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.


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.


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.


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.


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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