Monday, 20 January 2014

Language matters (not cake - well, not today)

While I work my way through the freezer and the cupboards making variations on a theme - (anything goes as long as it includes a can of chopped tomatoes and one of either chick peas or cannelini beans) there doesn't seem to be much in the food department to blog about (although I will get round to the chickpea and ketchup curry, which roused a certain amount of interest).

In fact, as I haven't actually had to spend a huge amount of time working out what we're going to eat, my mind has been wandering to other matters. One in particular that I can't get out of my head so I'm going to dump it into cyberspace I think deserves a little more exploration is the question of language. The Welsh language specifically, but, language and culture and moving to a new place where there is a new language, a different culture, and all that is involved with that.

Last week, we got the letters confirming that Blue and Pink have places at the school we all wanted them to go to. It is a Welsh Medium school - which means that the business of the school, and the teaching are in Welsh. Everything. In Welsh. (Apart from the English lessons).

I won't lie. I am a little apprehensive. I look at Welsh written down, and I see - well what do I see? While my understanding of French allows me to look at several other languages - Spanish, Italian - and see patterns, may be hazard guesses, even in some cases work out, what's being said and respond - I see no pattern, no sense in Welsh at the moment. An excess of vowels and the likelihood that spitting will be involved, however involuntarily. I have picked up the odd word here and there (the word for 'microwave' is my favourite - 'popty ping' - the appropriateness just delights me - and if you don't believe me, plug it into google translate. The words - not the microwave...), a few pronounciation tips, but the overall rhythm of it, how it sits together, evade me completely.

There have been raised eyebrows amongst some of my friends & family about the Welshness of the kids schooling.

"What? ALL of it in Welsh?"

"Are there any English schools?"

We didn't have a huge amount of choice. Most of the schools in the area we are moving to are 'Welsh medium', and if not, they use significant amounts of Welsh in the teaching. It's not to say that English isn't spoken, and in my dealings with the schools and the Education Authority, English has been spoken, but in a few short weeks, the kids are going to be in an environment where, initially at least, they will not understand what is being spoken. 

I have been reassured that they will be supported as they learn Welsh. They will spend time at a language centre, and I am confident that they will start to pick it up pretty quickly. In the grand scheme of things, I am also really pleased that they will get this opportuntiy, while they are young, to be immersed in another language, and exercise parts of their brain that wouldn't otherwise get exercised.

I will also try and learn - I can hardly expect them to do something I'm not prepared to do myself. The school runs classes for parents - so it's there for the taking. And I'd like to be able to help the kids at home.

I know some people will think - why bother? What IS the point. Welsh isn't spoken anywhere else. 

I'm also sure I will make an idiot of myself asking for the wrong thing in shops, that sort of thing. Why bother when everyone speaks English?

Well, for me, it's about being part of the place I'm moving to. I can't stand the 'ex pat' attitude (anywhere - I'm not just talking Wales here) that there's no point learning the lingo cos the natives will speak English - it's just rude if you ask me. Although most people do speak English in the area we'll be living, Welsh is actually spoken a lot.  When we've been there visiting, I've heard it around me in the street, in the shops. When I'm in France, I speak French, when I'm in Italy or Spain, I've at least tried to speak a bit of Italian or Spanish. We're going to Wales, to live in a Welsh speaking area - surely learning to speak the langauge (or as much of it as I can) is a courtesy.

Go onto forums about this, especially the parent forums that I've been on, and there are some fairly strident opinions about how all this teaching of Welsh is a waste of tax payers' money and how it could all be spent better on other things. I can see there is a point. Some areas of Wales are terribly deprived economically. There isn't much work, industry is dying. Why spend money getting people to speak a language that isn't used anywhere else? May be I'm naive and romantic, but surely knowing your roots and cultural heritage, having a sense of who you are is important too? Otherwise we just drift rootless. I am sure some will say "Oh well that's all right then, there's no work, but they have a sense of who they are. Wonderful." but I think that's a very short sighted approach. No, I don't think it will magically solve all the problems that Wales has, but if it contributes to a national confidence, well, then I think it's probably a good thing. And I do wonder if part of the English problem is that we don't have a real sense of who we are any more as a nationality. We don't feel confident, so we get scared and reactionary, and frightening things like UKIP happen.

And there's another thing that appeals to me, and it goes wider than language, to the whole standardisation (and dumbing down) of life that seems to be galloping on apace. The standardisation of the high street, of our leisure time, condemning us to live the same lives as everyone else, frightened of being different, of getting out of the box. I see the determination of the Welsh to revive the language and champion it as a living language rather than letting it die away, confined to academic tomes that hardly anyone reads, as a clear 2 fingers to the attempts to standardise life across the UK. 

Just as the high streets in the towns I've visited in the area stay relatively full of independent retailers (hooray!), defying (although I fear for how long) the chains that clog up the English high streets with the same products in the same store layouts wherever you go (boo - no surprises), so it fills me with excitement that I will be hearing a different language on the streets (no doubt as I walk home with 2 kilos of tripe from my abortive trip to the butchers...).

I'd love to know what you think? What anyone thinks. And if you've been in this situation, how did your children cope with being immersed in another language? And whether you agree with me or not, wish us luck!

Diolch i chi am ddarllen...


  1. I think it's great that you and your family are making an effort to learn Welsh. I am a Gaelic speaker from Scotland and went to an immersion school. It will definitely be an advantage for your children in terms of learning other language, understanding other cultures and points of view and of course in terms of finding a job (a few years down the line).

  2. Thanks Eilidh - yes, I think for all those reasons it will be a good thing too :-)

  3. You will be surprised how quickly they will pick it up. It will be wonderful xxx

    1. :-) I hope so - although I expect there will be some tears along the way - probably mine!

  4. Learning another language is a great idea. When we lived in Germany our boys learnt German very quickly, mainly through playing with other kids so much so that when we went into shops or restaurants, they would always correct me! I struggled to learn the language but that never stopped me especially when you receive such a positive response from your new neighbours. I think they respect you more for doing it.

    Good on you and how many times do you see as an adult how many companies cry out for languages in employment? I know I do. Elinor x

    1. Yes, it all makes sense to me - although I don't see a huge demand for Welsh... still the ability to learn a language will be very helpful for the kids, I firmly believe that.

  5. I'm a non welshie in Cardiff and my 2 are at a Welsh medium primary. I'm also (slowly) learning. I agree wholeheartedly with most everything you say. There's actually quite a demand for Welsh language in terms of employment in Cardiff, but more than anything I think it can only be a good thing to give your brain the chance to immerse itself in a new language, surely it will make it easier to learn other new stuff in the future! My favourite Welsh word of the week - 'joglyn' meaning you lazy thing! Good luck with your Welsh adventure, it's a beautiful country.

    1. Thanks Anna. I shall store up 'joglyn' and use it before the kids find out what it means!


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