growing.
Despite being one of the first countries to experience the spread of English, Wales was not anglicised overnight. Different parts of Wales have a very different history in relation to the English language, and this is reflected in the local English accent or dialect. Some regions became English-speaking many centuries ago (for example South Pembrokeshire), while in areas such as the industrialised south-east, English has taken over comparatively recently. There are still parts of Wales where English is very much a second language with Welsh being the everyday means of communication. In some Welsh accents of English you can hear the influence of neighbouring English counties, such as Cornwall or Herefordshire In others, the vocabulary and patterns of the Welsh language can still be heard in today’s English.
Ray Smith comes from Radnorshire. Listen to the way he speaks. It is very far from the stereotypical Welsh accent, though it has as much claim to being called Welsh as any.
There have been Somalis in Cardiff since the 1870s. The city has one of the longest established Somali communities in the UK. The first settlers were sailors who came here shortly after opening the Suez Canal in 1869, when Cardiff was developing as a major international seaport. During the 1980s, another wave of Somali immigrants arrived, fleeing from the civil war in the Horn of Africa. It is estimated that currently over 8000 Somalis live in the Cardiff, Newport and Swansea areas, making them the largest ethnic minority community in Wales.
There are about 10-15 million Somali speakers worldwide. It is a language which has a long, rich tradition of poetry and literature. However it was only in 1972 that the Somali language became the official language of Somalia, replacing the colonial languages of English and Italian in government and education.
Listen to Faisal Mohamed Hashi talking about his Somali-speaking background in Newport, Gwent. His father was a merchant seaman who came to Wales with the British Merchant Navy.
Panjabi is spoken by about 93 million speakers. It is one of India’s many official languages. Punjabi speakers came originally from the Panjab, which was divided between India and Pakistan after partition in 1947. About 70 per cent of Panjabi speakers live in Pakistan, and 30 per cent in India. Those who live in Pakistan are mostly Muslim and use Urdu as the language of religion and high culture. Panjabi-speaking Hindus look to Hindi as the language of religion. For Sikhs, however, Panjabi is the main language of their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib.
Panjabi speakers form one of the most significant south Asian communities in the UK. Many Panjabis came to the UK in the period from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. They settled around the London area, the Midlands and the textile towns of northern England. Not all Panjabi speakers came from India and Pakistan. Many were business and professional people who came from East Africa, where people from the Panjab had settled as traders earlier in the 20th century.
In Wales, education authorities have reported Punjabi speaking-pupils in Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire, Cardiff, Flintshire, Merthyr Tydfil, Swansea/Neath/Port Talbot and Torfaen. Listen to Swinder Chadha, who was raised in Delhi but came to Wales in the 1980s via Iran. Those Sikhs who worship at her local Gurdwara in Cardiff have come to Wales from all over the world - from East Africa, Burma, Singapore and Iran as well as directly from the Punjab.
The Malay (Bahasa Melayu) is a language spoken by people living in the Malay peninsula, southern Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, central eastern Sumatra and parts of the Borneo coast. It is an official language of Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. About 18 million people speak Standard Malay, while there are also about 170 million people who speak Indonesian, which is a form of Malay. Malayan speakers have been reported in schools in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.
Listen to Juliet Revell who was born on the island of Java, Indonesia but moved to Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire with her husband Gareth in 1988. Since then she has added Welsh to her many languages and has her own column in Fishguard's Welsh language community newspaper, Y Llien Gwyn.
Breton is a Celtic language closely related to Cornish and Welsh, though speakers of Welsh would not be able to understand a Breton speaker. It is spoken mainly in Brittany on the north-west coast of France by about 365,000 speakers. It has no official status. From 1880 to 1951 it was banned from schools and children were punished for speaking the language. Since 1951, the law has allowed Breton language and culture to be taught for a few hours a week. There is also limited radio broadcasting in Breton and a weekly one-hour TV programme.
Listen to Pascal Lafargue, who is originally from Rennes in Brittany. As there is no Breton spoken in Rennes nowadays, Pascal taught himself Breton and studied it as university. He wanted to regain his cultural heritage and be able to converse with the Breton speakers who still exist in rural parts of Brittany. He now lives and works in Cardiff, has learnt Welsh, and is raising his son to be Welsh-speaking.
Japanese is spoken by about 125 million people, 99% of them still in Japan. However the number of Japanese speakers living abroad has increased with the expansion of Japan’s economy, working for Japanese companies or the government. There are about 50,000 Japanese speakers in the UK, with about 2000 of them living in Wales. Wales is the largest centre in Europe for Japanese electronics firms. The first Japanese manufacturing company came to Wales in 1973. Over the last 30 years, that number has expanded to about 60 firms, employing thousands of Welsh people. Japanese-speaking pupils have been reported in schools in Cardiff, Carmarthenshire, Flintshire, Merthyr Tydfil, Swansea/Neath/Port Talbot, the Vale of Glamorgan and Wrexham.
Listen to Midori Matsui who came to work for a Japanese company in South Wales in 1973 and has lived here ever since. She has for many years been involved with a Japanese Saturday school in Cardiff for the children of expatriate Japanese.
British Sign Language (or BSL) is the language used by Britain’s Deaf community. It is a language in its own right, not a way of speaking English through signs. It is estimated that around 70,000 people use BSL as their first language, and that up to 250,000 people use some BSL.
Sign languages differ from country to country: British Sign Language is different from French or American Sign Language, for example. Just as in other languages, there are regional varieties or dialects too. BSL has a long history and culture, but for most of the 20th century, it was banned in schools for Deaf children. Pupils were made to speak and lip-read instead. Despite this, BSL survived and since 2003 it has been officially recognised by the Government as an independent language.
