We shall, before too long, receive initial statistical data from the census conducted in March.

What it reveals will be interesting; but what it doesn’t disclose may be equally important.

The Welsh Government’s language policy is to secure a million Welsh speakers by 2050. That target was well received – there’s immense goodwill towards our language.

READ MORE: Sneak peek of 1921 census released ahead of January publication

An overwhelming majority in Wales support the sentiment of our national anthem, “O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau” – “Oh that the old language shall endure”.

Great heart-warming stuff for the start of a rugby international! But what should that sentiment, and indeed, the Government’s declared policy, mean in practice?

Firstly, is public policy just about the theoretical ability to speak Welsh, or does it carry an expectation that a million people will use Welsh in their everyday lives?

There would be little purpose in having an understanding of Welsh, if it dwindles as a community vehicle of conversation. The census may tell us whether people can speak, read and write Welsh; but it won’t reflect their propensity to do so.

There’s a danger that we adopt a mindset that regards the augmented availability of Welsh medium education as guaranteeing that youngsters emerging from such schools will thereafter use their Welsh and maintain their ability to speak it, socially or at work. If only!

Secondly, will those Welsh-speaking youngsters, as adults, live in Wales? Will they have that choice – or be driven, by economic circumstances, to leave Wales to find work? The census doesn’t count Welsh-speakers in England – perhaps a quarter of a million.

If that’s their choice, fine; but, as I highlighted last week, precious little is done to help Welsh émigrées return to Wales. Political parties should see this cohort of Welsh speakers as a national resource.


Thirdly, the census will tell us nothing about the quality and local variety of the Welsh which is being spoken. Every day, Radio Cymru reflects the deteriorating standard of spoken Welsh. This isn’t its fault: it reports the world around us.

The reality is that, under our noses and despite goodwill towards the language, the quality of spoken Welsh is deteriorating – though I’m not the best person to judge this: I’m not a linguist. Nor am I part of any so-called 'language gestapo'; but I find it offensive that people who believe in maintaining language standards are reviled.

Those learning Welsh as a second language should, and will, be accommodated if they find it necessary to use English loan-words – often they are more enthusiastic to improve their Welsh than are native speakers. Diligent learners often out-perform lazy indigenous Welsh speakers.

READ MORE: Duolingo partnership to support Welsh language learning

We all share responsibility for maintaining the unique characteristics of Welsh. That includes respecting its gender basis; the application of mutations; and avoiding English idioms.

The census will convey important statistical information. But in measuring the wellbeing of 'Y Gymraeg', we must surely consider quality as well as quantity.

Otherwise Welsh may conquer the world, but lose its soul. That would be tragic, given the huge efforts across party and linguistic divides, to secure its future.

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.