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Speech by Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education and Welsh Language.

First published:
8 February 2024
Last updated:

"Innovation comes from creating environments where ideas can connect."

Thank you for the warm welcome. It’s good to be able to join you in this important discussion. 

I open with the words of author Steven Johnson, and I sincerely hope that today will be an opportunity for his words to become real. Thank you to Cardiff University for being so willing to work with us to organise the day.

We’re here to discuss good practice and innovation in language policy, and I’d like to say at the start of the session what a privilege — and how interesting — it’s been to be minister for our language for almost three years. The enthusiasm, the emotion and the passion I’ve seen will stay with me forever.

And when it comes to language, passion — and even emotion — I often say that Welsh is more than just something I speak—it’s something I feel. And I think more and more people in Wales feel that the Welsh language belongs to us all. And the purpose of days like today is to discuss ways of making feelings like that reality.

We in the Welsh Government have a clear vision for our language, and innovative plans to make that vision reality. But even so, it’s important to emphasise one thing: from the very beginning of my term as Minister, I’ve said that neither the Welsh Government nor myself — nor anyone else to be honest — has a monopoly on good ideas. So I’m especially looking forward to hearing about ideas and lessons from everyone who’s here: 

  • What are we doing well here in Wales and where can we improve? 
  • What have you yourself learned from other countries?
  • What would be your tips — people travelling to Wales for the conference — for further developing language policy in Wales?

And talking of travel, many of you have travelled long distances to get here today: Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque Country and even from Canada. And that’s just the speakers! Croeso to you all. 

And we’ve not travelling to any old normal conference today. Innovation, yes, good practice, of course, seeing old friends and colleagues and maybe making new ones. But gratitude’s also the theme of the day — thanking one person for a significant contribution. Colin, the breadth of your research and publications is remarkable: geography, religion, democracy — and obviously language policy. You’ve influenced linguistic communities around the world; you’ve been ready to help us in Government — and to challenge us constructively; you were an active member of the former Welsh Language Board. You’ve taught, influenced, mentored and nurtured generations of students. And I know several of your former students are here today. It’s also good to know that colleagues from the Welsh Government, Cardiff University and the Welsh Language Board are here today to honour you too.  

Your research and career have been valued not only here in Wales but also internationally, and it’s to matters international that I now turn my attention. Yes, the United Kingdom has left the European union, but mind you: Wales hasn’t turned its back on Europe or the rest of the world either. We’re a country looking out for international partnerships, we’re interdependent and we’re all here part of networks and communities that weave us all together. Today’s conference, and our membership of the NPLD (Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity) is proof of that. And I was delighted to take part in the ICML (International Conference On Minority Languages) last June which was held in Wales for the first time in thirty years. 

Most of you will know that seven years ago, we published Cymraeg 2050, an ambitious strategy for our language, with two main goals: one million Welsh speakers, and to double the number of us who use Welsh every day by 2050. One of Colin’s language policy papers is entitled Wake me up in 2050! and I assure you that we’re alive and awake to the possibilities and challenges of that level of ambition. 

For that matter, you may have heard that there’s been a decline in the numbers of Welsh speakers according to the last census, down by around 24,000 to 538,000. We’re on a long-term linguistic journey, and like all long journeys, we expect a few bumps along the way. And that’s where I must be very honest: the census results were of course disappointing; they weren’t what we wanted to see. But some other surveys suggest that the number of Welsh speakers is as high as 900,000 so we’re doing work to understand why there's that difference between statistical surveys addressing the Welsh language.  

And what was uplifting during the disappointment was that everyone shared that disappointment with me, and that everyone wanted the Welsh language to flourish — perhaps because more and more of us feel that Cymraeg does belong to us all, no matter how much of the language we speak ourselves. 

So optimism’s a must; we’ve got to stay in the game for the long term. Language policy’s never done and dusted. And in terms of the long term, in terms of the future, what I’m seeing is: positive attitudes towards our language, more people learning it, more pride in it and that it’s more central to the culture and identity of our country than it was — certainly than it was when I was a child.  

All of this is valuable. And I welcome it. I want more of it.  

And we need different things, too. We need innovation.  

And we’re innovating in education, via the White Paper we published last year together with Plaid Cymru as part of the Cooperation Agreement. I don’t think we’re creating enough Welsh speakers for the future through the education system at the moment, that’s the plain fact of the matter. Cymraeg belongs to us all in Wales wherever We’re on a linguistic continuum. So every pupil in Wales deserves to become a Welsh speaker, and all of us who work in the education system have a responsibility to work towards that goal.

Our proposals reflect this and our ambition for the education system in Wales. Making this happen this will not only increase the number of Welsh medium schools, but also, increase Welsh language provision in schools that are not already dedicated Welsh medium schools. Fundamentally, we want every pupil to become a confident speaker of Welsh through the statutory education system in Wales. 

In terms of my politics, I’m a Labour man of course. And I’m also a member of the Co-operative Party. And we in Government are also in the process of creating more co-operative organisations to operate through the Welsh language. Monolingual spaces if you like. But what does this think in practice? Well, money! But money to help people help themselves, if you will. Empowering them to buy and convert, for example, local pubs, old chapels that have closed, and turn them into places for people to come together in Welsh.

People, coming together—in Welsh. 

Language is a people thing. It’s a social phenomenon; language isn’t just linguistic. So in everything we do to fulfil our ambitions for our language, the everyday reality of our speakers, learners, people in Wales will guide us. And innovation and exchanging good practice are central to that reality of course. 

So with one last reference to Colin’s work today, from me at least, as I wake up in 2050, I want to look back on a period of innovation, of being brave, of taking the odd risk and of learning from each other. And everyone who’s here today has a role in that. Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi.