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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.

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  • PagesDifferent Voices

    5 May 2011
    Different Voices

    Explore the history and sounds of Wales' languages from Early Medieval to the present