Fear of Welsh

A lot of people are afraid of the Welsh language. I think that there are a lot of complex reasons for this rather odd fear.

I have just done a whole week in the Welsh language, doing everything in the language, living in a house with fellow Welsh learners under the guidance of our tutor. I remember feeling somewhat scared about the prospect of only speaking in Welsh for a whole week as we sat around the dining room table preparing not to use English.  I was nervous of losing the comfort blanket of my first language for a whole week.

Yet, it was an enormous amount of fun. Perhaps the most important aspect of the no other languages rule for the week was not being able to ask: “What is the word for X in Welsh/ Beth ydy’r gair am X yn Cymraeg?”, not being able to use a dictionary and having to rely on finding ways to describe things with my limited Welsh vocabulary or simply using gestures. This also meant not being able to use the internet for a whole week.

The result of this single rule was to live in the Welsh language, to think in the Welsh language, to enter an entirely different world really. Instead of simply looking for the equivalent English word or expression, I  lived in Welsh, enabling a close personal relationship with the language. It was a very special and unique experience. Indeed it is one most Welsh speakers never experience, as Welsh speakers always encounter someone who can’t speak Welsh in any given week, or simply use an English word for somethign they don’t know how to express in Welsh.

It was very very mentally tiring not being able to use the vast amount of understanding of the English language I have acquired. English almost became a ‘foreign’ language, which meant that sometimes when walking in the street and overhear someone speaking English, it would sound odd and garbled as I was indeed thinking and being in Welsh.

There were a couple of occasions during the week when I would encounter fear of Welsh from English speakers. The first time was when as a group we were laughing and joking  about a Welsh sign. A man approached and asked ‘Are you lost?’ As we couldn;t speak English someone said ‘Dan ni’n iawn diolch [We’re fine thanks]’ and smiled. A smile is almost universal and I’m sure he understood that we needed no help, however he persisted ‘I don’t speak Welsh’. I made an apologetic face ‘Dan ni’n iawn, diolch, rhaid i ni siarad yn Gymraeg yn unig [We have to only speak in Welsh]’. Suddenly he raised his voice ‘ I said that I don’t speak Welsh, you are being very rude’. At which point our tutor, who was allowed to speak English, intervened to try and explain this unique circumstance and an argument proceeded. The thing is this is a fairly unique aspect of Wales and the Welsh language , in that almost every Welsh speaker can speak English too and many monoglot English speakers are troubled by the Welsh language as this man obviously was, he felt threatened by it, that he has encountered a rare situation where he was unable to communicate. The thing is in most of the rest of the world this doesn’t happen, you cannot assume a knowledge of English you encounter people who don’t speak English and you do communicate with gesture and tone of voice and broad feelings are communicated. Having said that there are Welsh speakers who don’t speak English, in Patagonia in South America, a bilingual Welsh-Spanish speaking community and indeed a few Welsh learners from non-English speaking countries. The man had an negative attitude to the Welsh language and was hostile towards it.

I experienced this again after the language immersion experience. For the first day after, i stayed predominantly in Welsh. I visited a local castle and asked for my ticket in Welsh, quite naturally, The lady at the counter responded ‘I don’t speak Welsh’ at which point i reverted to using English and asked politely for a ticket in English, however she shied back from the counter and another lady took over my transaction. Another encounter with fear of the language.

Of course as a learner of Welsh I regularly experience language fear when talking to strangers, particularly first language Welsh speakers, especially when you don’t know their attitude to a Welsh learner. It’s partly a fear of being judged on your ability and risk of appearing to be a simpleton, which in effect you are at the time, and this is coupled with all the incessant language politics we suffer on a daily basis in Wales. My week in Welsh, has helped me grow my confidence in Welsh so much, being in Welsh I don’t have the cloying memories of anxiety I experience in English. It’s like I have a different version of my personality in the Welsh language.

