Learning Welsh in Cambodia…

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I am raising my three children in Welsh. I am a learner and so for me, parenting in the Welsh language has been a conscious decision. It is an adventure and a challenge, as well as an act of rebellion.

I was born in Derby, or as I like to think of it, the Patagonia of the English Midlands. Its a little known fact that Derby is rife with Welsh learners. They are inspired I assume, by their charismatic cult leader Jonathan Simcock (if you listen to Radio Cymru you will be familiar with Jonathan who phones in on a regular basis).

Growing up I was totally unaware of this phenomena, and indeed in all honesty of the fact even that some people in Wales genuinely spoke Welsh (it was the language of signs on the M4 on our way to Gower, hopeslessly impractical and somewhat exotic looking).

I started learning Welsh in Cambodia, having fallen in love with a boy from Bridgend whilst volunteering there. People ask me what motivated me to learn, and the original reason is simple. I was in love. The object of my affection had learned Welsh as a teenager, and it was clear to me that the language had embedded itself very deep within his soul. When we met he was still learning, and would add newly acquired words to a minutely handwritten list of vocabulary. He collected Welsh words like each one was a new treasure, hoarding them, getting them out periodically to memorise. I wanted to learn and understand what it was he cherished so much about this language, it was a part of him and he wanted to share it with me. When I opened my heart to that boy from Bridgend with his pocket English-Welsh dictionary, the Welsh language just kind of flooded in too.

So I set about learning. By this stage Bridgend Boy was back in the UK (I have a habit of falling for people who are due to leave the country any minute) but as it happened, Bridgend Boy’s dad was also learning Welsh. And so in those early days he and I struck up a slightly stilted email correspondence, he in Bridgend, me in Cambodia. I did my best to describe life living in Phnom Penh, and often I just made stuff up. You have to go with the vocabulary you have I find.

I moved to Wales about ten years ago via a brief stop-over for a year working near Peterbrough (I didn’t find many Welsh speakers in Lincolnshire, so it got a lot easier once I moved to Cardiff). Bridgend Boy’s father posted me the job section of the Western Mail each week until I got a job here. And thus I was imported, I was a keeper. I think he had a feeling I would be.

Years later, I have since married Bridgend Boy and we have three children aged 6, 4 and 1. In Brecon the other day someone asked me (upon hearing me speak Welsh to my baby) ‘are you trying to teach her Welsh?’ It seemed like an odd way to put it. I explained that we are bringing her up in Welsh, which raised an eyebrow when it came to light that this is not my first language. Why hadn’t I just left it up to my husband I was asked, to speak Welsh to the children?

I’ve mostly only ever spoken Welsh with them. I didn’t speak any English at all with the boys for the first three years or so, because I knew if I mixed, I might drift towards English. I wanted Welsh to be our primary shared language and it is. They can both speak English now too, but it’s still noticeably their second language and they speak it with a cute kind of Welsh sentence structure (think Yoda). That’s fine. They will reach fluency in English when they need to, it is inevitable, and a good thing obviously. As a wise woman once said (she was researching langauge development in bilingual children and I met her on a train to Bangor) ‘in Wales, learning English is like catching a cold, you don’t need to try, you just pick it up’).

One of the reasons I have chosen to raise my children in my second language is that I knew this would give them a much better chance of being fluent in Welsh from an early age. Welsh is the minorty language in Penarth where we live, and so I knew for them to grow up as first language Welsh speakers, it would help if I spoke it too. Plus, somehow it would have felt weird to do anything else. I was already speaking Welsh with all the significant babies and children in my life (nephews and neices on Brigend boy’s side of the family) and so to me, baby talk came more naturally in Welsh.

Since then, admittedly, the linguistc challenges of parenting in Welsh have increased. My six year old does a very good line in relentless science based questions, so my vocabulary is pushed to the absolute limit, especially on physics which is not exactly my strong suit in any language. Navigating such topics as ‘how exactly did the baby get into your tummy to begin with’ and similar in Welsh is also a non-stop voyage of discovery and hilarity for everyone involved.

Lately, English has been established as the language of exasperation, the language I resort to when pushed to the limit of my patience (it was described to me as ‘the language of panic’ recently by a dad also doing the second language parenting thing). But English is also for us the language of being sardonic, of sharing a wry joke. It is the language of The Cat in The Hat and The Lorax too, for there are things that simply cannot and should not be translated and Dr Suess is one of them.

Some things will always bring me unstuck. It is unhelpful in my opinion, that the Welsh word ‘ymennydd’ (brain) is so similar to ‘amynedd’ (patience), which leaves me telling my children that their failure to put their shoes on without being asked a hundred times is making me lose my mind…

Every now and again one or other of my two eldest asks me whether it is true I only spoke English growing up. They seem to regard this as far-fetched at best, and at worst as a great misfortune in my life. Its regarded with the same scepticism as our assertion that no, no matter how many times they check, their sister is NEVER going to grow a penis…. (I overheard them discussing this again the other day and they still regard it as a question of when, rather than if…)

I think part of me had expected by now, for one or other of them to say ‘look Mam, thanks for the effort but its really just easier if you speak English…’ but they haven’t. If they pick a book at bedtime that happens to be in English they still prefer me to translate it. I’ll happily adlib my way through an on-the-spot English to Welsh translation of ‘Thomas the Tank and the Children’s Party’, but I draw the line at ‘The Worlds 100 Most Amazing Bridges’ or one of their many compendiums of dinosaur taxonomy…

Of course we are learning together, which is amazing. My eldest teaches me new words with relative frequency, and we often look things up together. I don’t think you ever truly stop learning a language, any language, whether it’s your first, second or fifth.