Jeff Brattan-Wilson was born in Swansea to Deaf parents and is himself Deaf. Watch the video and read the transcript to find out what he has to say about his first language, which is British Sign Language.
Gujarati is one of India’s fifteen official languages and the state language of Gujarat in the north-west of the country. An estimated 47 million people worldwide speak the language. It was the first language of Mahatma Gandhi and has a literary tradition dating back to the tenth century. There are many Gujarati speakers in the UK, the main settlements being in the Midlands, the northern textile towns and Greater London. Some came direct from India in the 1950s and 1960s, but many came to the UK via East Africa, particularly after the expulsion of the South Asian population from Uganda in 1972. Gujarati-speaking pupils have been reported in schools in Cardiff, Carmarthenshire, Merthyr Tydfil, Swansea/Neath Port Talbot, Torfaen, and the Vale of Glamorgan.
Listen to Dinesh Patel talk about his interesting linguistic background. Born in Kenya, he was brought up speaking Gujerati, Hindi, Swahili and learnt English at school. After attending university in England in the early 1970s, he came to Caernarfon to work and married a local girl. His home language is now Welsh, and the Welsh he speaks is very much influenced by the local dialect of Caernarfon town - 'Cofi' Welsh.
There are about 128 million people around the world who speak French. It is not only an official language in France, but also in 24 other countries, for example Switzerland and Canada. It is spoken in the Channel Islands, and there are sizeable French communities in London. It is by far the most commonly taught language in UK secondary schools. In Wales, first language French speakers have been reported in schools in Cardiff, Carmarthenshire, Conwy/Denbighshire, Flintshire, Newport, Swansea/Neath Port Talbot, and Wrexham.
Listen to Sylvie Butterbach who was born in the Alsace region of France - a region which has also in its history been part of Germany. She came to Wales as a school French 'assistante' in the 1970s. She stayed and raised a family here. She now lives in Pontardawe and works as an interpreter and storyteller.
Like many minority languages, Welsh has had to struggle for survival. It was one of the first languages to be threatened by the spread of English across the globe. Only a fifth of the population of Wales is able to speak the language. Apart from some very young children, everyone who speaks Welsh in Wales can also speak English.
However, in terms of endangered languages, Welsh is very much a success story. The 2001 census showed that, for the first time in over a century, the number and the percentage of Welsh speakers are actually increasing. In 1991 there were 508,000 speakers, or 18.7% of the population. In 2001, that number had increased to 582,000 speakers, representing 20.8% of the total population.
There are some interesting paradoxes: the regions where there are high percentages of Welsh speakers aren’t necessarily the places where the greatest number of Welsh speakers live. For example, you’re more likely to hear Welsh spoken in the west of the country than in the east. In Gwynedd, 69% of the population are Welsh-speaking, while in Cardiff only 11% can speak the language. However, more Welsh speakers live in the cities and towns than in the countryside and there are more Welsh speakers in the south than in the north. The number of Welsh speakers in Gwynedd, for example, is around 78,000. This is actually less than Carmarthenshire, where only half of the population is Welsh-speaking, but the total number is 84,000. While there has been an increase in the percentage of Welsh speakers in anglicised areas such as Cardiff, there has been a decrease in the number of electoral divisions where over 80% of the inhabitants are able to speak Welsh.
The two main factors which have led to the encouraging upturn in the number of Welsh speakers have been the success of Welsh-medium schools and the growth in the number of adults who are learning the language. For the third time in succession, census results have shown an increase in the number of young people speaking Welsh. 26% of people under 35 could speak Welsh – an increase of 9% since 1991.
There are also Welsh speakers living outside Wales. Surveys commissioned by S4C, the Welsh television channel, estimate that there are more than 200,000 Welsh speakers living in England. There is a Welsh colony in the Chubut province of Argentina where some of the descendants of the original 19th century settlers are bilingual in Welsh and Spanish.
Listen to Gwil Pritchard, a young Welsh speaker from Caernarfon, Gwynedd talk about his linguistic background and local dialect differences between Caernarfon and nearby Bangor.
There are about 400,000 Bengali speakers in the United Kingdom, from a total of 230 million worldwide. It is spoken by 100 million people in Bangladesh and over 70 million people in India. In Wales, Bengali-speaking pupils have been reported in schools in Cardiff, Carmarthenshire, Conwy/Denbighshire, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport, Swansea/Neath Port Talbot, Torfaen, Vale of Glamorgan, and Wrexham local authority areas. In recent years, Cardiff has seen a rapid growth in the Bangladeshi population, which now makes up more than a quarter of all Asians in the city.
When Pakistan was formed in 1947, Urdu was decreed the only official language, despite the fact that Bengali was more widely spoken in the east. It took was only in the wake of violent demonstrations that Bengali was made an official language. East Pakistan achieved independence in 1971, changing its name to Bangladesh and adopting Bengali as the official language.
Most British Bangladeshis have their roots in Sylhet, a region in north-western Bangladesh, and speak the Sylheti dialect of Bengali which is very different from the standard language. The Sylhet region has very old links with the UK because of the trade in jute and tea. The Bengali community in Britain dates back to the 1870s, but the peak period of immigration was the 1960s and 1970s.
Listen to Sirajul Islam talk - in Welsh - about his linguistic background and how he had to learn standard Bengali, Urdu and English to get on in life as well as his native Sylheti. He moved to Wales from Bangladesh in 1963. Having spent many years running a restaurant in Swansea, Islam is now studying for a degree in Welsh at Cardiff University.
- 5 May 2011
Explore the history and sounds of Wales' languages from Early Medieval to the present