I didn’t bother learning Welsh at school – this is how we could change that for others

Bethan Phillips – with Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals

Bethan Phillips

A lot has been written on this site about the Welsh language, particularly regarding the Welsh Government’s ambitious target of 1 million speakers by 2050.

I thought I might be able to offer a different perspective – I don’t come from a Welshspeaking background and didn’t bother learning the language to a high standard at school.

Since then, however, I have become very supportive of the language. So, why didn’t it make much of an impression on me during the first 18 years of my life?

I think the answer to that question may well demonstrate why the Welsh language continues to struggle, and why the Welsh Government is unlikely to meet their target.

If we want people to think that learning the Welsh language is worthwhile, they need to understand:

  • That they have a cultural connection to the language
  • That the language has economic benefits
  • That it has advantages to job prospects and employability

None of these were effectively communicated to me during my time at school.

My experience

I am from Neath, South Wales. I was always committed to my studies. I wanted to give myself the best possible start and I saw education as the solution.

I received ABB in my A Levels and graduated with a 2:1 from Aberystwyth University.

Yet to be blunt, whilst getting good grades felt important to me, learning Welsh and taking the subject seriously was never on my radar.

I left comprehensive school with an E in short-course Welsh, alongside a B in French.

Why? It was very simply the product of a mindset, which I had subconsciously developed very early on in my life and in my studies.

The short-course element of Welsh immediately put a negative spin on the use of Welsh.

It was the lesson that I had to attend on a Friday afternoon, and one that was only worth half a GCSE.

I didn’t need a half GCSE to get into college, I thought. It was the core subjects that would set me up a lot better.

We also weren’t challenged enough and if you want teenagers to reach their full potential and enjoy a subject, they need to be tested and feel some sort of benefit.

I felt my time would be better equipped learning the ‘important’ subjects such as English and science, or the ones I enjoyed like geography and history.

I can’t say for definite whether at that point I had decided on staying in or leaving Wales.

However, as a safety net, in case I left Wales, I felt that French felt was the better language to learn, it was universal and the language of international law.

History

The first problem was that while these lessons taught us how to speak Welsh, they didn’t teach us why we spoke Welsh.

Looking back at the geography and history I studied in comprehensive school, nothing was related to Wales.

I knew more about the history of monarchs from the Tudors to the Stuarts, the American Civil Rights Movement and the Russian Revolution than Welsh history.

I knew more about the geography of continental Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa than I did about the geography of Wales.

I first heard the name Owain Glyndŵr as a 19-year-old when I attended Aberystwyth University, and that was only because I had selected a module to study the history of Wales.

I’m certainly not saying that learning about the wider world is not important, because it is essential.

The point I am trying to get at here, is that if we do not know about our culture and history from a very early age, then how can we possibly feel proud of it and connected to it?

Our children are growing up thinking that Welsh national identity is something superficial and not worth learning about.

We grow up putting Wales and all of its values at the back of our minds.

Benefits

There was also no emphasis on the Welsh language as a language that has economic benefits and could be advantageous in terms of job prospects and employability.

When it came to career talks in school and college, the benefits of Welsh were hardly mentioned. Therefore, not being able to speak Welsh did not (being perfectly honest) seem in any way disadvantageous.

You can, therefore, imagine how confusing and irritating it was for me after graduating when I noticed that bilingualism was often an essential skill.

I would like to firmly stress, that as a very proud Welsh learner, I am not criticising the fact that bilingualism is essential in the workplace.

What I am criticising is the way in which the Welsh language was portrayed as a hindrance in the early years of education and then turned out to be an essential part of the job description.

Society

Teaching Welsh in schools and hoping that will save the language won’t do.

The best possible scenario is that we end up as a nation whose people can speak Welsh, but see no good reason for doing so.

For any language to be successful, people must be proud of it and see use in it. We must be proud of our identity and incorporate the language into all elements of life.

 

Society must embrace it, in all walks of life; education, business, politics and culture.

People must see it used in the commercial sphere. It was so refreshing to see Costa Coffee implementing bilingual signs for its Drive-Thru.

People must be aware of the health benefits of bilingualism, such as resilience to dementia and cognitive advantages in education.