As English speakers, we are just incredibly lucky to be able to travel in so much of the world in our first language, so many British people, never learn another language, never placing themselves in a situation where they have to learn to use another language to communicate. I think that some of these people simply find it threatening when people use non-English languages in Britain, the phrase ‘Why don’t they speak English’ is often heard in the certain circles in English society, lobbied at the Welsh speaking community and other language communities. However, an I have learnt that being able to exist in another language is a truly wonderful experience. As a Welsh speaker, sometimes I want to experience the world in Welsh and sometimes in English. Hiding within only one language and being hostile or fearful of other languages is just a very odd desire, to want everyone else to be as similar to you as possible. As learners we now our fearful feelings are somethign to get over to leave behind, non language learners ar perhaps not ready to take a risk in a new situation and wish to remain fearful?

 

#Llangennech School

I did say I was going to write about why supporting Welsh independence wasn’t  nationalism. However I’ve constantly seen this issue flare up on my media feeds over the last few weeks. Really it’s merely a storm in a tea cup. Yet the whole furore is kind of a case study of how discussion of events becomes ugly very quickly these days, with many wild accusations flying around, even arguments about motives for appealing for calm! Both sides of the argument accuse the other side of being nationalists, whether ‘Welsh nationalist’ or ‘British nationalist’

IActually there is an interesting discussion to be had about this topic. The difficulty is that a reasoned argument is buried quite deeply beneath the froth of opinionated voices.

Briefly the situation as I see it is that there is a Welsh government policy to increase provision of education in the Welsh language and have bilingual schools as this has educational benefits. There is also the option to be educated solely in the English language in Wales too. The school on Llangennech is currently dual stream, there are two cohorts of pupils, one being educated bilingually and one in English. The local council have decided to phase out the English stream and make the school a full Welsh medium school, when the current English cohort have progressed to high school.

The complaint seems to be that those families wishing to educate their child in English will have to apply to schools a few miles outside the village and these schools may have to expand. Of course it is usual in any community to resist change that makes life more inconvenient for people in those situations. This is just local news. However it has kind of erupted into mainstream mass media.

If only we lived in a perfect world. Having education in two languages does present challenges, particularly in rural areas. The problem is that small schools are being closed due to budget cuts, with children having to travel further and further to get to school anyway. In reality the educational problems in rural areas are far greater than those faced in the more populous Llanelli area. So, when primary schools are split by medium of education depending on parental choice these distances can further increase, which is detrimental to education.

From my perspective having gone to school in Mid Wales, these Llangennech families are lucky in that they have a school on their doorstep and have the choice of alternative schools within a few miles if they want an alternative. Such things get forgotten in the heat of these arguments.

Because of the rural nature of much of Wales, sometimes dual stream high schools is the only sensible option as the next school may be 30 miles or more away. However there is an argument that dual stream schools are detrimental at a primary level (5 to 11 years old). Detrimental, because one cohort are being taught in Welsh and for children from English speaking homes language immersion is important for the children to develop skills and confidence in the Welsh language, especially where there is little or no Welsh spoken in their homes. It is also detrimental to the English cohort who will be surrounded by a language they are not being taught the skills to be  able to use that language. So, from an educational perspective ending dual stream primary schools makes sense.

The educational matter doesn’t get discussed, the process of finding solutions to challenges. Instead we have a media frenzy where one side gets accused of being anti-English and the other side accused of being anti-Welsh. Whereby people are allegedly forced to speak Welsh or forced to speak English. No-one is forcing anyone to do anything, can we not all just get along with each other and find solutions that work for everybody? It would seem not.

