Last Friday, we began our journey to Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, and we spent five days in there. What attracted me most was not Welsh food or Wales’ beautiful sightseeing but was the language. Or, I should say, Welsh.
Welsh language, or Cymraeg, is the traditional language of Wales in UK. However, due to the influence of English and population migration, the number of Welsh speaker is decreasing. According to the research, at the beginning of the 20th century, half of the population in Wales used Welsh as a language of daily life. However, at the end of the 20th century, the percentage of Welsh users fell to 20%. Although the Welsh government tries its best to maintain the equal position between English and Welsh, elimination of this language is still inevitable.
In the human society, language is the foundation of communication. From broadcasting, advertising, to people’s daily life, language is the most common way of information exchange. Unlike the most regions or countries in world such as England, US or China, where are the places have only one official language. Wales, on the other hand, has two different official languages: English and Welsh. When I was walking on Cardiff’s street, I could see both these two languages were written on traffic signs, buses, police stations and any other public information displays. And in the train station, once we got off the train, the broadcast in train station was also in both English and Welsh.
That is a unique feature comparing to Either England, or United States. Since in the most of time, English is the only language that be used for public broadcasting. As for non-English speaking countries, such as China (My home Country) or Japan (the country I lived for 3 months), although sometimes the traffic signs or public broadcasting in train stations and airport are in multi-language, that is because of the convenience of foreign visitors. Since nowadays, English has become an international language, the simplest and most efficient way to communicate between people from different countries is speaking English. For example, the photo that been showed below is an indicator sign in Japan airport, it is been write in four different languages for people from everywhere around the world, but I am pretty sure that such complex indicator sign will not be showed in Japanese people’s daily life.
However, in Cardiff, Welsh is playing an embarrassing role in the society. On the street, as I mentioned above, I can see Welsh everywhere in public facilities. However, when I walked in a restaurant, looking the menu and hearing people’s talking, the Welsh language was gone. From people’s conversation, to the Wi-Fi information on the wall, even the sign on the door of toilet, were all in English. There is no doubt that in the daily life of Welsh people, English is still the primary language for communicating.
So, what is happening about Welsh? What is current status of this old European language? According to online information and Welsh people whom I talked with, Wales was an independent country until 1277 when Edward I moved against Wales and conquered the entire territory in 1284. After that, Wales became a part of England, and after, a part of Britain. Therefore, English to Wales people was a foreign language at the beginning. However, with the stronger influence of British Empire, English took the place of daily languages in Welsh people gradually. According to the 2001 census, 659,301 people can speak Welsh, accounting for 23% of the population of Wales, and 797,717 people have a certain understanding of the Welsh language, accounting for 28% of the population of Wales. As we can see, there will be less people can speak Welsh in the future.
The Wales government always tries its best to maintain the position of Welsh language. The most famous act of language saving is the “Welsh Language Act 1993”, which “is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which put the Welsh language on an equal footing with the English language in Wales with regard to the public sector.” (Wikipedia “Welsh Language Act 1993”) Moreover, in Wales, all students aged 5 to 16 must study Welsh as a first or second language. At present, about 448 primary schools and 53 secondary schools in Wales teach in Welsh. Some of Wales’s universities teach in Welsh. In Wales, there are many Welsh-language courses designed for adults.
That is a huge educational difference comparing with other countries. In US, most students are required to learn another foreigner language, but it is in very short years. Many students would just take few sessions to fulfill school’s requirement. After graduating from high school, most of them do not have the ability of using their second language. On the contrary, for the non-English speaking country such as China, students would be required to learn English in their third grade of elementary school. Yet, the purposes of second language education are different. For student from non-English speaking countries, the reason of learning second language, English, is due to English is the most popular language in world. If they wish to connect with the world, English is the best communication tool for them. However, in Wales, learning Welsh language is more kind like a cultural heritage of Welsh culture, as people say, language is the carrier of culture.
In conclusion, the Wales government spent so much efforts to save the language, but to be honest, there is no optimistic result. The guy who I talked with was born and raised in Wales, but he told me that he barely speaks Welsh language. His parents speak English, his friends speak English, and even his grandma begins to speak English every day. Although he could understand some of Welsh language, “but why bother?” It is true that unlike ancient artifact which could be stored in museum, language is a shapeless embodiment of culture that is hard to keep its immutable itself. Still, I believe people should let it be vanished in the history when the time comes, like Darwin once said: Natural selection, survival of the fittest.