There are also major economic benefits. Without the language, Wales wouldn’t be such a thriving centre for television and production companies.

We are a passionate nation. You just have to look at any rugby or football international to see this in action: the collective embrace of a nation singing from the heart.

If we are to claw back some of our cultural and linguistic heritage, we have to channel some of that passion into our own history and language.

Let’s normalise the use of Welsh and remove the stigma from the language.

Integration

There needs to be several systematic changes that not only increase the number of Welshspeakers, but to fundamentally change the way we look and think about our culture and heritage.

Small steps can go a long way in ensuring the Welsh Labour Government actually meets its target of 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050.

The answer is to integrate the use of the language into our economy, business, education, social life and culture.

As a starting point, the benefits of the Welsh language to be integrated into the national curriculum and into the mindset of pupils.

As opposed to Welsh being forced out of the classroom, we now see the Welsh language and Welsh culture fully embedded in the national curriculum.

Not just in the Welsh language classroom, but in history, geography, and a myriad other subjects, too.

We learn from the past and we can change the future. Whilst cultural oppression has certainly had an impact on the Welsh language, it’s future is now up to us.

Devolution offers a way to increase the number of Welsh speakers, but in order for it to be fully successful, the Welsh language must be celebrated and normalised on a local grass-roots level.

It must extend beyond the classroom and reach all elements of society. Will this happen? Gawn ni weld.

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Robert Williams
Guest
Robert Williams

Llongyfarchiadau, Bethan, on a clear, well-argued, rant-free contribution. The key phrase, perhaps, is ‘…while these lessons taught us HOW to speak Welsh, they didn’t teach us WHY we spoke Welsh’. Certainly suffering ‘Welsh lessons’ in English medium schools, but probably even ib Welsh-medium education, there are I suspect thousands of kids who have no notion why they are learning or expected to use this language, no idea that it was once, not so long ago, the main language – for many the only language – of the country they live in. This, of course, has to be addressed, as Bethan… Read more »

Bethan Phillips
Guest

Very well said, Robert and thank you for your comments. I may well have been brought up in a devolved Wales, but it’s very saddening to see that I haven’t learnt a lot about MY identity. I would like to see Welsh proudly used in society and not just the curriculum. If we build up an identity, we are on our way to tackling the British establishment.

Gareth
Guest
Gareth

An excellent article.

Well done too for mentioning the private sector (Costa) – The Welsh language will never prosper without proper integration and acceptance by the private sector.

Currently only the Public and Third Sector have embraced it.

Bethan Phillips
Guest

thank you. diolch. I couldn’t agree more. We don’t realise how much the public and third sector play in our everyday lives. Start from the bottom up in integrating Welsh into society and I believe we will see positive change.

Pen-Cloch
Guest
Pen-Cloch

“Let’s normalise the use of Welsh and remove the stigma from the language.”

normalise meaning make it as well spoken as English and what is this stigma and where does it come from please?

Bethan Phillips
Guest

In South Wales there is a very big stigma towards the Welsh language. Some of my points here may reiterate that. I’m not saying any language is more important than the other, hence the pride in billingualism. The stigma comes from being brought up in an education system that doesn’t prioritise Welsh, but then applying for a job that makes it essential. Let’s stop the divide and have pride in Wales as a billingual nation.

marcvjones
Guest

Interesting and thoughtful piece – it’s clear that simply continuing the process of teaching Welsh in schools without addressing the broader issue of “why” is doomed to fail.

Bethan Phillips
Guest

Thank you, diolch, Marc. I agree. We must never underestimate the “why” question. Devolution enables us in Wales to act on what we seek to improve. Language is devolved. It’s in our hands, so let’s learn from past experience and ensure it helps the Welsh language.

Elin Owen
Guest
Elin Owen

Excellent article!

Bethan Phillips
Guest

diolch yn fawr iawn!

