Patagonia gets Pounds 40,000 to catch up on Welsh

28th November 1997 at 00:00
The Welsh language is undergoing a renaissance in the largest community outside Britain where it is spoken: the Chubut province in Patagonia, Argentina.

Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary, has just announced funding of more than Pounds 40,000 next year to continue a three-year project supporting the teaching of Welsh in Patagonia. He hopes the money will help to boost the revival in the language, which has become popular among young people again after years of decline.

The Patagonia Project, run by the British Council, aims to double the number of Welsh learners in Patagonia to 700. It plans to increase the number of local Welsh teachers from five to at least nine and to develop teaching materials that will enable Welsh teaching to become self-sustaining.

Three teachers from Wales have already spent more than six months in Patagonia teaching children and adults. Patagonian teachers and students have visited Wales to improve their linguistic skills.

The first Welsh people landed in Patagonia more than 130 years ago, drawn there by the chance to turn their sheep-farming skills to advantage.

For many years, Welsh language and culture flourished in this far-flung colony. In the last quarter of the 19th century, children were educated solely in Welsh. Primary schools were established at least 60 years before a similar network was set up in the mother country.

But the Argentinian Government intervened by introducing Spanish as a subject in schools and setting up Spanish-speaking schools. By the turn of the century, Spanish had become by law the only medium of education. Welsh flourished only in the Sunday schools and in an "intermediate school" children could attend after completing their national education at 13 or 14.

Once that school closed in 1947, and as religion gradually declined, the Welsh language in Patagonia seemed doomed to die out. By the 1970s, no formal Welsh education was available, nor was there anyone qualified to teach it.

Since then, however, political and social attitudes have changed, as Robert Owen Jones of the British Council has reported to the Welsh Office. State institutions have become much more tolerant of the language, people are once again allowed to give their children Welsh names, Welsh classes are booming and Welsh is heard much more on the streets. From being seen as an old people's language, it has become fashionable among the young, Dr Owen Jones says, partly the result of students from Wales spending their year abroad in the province.

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