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Why Wales is exporting people full of regret at never having learnt Welsh

20 May 2019 5 minute read
London. Image by Julius Silver from Pixabay

Jack Pulman-Slater

Wales has exported an awful lot over the centuries: we’ve churned out of coal, a lot of water has been extracted out of us and we do a good line in pop singers, sports personalities and cheese.

Since living in London and working as a Welsh tutor, I’ve noticed another one of Wales’ primary exports: the Linguistically Bereaved Welsh.

The Linguistically Bereaved Welsh are a group who left Wales in their early twenties to study or work in England or further afield and who don’t speak Welsh.

Their linguistic bereavement doesn’t come directly and necessarily from an absence of the Welsh Language. We know that you don’t have to speak Welsh to be Welsh.

Political analyst Dennis Balsom’s Three-Wales Model may now be approaching 35 years old, but it probably still holds a lot of water. The Three-Wales Model identifies three parts of Wales that make up the whole:

  • Y Fro Gymraeg: Welsh-speaking, Welsh-identifying Wales (North Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire, Gwynedd, Anglesey)
  • Welsh Wales: Non-Welsh-speaking, Welsh-identifying (Swansea, Gower and the Valleys)
  • British Wales: Non-Welsh-speaking, British-identifying Wales (South Pembrokeshire, Cardiff, Newport and the rest of the country)

Since this model was drawn up, Cardiff has become almost a microcosm of the rest of the country, as capital cities tend to do. But it still mostly holds water.

The point is that we’re quite flexible when it comes to the language and our identity. For some of us, being Welsh is inextricably linked with speaking the language, for others not speaking Welsh is as much a part of their Welsh identity as screaming at the television during the Six Nations.

But the Linguistically Bereaved Welsh in London feel very strongly that they have missed out on something. They may have missed out because they were from “British Wales” and never heard the language, or because they grew up in the pre-devolution days when Welsh wasn’t a compulsory school subject, or because they had Welsh-speaking parents who decided that English would be the language of the home.

When they were in Wales, it seems like the language must have mattered less to the identities of the Linguistically Bereaved Welsh. They were in Wales and they were Welsh. No problem.

But when these people (now adult learners of the Welsh language) landed in London, it appears they started feeling the absence of something they previously didn’t have.


How can you be Welsh in London?

I don’t know the answer to this question, some people manage by reading Nation.Cymru alone. Whilst lots of people seem to get their Cymric fix from watching rugby at the London Welsh Centre or occasionally travelling west for bank holiday weekends.

That’s completely fine. Whatever Welsh water floats your boat. But these things aren’t enough for the Linguistically Bereaved Welsh who find their way to my classroom in Covent Garden.

The Welsh people I teach often frame their not being able to speak Welsh using the language of regret: “I wish Mum and Dad had spoken Welsh to me,” “I wish I’d had a decent Welsh teacher at school”.

Exporting people full of regret isn’t good PR for Wales. Ours is a small country inside another (seemingly increasingly) small country.

What’s to be done then? Hackles often rise when we talk about language policy in Wales and we often pick a side. Cwmcarn doesn’t need a Welsh-medium school and the language only makes kids “educationally weaker” anyway!

Alternatively, not enough is being done: we need a million speakers by 2050 and as many Welsh language GCSE revision guides as we can get our hands on!

What the policy directive needed to stem the sorrowful tide of the Linguistically Bereaved Welsh is, I don’t know.

But if Wales is to export more than a few bottles of Penderyn and a small army of sad blokes and glum women in London bars staring dejectedly into their pints whilst explaining to their English colleagues after work. “Yeah, I’m Welsh, but I can’t speak the language, mind,” then something has to change.

What’s needed isn’t another policy change, but a behavioural or attitudinal one.

The Three-Wales Model shows how, irrespective of decisions and discussions bubbling away in Cardiff Bay and Cathays Park, it’s unlikely Welsh people will ever have a uniform experience of Welsh.

There are too many social, political, cultural, geographic and economic differences. What we can change is our attitude to this brute fact.

When you next spot a member of the Linguistically Bereaved Welsh apologising, excusing or contextualising their lack of Welsh language abilities, don’t console them. Congratulate them on their newly started mission to learn the language.

Recommend a tutor or a nearby evening class. Do anything but accept their dejected state. So they don’t speak Welsh (yet)? So what! It doesn’t make them any less Welsh than the next person. Remind them of that.

In the meantime, I’ll happily keep teaching those who feel they’ve “missed out”!

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