JE Lloyd
Guest
JE Lloyd

A very thoughtful and illuminating piece. In my view, the easiest and most basic steps the Welsh Government / authorities could take are: (1) to send a circular to all parents of pre-school children asking if they wish to register for bilingual education; and (2) to ensure that adequate so-called “Welsh medium” (bilingual) school places are made available to meet the demand. The impression I have is that many parents are simply not aware of the “Welsh medium” option, or think it is not available for their children, or simply don’t think about it at all. If the WG is… Read more »

John Jones
Guest
John Jones

It is already a statutory requirement placed on LAs to carry out a parental preference survey of all parents with preschool children to see if they require a Welsh medium school and to plan to meet demand. The only LAs exempt from this requirement are those in the Fro Cymraeg plus Conwy and Denbighshire although Denbighshire has done it anyway.

Cymreigiwr
Guest

While the statutory requirement to assess demand is now in place, the fact is that provision lags far behind demand in much of South Wales where the bulk of our country’s population live. I have witnessed campaigns hammering away for decades for Welsh Medium provision, backed with statistics showing obvious demand, while LAs dig deep for every possible reason to drag their heels and avoid taking action. Currently in the South, choosing Welsh medium is not a mainstream choice, and is one that involves significant compromise, compared to the default choice of an English medium school. This choice very often… Read more »

JD
Guest
JD

As an ex-Welsh teacher, I’ve been saying this for years.

Welsh as a second language as it’s currently taught is a total waste of time.

I would replace the qualification with ‘Welsh and modern studies’ to give some context about the language’s history.

If we also give history GCSE more of a Welsh focus, that would also help.

Bethan Phillips
Guest

I hope that none of my comments were perceived as directed towards you. It’s never been about the quality of teaching for me, but the quality of the curriculum and the pride that exists around the language. I hope that we can incorporate the language into our education system and I know fullwell that there will be dedicated teachers in place to pursue the 1million goal.

Cymreigiwr
Guest

Great, but simply diluting the inadequacy we already have won’t improve matters. Surely the answer is for the modern Welsh studies and history lessons you suggest to happen as well as Welsh language teaching, and for the language course to be expanded to teach the kids to a level of full useful fluency that is actually useful and valuable in employment terms.

Steve Hall
Guest
Steve Hall

Reflects my own experience. I went to school in Neath in the 70s, dropped Welsh as soon as I could as it was considered a waste of an ‘O’ level slot. Never mentioned that it could actually by useful in life & broaden work opportunities. In my own case I work in the marine science & technology sector so not much use for Welsh, but having a better understanding would enable me to communicate my work to a broader audience, and interact more with the public sector in Wales.

Graham John Hathaway
Guest

This worthy article is symptomatic of countless Welsh students and pupils. Indoctrination comes to mind. A case even, of those who do not wish to learn even the basics of the Welsh language, are not opposed to hearing it. The message though from the article is fundamental. Why is it important, and why has it not been put in context hitherto . That must be answered as a priority. If you agree, then it’s who will deliver it. Nothing survives unless put in a context that people can understand. Its not overt science but let’s not try and bash one… Read more »

cutchemist
Guest
cutchemist

By and large I agree. I find it such a shame that I didn’t learn, and now it’s very difficult to do so where I live now in England knowing no speakers. An opportunity missed that was never presented to me as an opportunity, just something that had to be done.

CambroUiDunlainge
Guest
CambroUiDunlainge

Going through much the same education system there’s not a lot to disagree with here, and probably feeling much the same towards Welsh. Although I’ll add to your point about history: You’re right its not that its against learning about the wider world. But learning about Wales through history and geography allows us to see and learn about the world through the Welsh perspective – rather than the “British”. How we have interacted with the nations around us differently – and how they interact with us differently to how they would the English. Its also about learning of Welsh achievements… Read more »

Andrew
Guest
Andrew

We are taught the history of the invaders, roman saxon and norman and everything else is considered pre history.It is rare thes days for an indigenous people to have their culture and history air brushed from view, as is the case with the original brits.The natives of this land are still here despite centuries of oppression and this is the history that should be taught to our children in order to provide them with a perspective and an incentive to learn the ancient tongue.Welsh history must be placed on the curriculum in Wales if the young are to have any… Read more »

Angharad
Guest

It seems to me that for every person who regrets that they didn’t learn Welsh properly, there is also the chip-on-the-shoulder person who turns anti-Welsh (not just language, but culture and everything associated), complaining when they are “barred” from jobs because they don’t speak Welsh.