But certain things do frustrate me. I admit that at times I feel disappointed by people who have grown up in Wales, been schooled in Welsh and now aren’t speaking it with their children. I get that they feel rusty, and lacking in confidence, and that it’s not as natural to them as speaking English. But it’s worth overcoming that. Because if we don’t make more of a collective effort, Welsh isn’t going to make it.

Really.

It’s true that more children are being schooled in Welsh (although not enough) but that isn’t sufficient. Not if we don’t succeed in supporting young people to actually use their Welsh, and to feel passionate about the need to speak it with their own children. All children need an education that emphasises the importance of being able to express themselves, to articulate an argument and to think for themselves, whatever language they are learning in, rather than just learning facts by rote in order to pass standardised tests. Children need to hear and be able to use Welsh every day in the communities in which they live. And they need to know that after they have finished their education through the medium of Welsh, there will be jobs for them in which they will have the opportunity to use their Welsh language skills.

I’m not convinced that the Welsh Government has a clear plan for making any of this happen.

So I do regard parenting in Welsh as an act of rebellion, and as a political action. I am actively intervening to increase the likelihood that my family contributes to the net Welsh spoken in the future. (Is it just me, or have you noticed a pattern that Welsh speaking families on average have more children?!)

I also encourage my children to think about and discuss the politics of the Welsh language. When they ask why shops in Penarth generally have mono-lingual English signs outside (with some great exceptions), we talk about the perception and prominence of Welsh, and how even by just speaking Welsh in town they are helping to raise the profile. They like the idea that by speaking Welsh in public, they are doing something positive, and making it more likely that some of those signs will in time be bilingual.

A friend told me something recently that left me highly amused and oddly proud. She reported that her son, friend to my eldest, had told her that I actually can’t speak English. He’s attending the same school as my son, and we are a Welsh speaking household, so I don’t think I ever have spoken English with him. Why would I? (We haven’t had cause to read Dr Suess together, and I’m not responsible on a regular basis for whether or not he gets his shoes on). I thought this was absolutely hilarious, and am doing nothing to counter the myth. It is totally normal to speak Welsh in Wales, and when the boys’ friends come to our house, that’s what we do.

I also know that there are people who speak English to each other, to whom I only ever speak Welsh. This is a learner thing partly – if you know someone speaks Welsh, then you want to practise with them. But I also admit that I am making a point. I think it sends a really weird message to our children if we are choosing for them to be schooled in Welsh, and then all hang out by the school gate speaking English even though we can speak Welsh. What does that tell them about the value of the language they are spending all day learning? (And what would be the point of having spent so long with my copy of ‘Welcome to Welsh’ by Heini Gruffudd? Incidentally, if you are learning, and you haven’t bought this book, then you must.)

So if you do anything after you have read this, just speak some Welsh.

Whatever Welsh you have (if you just know ‘diolch’ then vow to always say this every time rather than ‘thanks’ when in Wales). If you are fluent, then think of the learners in your life and promise to speak more Welsh with them even if they claim to be mortally embarassed and start trying to avoid you. Stick at it. You could be the difference it takes to get them past that first really difficult threshold, the bit where you know lots but you can’t string it together and are absolutely terrified that a real life Welsh speaker might try to have a conversation with you.

You might be someone’s Bridgend Boy (or Girl) or you might just be able to give some local kids a reason to keep up their Welsh after they leave school. Whatever it is, do it, do it tomorrow and do it in Welsh. I haven’t looked back. And neither will you.

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6 thoughts on “Learning Welsh in Cambodia…

  1. Diolch yn fawr! I love this article and am really enjoying all your others.
    Someone linked me to you from my post about falling in love with a Carmarthen Boy and starting to learn Welsh. https://medium.com/@kelly.doonan/my-digital-romance-an-old-fashioned-love-story-8258431d8a7e

    You’re right; when you love a Welsh speaker the Welsh language floods in too. It’s such a huge part of his identity. I’m enjoying learning and seeing the language open up to me, and enjoying sharing it with my daughter. Although we haven’t got to the ji-binc issue yet….
    It’s also helping me to learn more about Welsh history, politics and identity. And I’m realising how scandalously little I really know, or have ever had the chance to learn, about Wales.

    An diolch for the book tip. I’m using the Say Something in Welsh app at the mo so will invest in the book too.
    Hwyl fawr
    Kelly

    Like

    1. Hi Kelly, just read your post on digital romance – hyfryd! Think it was my husband Gareth who linked you to my articles, hope some of the stuff on dysgu Cymraeg is useful! Good luck with learning, and with long distance. Gareth and I had a long distance relationship to begin with, and the most high tech it got was text and email (thirteen years ago now!) sounds easier now!
      Hwyl fawr a phob lwc
      Sandy

      Like

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