According to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger the Welsh language is “vulnerable”. The most recent census for which results are available (2001) shows that speaker numbers have stabilised after decades of decline.
The growth in Welsh-medium education has been a significant factor in this stabilisation. Census results since 1971 have shown an increase in the percentage of people under the age of 25 able to speak Welsh, while the percentage of those over the age of 25 able to speak Welsh has fallen. These young bilingual Welsh-English speakers are therefore critical to the future of the Welsh language, in terms of using and valuing the language and in terms of passing it on to future generations.
This increase in the percentage of young people able to speak Welsh has coincided with some profound technological transformations. As a developed and relatively affluent country, Wales has been able to adopt these new technologies as they have emerged.
Many of these young speakers are growing up having never known a world without the Internet and mobile phones. For them “new media” is no more new than television, radio or cinema, it is part of their everyday experience, embedded in their everyday lives. While the presence of the Welsh language in these technologies will not by itself save the language, an absence of the language will surely damage it in the eyes of young people.
Despite growing recognition that young people and technology are critical for the future of the Welsh language, there is very little data on the subject. This lack of evidence causes problems in terms of monitoring trends, identifying demand, planning interventions and creating policies.
I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with Delyth Morris and Cynog Prys from Bangor University in a small scale study funded by the University of Wales’ Board of Celtic Studies. The study explored the use of social networking sites – such as Facebook – by young Welsh speakers aged between 13 and 18 in Welsh-medium schools. While this study only involved 200 pupils from four schools it provides some initial insight into the perception and use of the Welsh language in these popular applications.
All the pupils reported having broadband access at home and several also had Internet access on their mobile phones or on their personal media players. The use of social networks was pervasive, with only six of the 200 pupils reporting that they didn’t use any social networks at all. Facebook was used by 87% of the pupils, YouTube by 76% and MSN by 70%. No other social networks were used by more than 20% of the pupils.
Welsh youth and tech
Facebook was clearly popular with the young people in the study; it was associated with maturity and was perceived as one of the few websites where Welsh is used (quotes translated from Welsh):
Our Facebook is a Welsh section of the Internet, where our friends speak Welsh.
The pupils’ language behaviour on Facebook was complicated and appears to be influenced by a number of different factors, but just over 44% of them said they would either mainly use Welsh or would use Welsh and English equally on Facebook. While this figure may seem low, the majority of the pupils in the two schools from Southeast Wales came from non Welsh-speaking homes and in one school only 12% of the pupils considered Welsh to be their first language.
Overall it appears that young people’s language choices in social networks broadly follow their patterns of language use in their offline networks:
When I joined Facebook, some of my Welsh friends were there, and only they were there, so I spoke Welsh with them and it’s carried on.
There does not appear to be anything particularly significant about the fact that these pupils are interacting through a social network which influences their language behaviour. The use (or non use) of Welsh in social networks is as natural as their use of Welsh in their other day-to-day interactions.
Whilst these results appear encouraging, it is important to recognise that social networks represent only one use of these new technologies. We did not set out to systematically explore the wider issues, but some of the pupils’ comments were revealing:
… after we leave school every computer we see will be in English. If we learn how to do things in Welsh it will be more difficult to do things in English, because we wouldn’t understand what the words say.
If this statement is representative of the views of young Welsh speakers generally, then it appears that whilst Welsh may be playing a role in social interaction online it is perhaps failing to secure a wider role as a language of technology. The perceptions, attitudes and actions of these young, technologically literate Welsh-speakers will be critical in determining whether or not this wider role can be achieved in the future.