And so it turns into a fight. It shouldn’t be like this, and it doesn’t have to be, if only the political will were there to fix it properly.

Cymreigiwr
Guest

Yes, exactly.

Glyn
Guest
Glyn

In relation to the importance of an understanding of Welsh identity and culture and the place of the language in society we need to have a sound base of history teaching. I agree that Welsh history still tends to start with the Romans and does not acknowledge that the Britons occupied the whole of the main island of Britain prior to the Roman occupation and Anglo-Saxon/Scandinavian invasion(s) and military campaigns. Although quite different to the adminstrative structures of Roman Britain, Celtic British society was culturally interesting with a developed social and economic structure and sophisticated collaborative defensive arrangements. This can… Read more »

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

Wales was and still is a colony….I studied post colonialism at university at Master’s level , there is very little post colonial no matter how much the pro-Welshies want to delude themselves to make themselves feel less saddened

cymraes
Guest
cymraes

I totally agree with what you have said, I also had pathetic Welsh lessons once a week at school, but no importance was put on them. We were never taught Welsh history or local history.

Baner
Guest
Baner

No offence but I found this article pretty depressing. I can’t imagine growing up in such a deracinated environment. I felt Welsh by instinct as a child and never experienced the feelings you describe. I knew my identity from the start, was curious about my history and didn’t need a school teacher to spoon feed it to me. Does your average Englishman, Irishman or Scotsman need the education system or print media to tell them who they are? The fact that someone from Neath (probably one of the ‘Welshest’ areas in Wales) had to discover Welsh identity as an adult… Read more »

Ifan Morgan Jones
Guest

“Does your average Englishman, Irishman or Scotsman need the education system or print media to tell them who they are?”

Yes. How else do you think they learn about it? Academic studies of nationalism point to the media and education system as key in the formation of national identity.

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

Yes Ifan, Its just we take the power of institutions on a population for granted!

CambroUiDunlainge
Guest
CambroUiDunlainge

Did you adopt this history or was it yours? I only ask because of the pompous way you appear to present yourself.

Trailorboy
Guest
Trailorboy

A lot of people on here seem to share bad experiences and I’m not surprised, but nothing that I can say I ever encountered. I have friends from places all around wales in the 80s who never had any Welsh lessons or exposure to Welsh whatsoever and find even pronouncing Welsh place names tricky. None are negative to the language, but it’s something they struggle to connect with. I grew up in a totally English speaking area, but I never knew of negative feelings towards the language. We were all naively very keen and in the comp we had a… Read more »

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

It’s a curious thing, but your experience of Welsh in school has very close parallels with my experience of RE. I had a largely secular upbringing, in which any mention of religion extended to being taught to say I was “C of E” (even though we were in Wales) if anyone ever asked. I sat through RE lessons in school in a state of deep seething resentment, wishing that I was being taught something useful like maths or science rather than all this drivel. I gave it up at the earliest possible opportunity. Then I left school, picked up a… Read more »

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

Economic policy for the last 20 years has been neoliberalism … How Plaid Cymru has had any impact on economic policy is totally beyond me Eos Pengwern…..talking through your hat. AND I will happily criticise Plaid Cymru….but lets get real about who has the real power in the world….lobbyists and corporations

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

It definitely hasn’t been free-market capitalism, the only economic model ever known to lift countries out of poverty (just ask the Chinese); and our version in Wales has been even less liberal than over the border. Plaid Cymru’s role has been to prop up Labour at times when there might otherwise have been a hope of dislodging them (most notoriously in 2007), and in general to advocate very similar and just-as-deleterious economic policies.

Robert Williams
Guest
Robert Williams

Eos, if you think the Chinese model is ‘free-market’ capitalism, you need to take a deep breath and think again!

Benjiman L. Angwin
Guest
Benjiman L. Angwin

Eos Pengwern, Plaid Cymru is the only party putting Cymru first, every time. Yes, I disagree economically at times, but there is simply not a pro-independence, centrist and Liberal alternative. So attacking Plaid is counter-productive towards building a Liberal as opposed to socialist, and independent Wales. When Plaid gathers strength, and it will, it will naturally move towards the centre as any strong party does when wanting to stay in power. So supporting Plaid is actually beneficial to your capitalist, pro-Welsh aims.

