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Babies in Wales are to get the earliest possible help with the native tongue. The Welsh Language Board is investigating the possibility of recruiting midwives and health visitors to encourage parents to use the language with their children.

The move follows a report which shows that although 22.8 per cent of families in the Principality could reproduce Welsh in their children, only 16.5 per cent do so.

"That means that one in four homes where Welsh is spoken by one or more parents the language is not being reproduced in the children,"said Professor Colin Baker of the University of Wales, Bangor, who carried out the research for the Welsh Language Board.

Why Welsh speakers don't use the language with their children is not clear. One suggestion is that it may be because English is seen as the language of employment in many areas.

Professor Baker's report for the Welsh Language Board warns of the dangers of insufficient people passing on Welsh within the family, rather than at school, where it is now part of the national curriculum.

He said: "Minority languages decline when the family doesn't pass it on to the children. The first thing you have to do is to try and persuade parents to bring their children up in the minority language. In order to flourish, the Welsh language must be regarded as the language of the home and everyday communication within communities and social groups.

"If the number of families using the language as a means of communication continues to decline the numbers of young people and adults who have the skills of mother tongue speakers will also decline. The language will be used in an increasingly restricted context and will become totally dependent on the education system to reproduce the numbers of speakers.

"Without mother tongue transmission, language maintenance is nigh impossible. In many instances, speakers of a minority language may decide to give up their language by not reproducing it in their children."

In an attempt to get at Welsh speaking parents at an early age, midwives are being lined up to help out.

"It is trying to sensitise midwives to the issues," said Professor Baker. "They would have a pack of information, pamphlets, a video, to give to mothers about the discussion of language in the home. The network of midwives and health visitors are the professionals most generally in contact with mothers-to-be and new mothers, and training could be provided for them."

More Welsh language training courses for doctors and other professionals have already been urged following a report which found that Welsh-speaking patients who were unwell or under pressure were more comfortable talking about their problems in their first language, but were sometimes unable to do so.

"Many people we spoke to told us that they felt much more comfortable using Welsh with doctors, midwives and dentists, but they were either simply unable to do so, or viewed English as the language of authoritative comment and judgement and so didn't choose to use Welsh," said Professor Colin Williams of the University of Wales, Cardiff.

One of the findings of the report was that Welsh was not used as much by key personnel in the health sector as in other areas, and a key recommendation is that Welsh medium medical and dentistry services should be made available wherever possible.