Can Musicians and Educators Bring Welsh Back?

The Welsh language is spoken by few, but people like Gwyneth Glyn, a Welsh folk musician, are helping to revitalize it and renew interest in the culture

Gwyneth Glyn
Gwyneth Glyn, a Welsh singer who performs original and folk songs in her native tongue, will perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this year as part of the “One World, Many Voices” program. Image courtesy of Sukh and Mindy Photography

Gwyneth Glyn is a singer whose fans don’t always understand her. But her music speaks to them, even if her words don’t.

A native of Wales, Glyn sings most of her songs in Welsh. When she performs for a non-Welsh-speaking audience, she doesn’t worry about the language barrier. She once performed in Wales, and in the audience was an autistic girl from Scotland, who was inspired to learn Welsh after hearing Glyn sing. She has already made progress, and Glyn has stayed in touch with her since.

“I know from experience that even one song, one performance can affect a person’s life journey,” Glyn said.

Performances by musicians, poets and storytellers like Glyn might also affect the vulnerable status of the Welsh language, which is primarily spoken in and around Wales and in a few small émigré communities in Argentine Patagonia. Welsh has been officially classified as vulnerable by UNESCO, which is finding that new generations still speak the language but only at home and only in some regions of the country.

Glyn, who grew up in a hamlet in North Wales, speaks Welsh as her first language. Until primary school, the only English she knew was what she gleaned from watching Sesame Street on the television. The more she advanced in her education, however, the more she spoke English. At Jesus College in Oxford, she earned her degree in philosophy and theology speaking, reading and writing in English only.

Despite the prevalence of English, the Welsh language and traditional culture have begun to make a comeback.

“There has been something of a folk revival in the past, say, ten years . . . a resurgence of folk music,” Glyn said.

Although the language is undergoing a revival, the numbers don’t yet show it. According to a Welsh government census, the number of people in Wales who speak Welsh has decreased. The difference, however, is the renewed interest in learning Welsh and a new effort to teach it in schools, as well as recent government measures to promote it. Welsh has been a core subject in schools since 1988, but children are speaking it even more now as the popularity of Welsh medium schools has slowly increased. These schools do not teach Welsh as a second language, but rather integrate it into the lessons of other subjects, increasing fluency.

With its proximity to England and the prevalence of English-language entertainment, revitalizing the Welsh language is not a simple task. Its status as vulnerable means it has a greater chance of dying out, something supporters of the language know too well.

“I think you always have that at the back of your mind,” Glyn said. “It’s part of the psyche of the nation.”

Glyn sings both original songs and traditional Welsh songs, inspired by the folk stories her mother told her growing up and her father’s record collection, which included albums by Bob Dylan and his Welsh counterpart Meic Stevens, also known as “the Welsh Dylan.

For her foreign audiences, who don’t normally speak Welsh, Glyn has found that the language still has an effect on them. A man from New York state recently sent her an email after watching a performance. He said that her song “Adra” transcended language and that it was one of the best songs in any language.

Her audience may not always understand her, but Glyn enjoys the cultural exchange, as do her fans.

“It’s really refreshing to cross pollinate culturally,” Glyn said. “It’s ironic that we have to go across the Atlantic to do that, but sometimes it’s when you’re away from home, you realize the wealth of your own culture.”

Glyn performs Wednesday, July 3, through Sunday, July 7, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Her schedule is as follows.
July 3 — 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Talk Story Stage and 2:45 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage
July 4 — 2 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage and 4:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Talk Story Stage
July 5 — 12:30 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Song and Story Circle stage
July 6 — 11:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage and 3:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. at the Song and Story Circle stage
July 7 — 2:45 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Voices of the World Stage

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