Red Dragon Jim
Guest
Red Dragon Jim

Well this is nonsense and nothing to do with the article.

Chinese economic policy is based on a combination of a heavyweight state sector (the relic of command and control) and participating in international captalism. In no way shape or form is it liberal economics.

Plaid Cymru in 2007 (quite a leap!) secured law making powers for Wales. What’s done is done. Nothing to do with China or free markets!

Eos Pengwern
Guest
Eos Pengwern

The point about China is simply that it only lifted itself out of poverty when its economic policies moved from state control to at least some measure of free market enterprise. It may have a way to go, but Wales has consistently moved in the opposite direction since 1997. It has everything to do with the article, because one of the reasons people despise the Welsh language is because Wales is poor, relative to all of its neighbours. A richer Wales would, I think, generate more respect for its native language and culture – especially if the wealth were spread… Read more »

Mike Edmunds (@LickMyOcelot)
Guest

Growing up in the 60/70s in Cardiff, in a community with (As far as i know) not one Welsh speaker, you won’t be surprised to learn that we felt no connection to the language whatsoever. Most of the people I grew up with were descended from either English or Irish incomers. Though my parents were born in Wales several of the my own family ancestral lines came from England and further afield. There was a certain disdain, if not open hostility, in some of the community for what they called “Welsh nanny goats” whenever they encountered someone from elsewhere who… Read more »

Eirwen Taylor
Guest
Eirwen Taylor

Da iawn Bethan, dal ati.

Richard Morse
Guest

The problem with this article is that it is rather uninformed. There is an obvious lack of knowledge of the decades long struggle to attain even the present very, inadequate and superficial rights to use the Welsh language in Welsh society. A cursory reading of resources such as:- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_Language_Society ; http://cymdeithas.cymru/what-is-cymdeithas-yr-iaith ; would benefit many of the contributions here.

It has been the fundamental policy of the English/British state to eradicate the Welsh language since the ‘Acts of Union’ in the sixteenth century https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_in_Wales_Acts_1535_and_1542#The_Acts_and_the_Welsh_language.

Historian
Guest
Historian

It really isn’t true that it has been the fundamental policy of the British state to eradicate the Welsh language since the 16th century. The link provided as evidence only includes examples from the 16th century and none of them were intended to eradicate Welsh. After all, the 16th century state also paid for the Bible to be translated into Welsh, an act that essentially saved Welsh in the long term. Even the Blue Books report, scathing of Welsh in general, saw you had teach kids who only spoke Welsh in Welsh at first if they were ever going to… Read more »

Trailorboy
Guest
Trailorboy

Seems to me that there are two potentially conflicting aims in the teaching of Welsh at school. On the one hand a key aim is to increase the number of speakers of the language and this seems to be relatively unsuccessful, if not a total failure, but many of the problematic factors here lie outside of the school gates. The other aim or aims link to the qualification side of things and it’s prestige, importance and legitimacy with respect to the perceived standard which is English. The Welsh language is always working against outside pressures to prove it’s legitimacy to… Read more »

John Jones
Guest
John Jones

No one is ever going to know whether learning Welsh as a second language in school is worthwhile until analysis is done of the people who hold Welsh essential jobs. A few years ago I asked the National survey of Wales what percentage of people who held a job described as “Welsh essential” DIDN’T have a Welsh speaking parent. Just 15%. Welsh in schools, even for pupils from English only homes in Welsh medium schools, isn’t a ticket to employment in the public sector. There is a shortage of supply of Welsh fluent employees though. The number of applicants for… Read more »

James Winston
Guest
James Winston

Let’s face it, it isn’t worthwhile beyond the romantic hopes of the less than 18% of the population. If it was, there’s be no need for a compulsory learning programme to “sustain” the language, and neither would there be a need to place public sector bodies under compulsion to only employ welsh speakers.
The issue is people aren’t put first, communities aren’t put first. The language is like that’s all wales and being welsh is about.