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What incensed me was an article in this weeks Western Mail (the supposed ‘national’ newspaper of Wales). The article reported that someone had slashed  a cars tyres in Llangennech, perhaps as a consequence of the heated discussions. However the article featured a picture of two ladies holding a Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh  Language Society) banner in support of the councils decision. The point is simply having Cymdeithas yr Iaith associated with tyre slashing, suggests that they are responsible for the tyre slashing without a shred of evidence. This false connections just inflame the debate, rather than report what is going on. The newspaper have since apologised, but the damage is already done. The ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ that the modern mass media thrive on. We live in the world where if you repeat the same lie often enough, large numbers of people who don’t dig any deeper begin to accept it as fact.  We see this sort of thing going on the mass media and in social media, all the time, its just sickening. We are living in a post-truth world.

It just seems a part of all these division the mass media seem to relish stirring up. We have the Brexit divisions, everything seems us and them, so when you are somewhere in the middle and just want a practical workable solution, your voice is discounted,  it is unsettling and just seems quite quite mad. I am neither  for or against EU membership, I am not a fluent Welsh speaker (yet), nor am I completely disconnected from the Welsh language. If you’re not binary, you somehow don’t count. Well, we all count!

It’s this debates never truly end thing. There is a tendency to make things binary by going back to first principles, whether it’s the re-awake the language debate or the EU debate. Hence so much energy is spent re-hashing old arguments that there seems very little space left for: Ok, there is a broad consensus, how do we make it work and where do we go from here? This applies both to education and Brexit.

There is evidence to suggest that children in Welsh medium education, from non-Welsh speaking homes do have a tendency to struggle. Such children should be identified and given extra support and by and large they are but some do fall through the cracks, which is where the wider community can and should help. This is what pressure should be put on, not on attacking the existence of the supposed ‘other side’. These children can be supported by the Welsh speaking community and as part of that the English speaking community can help the Welsh speaking community.

Sometimes in some circumstances, like when a child from an English speaking home doesn’t receive the support for schooling in Welsh, the best option for that child is an English medium education and that option should be available just as readily as a bilingual education. Generally in most of Wales, the nearest school is an English medium school. What is desired is the option of bilingual or English medium schooling to be accessible wherever the child lives in Wales.

It is entirely possible for everyone to work together for mutual benefit. It’s called society, where we all have the time and space to develop new ideas, increase efficiency and grow our economy. We do not have to go through deciding which side we are on and then struggle to fit in because hardly anyone   actually fits in with a rigid interpretation of that sides philosophy. What is important is the children’s education, giving them the skills to succeed in the world, not to be pawns in someone else’s pointless battle.

This is Wales, some of us speak Welsh, if you don’t like it, get over it, no-ones forcing you to stay, yet of course you are welcome to stay if you wish to!

A Sense of Achievement

Towards the end of the year, many people, like myself, reflect on the year that is drawing to it’s close. Often a question asked is what has been achieved?

Conducting this reflection myself I feel I have made substantial progress on the projects I set myself in three areas.

Firstly I had the aim to learn to speak Welsh properly. Whilst I am still a long way off fluency I have passed many milestones and have some competency of the language and feel it is a part of me now.

Secondly, I wanted to make progress in learning and practicing social skills, now that i had overcome anxiety, again i feel I have made substantial progress.

The third thing, was trying to understand why people support right-wing ideas. Whilst a somewhat vague aim, I think I have progressed here too.

I do feel a sense of achievement, a warm fuzzy glow from the realisation that I have exceeded my own expectations. Really, perhaps the main reason why as animals we do things is simply to enjoy these positive feelings.

Another thing people do at the end of the year, is travel home or spend time with their families and do different things, such as watch live TV, which I no longer normally do.

On the telly recently I watched a really interesting documentary about the Waorani tribe in Ecuador. This tribe live in the rainforests of Ecuador, living a basic existence by Western standards. One of the striking things was that the people generally seemed happier than people in Western countries. I wondered what it was that made life somehow better there. Indeed, I experienced this myself when I lived for 3 months in a camp in the forests of Madagascar, a time I was much happier than at home. I think the reason is a lot more than simply living more naturally in some wonderful forest.

