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Do more people speak welsh than the 2011 census told us?

I coped this from a welsh government pdf file. 

How many people in Wales speak Welsh? 

The 2011 Census is the key source of information about the number of people who can speak Welsh. 

The Welsh Language Use Survey was not intended to provide new statistics on the number of people who say they can speak Welsh, but rather to provide a picture of how fluent Welsh speakers are, and how they use the language.  

The Census has collected information about the population of England and Wales every 
10 years since 1801. 
The latest census in England and Wales took place in March 2011. 

Question 17 in the 2011 Census asked people living in Wales: 

The 2011 Census showed that 19.0 per cent of people 3 years old and over living in Wales said they could speak Welsh:
 ten years earlier the figure from the 2001 Census was 20.8 per cent.
The 2001 figure showed an increase compared with the 1991 Census, halting a decline that had been seen throughout the twentieth century.

Welsh language ability and frequency of use is also collected in the Annual Population Survey (APS).
The APS combines results from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) and the boosts to the LFS funded by England, Wales, and Scotland.

The APS asks the respondents whether they can speak Welsh, and if they can, how often they speak it.
The Labour Force Survey (LFS) is a survey of the employment circumstances of the UK population; it also collects some basic demographic data.
It is the largest regular household survey in the UK and provides the official measures of employment and unemployment.

The question about Welsh language ability included in the APS, the National Survey for Wales and the Welsh Language Use Survey is identical to that included in the Census.
Despite this, the proportion of people who state that they speak Welsh is higher for all of these surveys than it is for the Census.

The 2013-14 Welsh Language Use Survey showed that 23 per cent (673,700) of all those aged 3 and over could speak Welsh.
This compares with 19.0 per cent (562,000) in the 2011 Census, 27 per cent (787,500) in the Annual Population Survey and 24 per cent (723,300) in the National Survey for Wales.

The chart below shows how the numbers vary by age according to each of these alternative sources. Chart 1: Percentage of people who speak Welsh by age and source

Differences in how these surveys and the Census are carried out are likely to have affected the results. 
The Census used a self-completion questionnaire for all people, the National Survey used face-to-face interviews of one adult aged 16 and over. 
The APS uses some face-to-face interviews and some telephone interviews of adults aged 16 and over. 
In interviewer-led surveys, respondents may feel more likely to report that they speak Welsh. 20 8.8 It should also be borne in mind that speakers’ assessment of how well they speak a language can be quite subjective. 
For some people,  despite speaking it regularly, may say that they can’t speak it if they feel that they are more comfortable speaking another language. 

When respondents are faced with only one question, in an official statutory survey, they must make a categorical decision about whether they speak Welsh or not. 
Where an interviewer is present, the respondent may feel more able to describe their ability levels in more detail with the interviewer and the interviewer may encourage respondents to say that they are able to speak Welsh, so that they can provide more details about their ability in the subsequent questions. 

Indeed for the National Survey, interviewers were briefed to code people who hesitated over their answer to the question (owing to the fact that they did have some Welsh-speaking ability) as Welsh-speaking (around 4 per cent), because there was a subsequent question on level of ability.  

For these reasons, some respondents recorded as speaking Welsh in the National Survey or the APS might have reported that they were not Welsh-speaking when completing the Census questionnaire. 

 As stated above, the 2013-14 Welsh Language Use Survey and the National Survey itself gave different estimates for the percentage of Welsh speakers (23 per cent and 24 per cent respectively). 

 The reason for the discrepancy between these two surveys is that in the National Survey the respondent stated who they believed could speak Welsh in their household. 

The first question in the self-completion questionnaire for the Welsh Language Use Survey repeats the question that was asked in the National Survey. Adult Welsh Language Use Survey 2013-14 Young Person Welsh Language Use Survey 2013-14 

Answers to these questions revealed that not everyone agreed with the original respondent’s opinion about the Welsh language ability of other members of the household. Although initially identified as Welsh speakers, some respondents subsequently stated that they could not speak Welsh. Consequently, the first estimate provided by the National Survey decreased for the Welsh Language Use Survey.


  1. You are right to draw attention to the infallibilty of census statistics in regard to languages spoken. I have discussed this matter with people in Brittany, in the Basque country and in the Slovene-speaking areas of Italy and Austria.

    Although you might not like the source, I’d like to cite from a text by Mike Hedges AM. See:
    ‘The Census has no rules on how you define the ability to speak Welsh, so there are bound to be inconsistencies between Censuses as people use different definitions. For example, the percentages of children able to speak Welsh reported by the Census reflect the percentages of children learning Welsh as a second language within Welsh medium education rather than the percentages of those with substantial ability. “My three year old is attending a Welsh medium school therefore they must speak Welsh, so when I complete the Census form I tick the Welsh-speaking box”, is the reaction of many parents.’

    My view is that the number of Welsh-speakers is exaggerated in the 2011 census. Then there is the vexed issue of whether people who could potentially speak Welsh and are recorded as Welsh-speakers, do so in practice. Take the example of a pupil in a Welsh-language secondary school in south-west Wales. He or she might have the ability to speak Welsh with school staff, but simply does not use the language outside school, and abandons the language upon leaving school.

    I write this not to be destructive or negative, but to add an element of realism to the debate. We can’t be where we would like to be if we don’t acknowledge our starting point with honesty.

    1. But also, as pointed out above, there are those who can and do speak Welsh, yet do not say so on the Census. If these other surveys are consistently higher than the Census, then questions need to be asked. In terms of use, over 350,000 people according to the Welsh Language Use survey alluded to above use Welsh daily.


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