Angharad
Guest

At the risk of feeding a troll, may I suggest reading up about the benefits of bilingualism, exhibited by bilinguals across the world and reported in volumes of scientific literature?

Because Wales has two living languages, it is possible to become bilingual, with the right education. The chance of becoming truly bilingual in English + any other language (unless you are lucky enough to have a parent who speaks another language to you as a child) is remote.

James Winston
Guest
James Winston

Unfortunately you’re way off the mark with your understanding of bilingualism, and your assumption that outside of wales there exists nothing but monoglots. Only 18% of 3million in wales speak welsh, the figure for bilingualism for the whole UK is 39% bilingualism, which proves your point completely off the mark. Even more so when you consider some 60% of people in the whole of Europe are bilingual. Yet only 18% of 3million welsh people are. Hardly something to gloat about the benefits of bilingualism off the back of isn’t it, in fact it shows a distinct below the average amount… Read more »

Angharad
Guest

Yep, thought you were a troll. That, or you are someone who doesn’t appreciate what true bilingualism means.
Did you just make up that 39% figure? Or did you find it on some anti-immigration web site?

James Winston
Guest
James Winston

Perhaps instead of dismissing someone as a troll because they don’t fit into your mould, go and research, as I have and prove either yourself, or I wrong. It’s far too easy to dismiss someone who provides reasoned discourse on the internet as a troll, yet usually the accuser turns out to be ill informed and under educated on the subject, leaving them with no choice but to descend from mature debate into personal attacks. Take your nonsense away from this discussion as it only serves to take away from any integrity in anything you put forth. I’m unsure how… Read more »

Adlewyrchiad
Guest
Adlewyrchiad

I believe you’ve misinterpreted the statistics my friend. The figure is that 61% of the UK, as of 2014 are unable to speak a foreign language. As such 39% can (although a significant proportion of that are our European friends living and working in the UK and ethnic minority communities). Welsh is not counted as a foreign languages so that result is scuppered. Also it’s not specified at what level they can speak it. There is no way that 39% of people in the UK speak another language to a meaningful level! An excerpt from the following website.http://www.languageonthemove.com/multilingual-europe/ ‘19% of… Read more »

Cymreigiwr
Guest

One way in which the UK census is anti-Cymraeg is the fact that no information is collected about Cymraeg outside Wales itself, despite the fact that huge numbers of Welsh speakers leave Wales every year for economic reasons, and have done for centuries. You might claim to be providing reasoned discourse, yet you cherrypick dodgy statistics and are careless with the facts. By the way, the percentage of Welsh speakers in Wales is 19%, not 18%.

Bendigedig
Guest
Bendigedig

Excellent article Bethan. Really made me think.

Edeyrn
Guest
Edeyrn

Yes Bethan, just to add to Richard Morse’s worries above.

Most people in Wales are sadly uninformed of the incredibly long winded campaign for even minor improvements in Wales.

Many people of eminence/power (aristocracy and many politicians) that were born and bred here fought tooth and nail against Welsh empowerment and cultural expression

Chris Young
Guest
Chris Young

Great article. I had a very similar experience in Pontypridd in the early 80’s. No buy in from the government, no way to articulate the benefits to parents, very poor teaching and discouraged by our own teachers to bother with welsh, encouraged to learn French instead. I think the government need to provide free welsh classes in the evenings to all who wish to learn as adults who were let down by previous governments, if they are serious about this!!

DAIBOY
Guest
DAIBOY

Great article, Bethan! Not disimilar to myself, growing up in Port Talbot! Da iawn!

Davydh Trethewey (@MawKernewek)
Guest

I’m somewhat surprised by your experience of Welsh teaching, for someone your age, because it sounded to me like something typical of an earlier era and that things had improved in Wales since then, but perhaps not. I know a Cornish speaker who grew up in Cornwall, then went to a very well known and highly regarded university in England, who didn’t know that the Cornish language actually *existed at all* until he was 25. My own school history curriculum didn’t actually cover anything before 1066, and the GCSE course focused entirely on the 20th century, mainly to teach us… Read more »

Dafydd
Guest
Dafydd

and the joke is these so called “commies” weren;t even communist……..nationalist socialism hijacked by dictators can not be communism