Opening address by Jeremy Miles MS, Minister for Education and Welsh Language, International Conference for Minority Languages, Carmarthen, June 2023.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once reminded us that our task isn’t to foresee the future, but to enable it.2 And it’s the future of our languages that we’re all here today, and over the next few days, to enable.
As we've already heard, it’s been thirty years since Wales last had the honour of hosting the International Conference for Minority Languages. And what a transformative three decades it’s been for the linguistic landscape of our nation.
As we gather this week with our sights set firmly on the horizon, I’m eager to hear your thoughts on how the situation of all our languages can evolve. This conference is far more than just a platform to showcase what we’ve done already—it’s an opportunity to test and challenge hypotheses, trial new concepts, and find shared solutions.
We’re of course here too in large part to discuss research in language planning. Research isn’t about compiling data for its own sake. It isn’t just about publication. It’s about application. It’s about helping us to do more and to do more better. In Wales, we want all our language planning efforts to be based on the best evidence. So, I ask, what findings from outside Wales can you share that might illuminate our future path?
Today, amongst our number of over 180 delegates, we have a generous share of Welsh researchers and practitioners ready to lend their expertise. As we navigate our shared future, I envision more collaborations—across countries, disciplines, and boundaries.
Yes, unfortunately, the United Kingdom has left the European Union, but rest assured, Wales hasn’t turned its back on Europe, nor on the world. We’re still here, standing strong as part of a vibrant, diverse community of languages, ready to collaborate, ready to learn. Our active membership in the Network to Promote Linguistic Diversity is a testament to that commitment as is our presence during this conference.
The Past: Our Linguistic Journey
In 1993, when ICML was last in Wales, the Welsh Language Act came into force, bringing with it a new surge of energy in language planning and shaping the linguistic landscape of the Wales in which we live in today. That Act and the ensuing progress wasn’t just a result of government action. In fact, many changes have occurred despite the governments of the past. And while, of course, I would say that Government in Wales has now taken a leading role in language planning, I extend a heartfelt diolch to the thousands of individuals who campaigned, protested, and exerted influence behind the scenes. You are the catalysts who helped on the way to where we stand today.
The Challenges Ahead
In Wales, we take a long-term view on language planning. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. And we’re running together, backed by a broad group of stakeholders with the same common ambitions for our language.
And those ambitions are big, so we’ve got big plans to realise them.
In 2017, we laid out our long-term strategy—Cymraeg 2050. Two audacious goals guide us: one million Welsh speakers, and a two-fold increase in daily use of Cymraeg by 2050.
I think it’s important that we’re honest. Every long journey has bumps in the road. We had one just last December. You might have heard about the recent census results showing a decline of almost 24,000 in the number of Welsh speakers (to a total of 538,000). This was particularly felt in Carmarthenshire, our host county today, which faced the largest decline for the second Census in succession. I’ll be meeting leaders here in Carmarthenshire next month to discuss how we can tackle this.
So the census results were, of course, disappointing, and not what we wanted to see. But some other surveys suggest the number of Welsh speakers could be as high as 900,000. So, we’re working now to understand why these figures differ so much.
I remain optimistic. In language planning, there’s no room for complacency, and there’s always room for hope. As we cast our eyes towards the future, we see positive attitudes, we see more children learning in Welsh, more adults taking up the language, and greater pride in Cymraeg as part of our culture than ever before.
But is this enough? Well the answer, of course, is no. We’ve got to delve deeper, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Moving Forward: Bold Propositions and Challenges
Here we are at the University of Trinity Saint David, an establishment whose motto is “Transforming Education, Transforming Lives”. A sentiment we, as a government, wholeheartedly endorse. To that end, we’ve recently concluded a consultation for a new Welsh Language Education Bill. We propose that this Bill will, among other things:
- Reflect the target of a million Welsh speakers in law
- Create a single Welsh language skills continuum to describe skill levels so that learners, teachers, parents and employers have a common understanding of the journey towards learning Welsh
- Requirements for the Welsh Ministers to create a statutory National Plan for the acquisition and learning of Welsh, and review it in each Senedd term
Bold propositions? Absolutely. But language planning in Wales ought to be bold. I want brave change, candid conversations.
We’re aware of the challenges. The ‘Bro Gymraeg’—our Welsh language heartlands—have experienced a decrease in the number of Welsh speakers. The number of second homes and an exodus of young people have complicated matters even more. But we’ve got plans to address this.
Politically, I’m a Labour man, and I’m also a member of the Co-operative Party. That’s why we’re funding new Welsh language cooperatives, places where people can work and use their Welsh naturally. They’re often referred to as ‘monolingual spaces’, but whatever we call them, they’re crucial in a bilingual society like ours.
That’s part of our Welsh Language Communities Housing Plan. We’re enabling locals to buy and convert places like their local pub or post office into vibrant spaces where Welsh is the default language.
Such venues can serve as sources of income for the community, and locales where the community can connect, in Welsh.
The driving force behind these initiatives? Well the people of course. The local communities. The everyday reality of the linguistic situation. Language is a people thing and in all we do, we’re guided by their reality, and base our strategies on evidence.
Conclusion: Embracing the Future
As for me, I often say that Cymraeg isn’t just something I speak, it’s something I feel. It’s who I am. And I believe more and more people feel that the language belongs to them. But the question is what exactly that means in practice.
I could go on about what we’re doing in Wales for our language, but that’s what the next three days are for! And as we dive into the conference, let’s remember that we’re here to help each other. Let’s collaborate, let’s innovate, and let’s spark off one another, inspiring change that will reverberate across continents and languages.
Let’s embrace the future, with all its challenges and all its possibilities.
So, let ICML 2023 begin! Onwards to the next chapter in our languages’ vibrant, dynamic stories—preserving our past is the aim of course, and actively shaping our future together. Diolch yn fawr.