Proportion of Welsh speakers in Wales drops to record low of 17.8%

Campaigners, teachers and politicians have expressed concern that the percentage of residents in Wales able to speak Welsh has dropped to the lowest proportion ever recorded in a census.

On census day, 21 March 2021, an estimated 538,300 Welsh citizens aged three and over were reported as being able to speak Welsh – about 17.8% of the population.

This is a decrease of about 23,700 people since the 2011 census, a drop of 1.2 percentage points. A century ago, 37% of residents spoke Welsh.

The figures are a blow to the Welsh government, which has a target of reaching 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. It has introduced a string of initiatives, including more investment in Welsh-medium schools, setting up a national centre for learning Welsh and appointing a language commissioner.

The decrease is being driven by a fall among children and young people who can speak Welsh, according to the census. There were drops of about 6% in the proportion of children aged three to 15 reported as speaking the language between 2011 and 2021.

The Welsh education and language minister, Jeremy Miles, said the figures were disappointing but the government was determined to reach its 2050 target.

He suggested that the census taking place during Covid may have had an effect. “We were all concerned about the impact on children’s and young people’s Welsh language skills when they were out of school,” he said.

Miles pointed out the boost to the profile of the language given during the World Cup by the Welsh football team, which describes itself as Cymru rather than Wales.

He said the Welsh government has also brought in a string of measures designed to cut the number of second homes in Welsh language heartlands to stop local people being pushed out.

The pressure group the Welsh Language Society - Cymdeithas yr Iaith – said the figures showed an “urgent gear change” was needed. Its chair, Robat Idris, said: “Our Welsh language communities are under increasing pressures as local people are forced to leave due to a lack of homes that are affordable on local wages. We need a property act that will regulate the housing market.”

He also called for the government to set the goal that all children in Wales will be educated through the Welsh language in the future.

Delyth Jewell, the chair of the Welsh parliament’s culture, communications, Welsh language, sport and international relations committee, called for the government to be more radical. “This means being clear and robust of what is expected of us all in Wales and putting in place increased levels of funding and resource to meet the challenge,” she said.

Carmarthenshire in south-west Wales, a traditional heartland for Welsh, suffered the largest decrease in the percentage of people able to speak the language, falling from 43.9% in 2011 to 39.9% in 2021.

The highest percentages of people able to speak Welsh were in north-west Wales, with 64.4% in Gwynedd and 55.8% in the Isle of Anglesey.

There was some cheer, including increases in the percentage of adults aged 16-44 able to speak Welsh and there was also a rise in Cardiff, where there are 6,000 more people who can speak Welsh compared with 2011.

Meanwhile, independent constitutional commission has warned there are “significant problems” with the way Wales is governed within the union.

It said there was pressure on the current devolution settlement, partly caused by the “supremacy of the Westminster parliament”. The report identifies an absence of UK leadership on the union and says the UK Treasury treated the Welsh government “as if it were a department of the UK government”.

Of more than 2,000 people who took part in an online consultation, 55% backed independence – but the commission acknowledged this may be due to pro-independence groups encouraging their supporters to respond.