Dragons scrum half Tavis Knoyle doesn’t come from what could be considered a Welsh language stronghold.
The town of Glynneath is, he estimates, “maybe a 70-30 split between English and Welsh” speakers.
When Knoyle was growing up, most children from his area travelled to Merthyr or Aberdare to attend English schools, but he was in the minority that went to Welsh-speaking Ystalyfera.
“It does give you an identity, because at the time you felt in the minority a bit,” explains Knoyle, speaking on #EuropeanDayOfLanguage.
“But it makes me proud that I’m a Welsh speaker. Both our children will go to a Welsh school and I’m so pleased we’re able to give them that option.”
When he was at Scarlets at the start of his career, he would speak Welsh with the likes of Ken Owens and, even more importantly given his position, fly-half Stephen Jones.
“Steve and I would be running around the field speaking Welsh, having a flat-out conversation going through what our next move was going to be,” laughs Knoyle.
“It made it easier against a lot of non-Welsh teams we’d come up against.” While Cymraeg may not be heard as much at Rodney Parade as it does down West, there has been a recent influx of Welsh speakers.
“We’ve got Mefin Davies and Jamie Roberts here now, so the numbers have increased,” he says.
“I speak Welsh to Mef all the time. It can be a bit of Wenglish on my part because I haven’t spoken it in so long, but I love being able to do that.”
Ospreys hooker Dewi Lake is another who, whilst not hailing from an area steeped in the language, has embraced Cymraeg through his education.
“There’s only one Welsh secondary school in the Bridgend area,” says the former Wales U20 captain, “so I’m lucky that my parents, who aren’t Welsh speakers, sent my sister and I to Llangynwyd. But once we started there they started to pick up little bits of Welsh from us and would try and have conversations with us.”
The 21-year-old, who due to his leadership role for the U20 team has given plenty of live TV interviews in Welsh, is unfazed by doing media work.
“Funnily enough, I was always more comfortable speaking in Welsh because there would be times where I’d know words or terms that I wouldn’t know in English because that’s how we were taught at school,” says Lake.
“You don’t realise when you’re at school how much of a gift the language is. It’s only afterwards that you realise how helpful it can be and it makes you thankful that you had the opportunity to learn it.”
Even so, Lake admits to being surprised at how much he’s used the language since leaving Llangynwyd. “
At Ospreys, you’ll find plenty of us having conversations in Welsh because we’re all comfortable doing that.”
He found a similarly inclusive community when he recently spent time with the national squad.
“It’s a natural thing. Just in the hooker position alone, myself, Ken Owens and Ryan Elias will all chat in Welsh.
“If you hear people speaking it, you tend to join in with them.”
“I suppose you could say that speaking Welsh is a key part of my identity,” says Ken Owens.
“I’ve been fortunate to be raised in a Welsh language heartland, but it’s encouraging to hear that more people who haven’t been raised in that sort of environment are choosing to learn the language.”
At Scarlets and with Wales, speaking Welsh is a common thing for a man synonymous with Carmarthenshire.
“Whether it’s with my teammates, members of the coaching staff or the analysis team, it’s always spoken,” says the country’s most-capped hooker.
“Singing Welsh hymns is a tradition with club and country – even with the Lions – that I’ve been delighted to play my part in continuing over the years.”
In 2019, he and teammate Jonathan Davies received one of the great honours in Welsh culture at the Eisteddfod.
“Because it’s such an everyday thing for so many of us to speak the language, it might not occur to you that it’s something to be celebrated – so when myself and Jon were presented with the blue robes of the Gorsedd, it was an incredibly proud occasion.”
Cardiff girl Manon Johnes is just starting out on her international career but, like Owens, Welsh is her first language.
“I couldn’t actually speak English until I was seven, when we were taught it in primary school,” says the 19-year-old.
“In GCSE year at my school, Glantaf, I didn’t appreciate my ability to speak Welsh as much – maybe because we were constantly getting told off for speaking English! – but once I was in Sixth Form I started to recognise its value more and more.”
Johnes is preparing to embark on another new chapter in her life: next week she’ll be heading off to Oxford University.
“Speaking to all my friends who are also going to uni in England, we’re worried we might lose the language, in the sense of having that ability to speak Welsh to someone on a day-to-day basis, which will be sad.”
That lack of Cymraeg isn’t a concern when she’s back home for Wales training – in fact, even when she’s with her club, Bristol Bears.
“So many of us speak the language in the Wales camp; more than don’t, I’d say,” says Johnes. “It’s nice having most of our calls in Welsh, little things like that. And then at Bristol there are five or six of us who speak it, so it feels a lot like home when I go there.”
Being bilingual is a fantastic skill to have, she says. “I wouldn’t have had my teaching job during my gap year if I didn’t speak Welsh, so I’ve already benefited from it on that front. It’s definitely a positive that the language is on the rise, because it can be a hard battle to win. You want young people to appreciate it more, but you don’t want to turn them away by enforcing it. It’s definitely something that you’re thankful for when you’re a bit older.”
It makes me proud that I’m a Welsh speaker... Both our children will go to a Welsh school and I’m so pleased we’re able to give them that option...