COVID-19, the Welsh language and a million speakers

Published 24/11/2020   |   Last Updated 18/12/2020   |   Reading Time minutes

Little did anyone anticipate at the start of the year the impact COVID-19 would have on our daily lives, and the lasting impact it will have as we head into 2021 and beyond. Looking back to a simpler time can feel strange during this extraordinary period, but such is the cycle of public body annual reports, that’s what the Senedd will do today (24 November 2020).

Plenary debate

Members will debate and examine the Welsh Government’s Cymraeg 2050: A million Welsh speakers - Annual Report 2019-20 and the Welsh Language Commissioner’s Annual Report 2019-20 (PDF 2MB). The purpose is to understand how public funds have been used to achieve each organisation’s aims of supporting and promoting the Welsh language, and what could be improved in future. This year’s debate will of course be set within the context of the pandemic, and the impact on the network of organisations that support and promote the Welsh language. These organisations are integral to the Welsh Government’s aim of increasing the number of Welsh speakers to a million by 2050, and to promoting its use.

Within this context, the Foreword by the Minister for Mental Health, Wellbeing and the Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan MS aptly notes:

This report, of course, is a snapshot of a period of time which ended in March this year. Since then, the world has changed in a way none of us could have imagined or predicted.

It is likely that successes and actions taken in the period before the pandemic will have been impacted significantly during the last eight or so months. The Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee’s (CWLC Committee) inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on the Welsh language heard about the significant financial and operational impact on the network of organisations that support the language. The Urdd, for example, stated that it expects around half of its workforce to be made redundant, and is facing millions of pounds in lost income.


The range of activities, events and services delivered by this network of organisations to support the aims of Cymraeg 2050 has been significantly disrupted. However, innovation and agility has enabled some activities to take place online, providing new avenues to reach places and people not previously possible. Events such as Eisteddfod T (Urdd), Eisteddfod AmGen (Eisteddfod Genedlaethol) and Tafwyl (Menter Caerdydd) are prime examples of this innovation. However, despite the increase in digital provision, the Chief Executive of the Urdd warned during oral evidence to the CWLC Committee that without a return to activities and events in the community and in schools, there could be a long-term impact on the language:

In discussing this with many teachers across the country over the past few weeks, what they see is that there is a decline in the social use of the Welsh language and in relation to many children who've returned to school. The fact that they don't have access to any activities in the short term, or in the months just passed, will also be very damaging to the Welsh language among young people.

Survey data

Over the last decade, the Annual Population Survey (APS) has recorded a steady upward trend in the number of Welsh speakers. While the APS generally estimates higher numbers of Welsh speakers than that recorded in the Census, it is considered a useful tool in monitoring numbers of Welsh speakers on a more regular basis. The chart below shows the trend over time:

Number of people aged 3 and over able to speak Welsh according to the Annual Population Survey and Census

(Source: Cymraeg 2050: A million Welsh speakers – Annual report 2019-20)

However, the trend has reversed recently, with March 2020 data showing a decrease of 41,700 (1.5 percentage points) in the number of Welsh speakers from that recorded the same quarter last year (March 2019 - 896,900).

Early years and statutory education

Early years and statutory education are considered to be integral to ensuring both the number of Welsh speakers and the use of the language increase. The Welsh Government reported that investment in the work of the Mudiad Meithrin during 2019-20 for instance, had ensured the establishment of 13 new Cylchoedd Meithrin (Playgroups). These were in areas where provision was ‘lacking’ according to the report. The Welsh Government notes that it is ‘on track’ to open 40 new Cylchoedd Meithrin by 2021.

Work on implementing the recommendations of the Rapid Review on Welsh in Education Strategic Plans published in 2017 and the subsequent report by the WESP Advisory BoardImproving the Planning of Welsh-Medium Education continued during 2019-20. This work culminated in regulations being laid before the Senedd in December 2019, and came to force in January 2020. The Welsh Government notes that the regulations:

contain a change in emphasis so we can plan early on to make sure we increase the number of children educated through the medium of Welsh, as outlined in Cymraeg 2050.

However, COVID-19 has already impacted on the WESP timescales, with regulations laid to delay the requirement to submit 10 year plans (PDF 117KB) in 2021, but to submit them a year later. The Welsh Language Commissioner in his Annual Report for 2019-20 referred to the WESPs regulations and their importance, noting:

…each local authority will have a new 10-year plan in place from 1 September 2022 onwards. This should lead to better planning for the expansion of Welsh-medium education from pre-statutory to post-16 and a resulting increase in the numbers receiving Welsh-medium education across Wales.

The Welsh Language Commissioner

The Commissioner’s Annual Report highlights areas of progress he has seen during the reporting year. These include placing new Welsh language duties on primary health sector bodies, and continuing his work in promoting the language among third and private sector bodies. However, budgetary constraints have meant a significant reduction in projects to assist sectors not required to comply with Welsh language duties established under the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011.

One sector the Commissioner has been working with is the banking sector, with a particular focus on online banking apps. The Commissioner, during annual scrutiny with the CWLC Committee described the ‘frustration’ with progress or lack of it in this sector, stating:

We're reaching a point where politicians have to make a decision as to whether they are going to impose standards on the banks, because that is the only way in which they will provide Welsh language services.


It is clear that the many challenges that existed before the pandemic for organisations that support and promote the Welsh language have been and will continue to be exacerbated as a result of it. The pandemic will undoubtedly have an effect on the future outlook of the Welsh language. How each body responds to this challenge, and what resources will be available to them to recover lost ground will be key if the Welsh Government’s aim of a million Welsh speakers is to be realised.

Article by Osian Bowyer, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament