The percentage of residents in Wales able to speak Welsh has dropped to the lowest proportion ever recorded in a census.
On census day, 21 March 2021, an estimated 538,300 Welsh citizens aged three and over were reported as being able to speak Welsh – about 17.8% of the population in Wales.
This is a decrease of about 23,700 people since the 2011 census, a drop of 1.2 percentage points. A century ago, 37% of residents spoke Welsh.
The figures will come as a blow to the Welsh government, which has a target of reaching 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. After disappointing figures in the 2011 census, it launched what it described as “frank conversations” about the future of the language and introduced a string of initiatives, including more investment in Welsh-medium schools, setting up a national centre for learning Welsh and appointing a language commissioner.
The decrease is being driven by a fall among children and young people who can speak Welsh. There were decreases of about 6% in the proportion of children aged three to 15 reported as being able to speak the language between 2011 and 2021. There was also a decrease in the percentage of people in older age groups.
However, there were small increases in the percentage of adults aged 16-44 who were able to speak Welsh.
Carmarthenshire in south-west Wales, a traditional heartland for Welsh, recorded the largest decrease in the percentage of people able to speak the language, falling from 43.9% in 2011 to 39.9% in 2021. Carmarthenshire also had the largest fall between the 2001 and 2011 census.
The highest percentages of people aged three years or older able to speak Welsh were in north-west Wales, with 64.4% in Gwynedd and 55.8% in the Isle of Anglesey. In one area in Gwynedd, 86% of people speak Welsh.
Welsh ministers will be under pressure to explain the reasons for the decline. One factor could be that it was held during the pandemic, which may have had an impact on children’s language abilities.
In recent months, there has been a great deal of focus on second homes putting pressure on traditional Welsh-speaking areas, where local people have been pushed out by soaring prices and lack of housing.
One of the few positives for the language was a rise in Cardiff, where there are 6,000 more people who can speak Welsh compared with 2011.