It is perhaps to do with this sense of achievement. As humans we essentially do two types of thing. One type of thing is what we have to do to survive (secure food, water and shelter) and things we can do once the survival stuff is done. The non-essential things may involve home improvements, finding way of making our work easier and more efficient and other projects to feel good about being alive, to achieve this sense of achievement, sometimes this sense is heightened when what we have achieved has no effect on surviving, it is done for the pure thrill of doing it.

This men of this Woarani tribe have a ritual where they go out and catch Giant Anacondas. I can understand this, as I loved catching snakes, whilst I was in Madagascar. In the film, the men and indeed the presenter were clearly showing that they felt this sense of achievement. The question then is there a difference in the Woarani experience and Western society?

For the forest tribe, it is clear, where the lines between surviving, improving and fun are, even if many of the things they do combine these elements. It’s the same thing here in Wales, we do a similar mixture of activities, however the lines are not so clear. For example, we play computer games and gain a sense of achievement for finishing a level. Indeed games are designed to give you this sense of achievement. However, at Christmas, a family tradition is to play board games. Arguably this is more fun because it involves the social interactions with other people and in particular people you share long term relationships with.

I know from my experiences in Madagascar that a large part of my own sense of achievement sprang from living in a sealed community of a small number people, where almost all our social interactions were with each other. We were living and working together, suffering problems together, like a tropical monsoon and the river flooding and also sharing our successes. We were emotionally in the same place, most of the time. I imagine life for the Waorani is similar to this. The positivity of the shared success was bolstered because we believed that we were doing something useful. Even though some other people would argue that what we were doing wasn’t useful. The important thing is that we believed in it.

When we play a video game, or go shopping, we do enjoy some sense of achievement. However, this is often not a huge sense as we kind of know that we are not doing anything that benefits anyone else, or indeed ourselves very much. Incidentally, we perhaps enjoy Christmas shopping more as we are doing it for the people we are buying presents for. We don’t really have this big sense of having achieved anything really useful. I believe that doing something useful is a very important part of doing things in general.

I feel a sense of achievement in learning Welsh, not only as a personal accomplishment, but also because I can now contribute to the Welsh speaking community. Similarly with overcoming anxiety, I can now be more helpful to others. Also the same with understanding the right, I feel I can contribute to discussions more usefully when discussing politics. Simply having this sense of usefulness beyond a personal satisfaction is what makes  the sense of achievement feel so much bigger, so much wider.

I often write on this blog about how as a society in Britain, we are not doing well because there is a sense that all our achievements are artificial. It’s a modern curse really,there is rarely a clear link between what we do and a positive outcome. Perhaps too many of our achievements are not useful, not large, not important and this is part of the problem in our society.

The other big change that happened to me this year was taking on what people describe as my first “proper” job. It has been a really fascinating journey so far. I’ve made decisions in my role that have increased the income of the organisation that I work for. It is an organisation that I believe is doing useful things. So I should feel a big sense of achievement. However I only feel the smaller sense, like in a video game, where I receive satisfaction of getting tasks done quickly and finding more efficient ways of doing things. There is a sense that what i do isn’t real, isn’t palpable. I’m not doing my own projects, I’m doing someone elses and I am but a tiny cog in the organisation. I think this disconnect, where the good things resulting from your actions are felt distantly, elsewhere. This sense of an alienation from results affects most modern jobs, especially in offices. In contrast, when i have been doing science and solve a problem or get real results from an experiment i got the big proper sense of achievement. Whilst I am grateful to have a job and be earning a little money above basic need, I feel I should really be getting back to science as soon as I can, even if that means a smaller income.

I think we all want to have moments of feeling a real sense of achievement and it is often better to do those things within our community, with people we interrelate with and share a commonality.

So, this is what I don’t get about, the right and the whole Brexit thing. Across the spectrum of mainstream political thought, is the idea, that most of us relate to, is the idea that we should all contribute to our community, our society. In particular those with more resources should help those who are less able. Like how in the Woarani tribe, when the young men go out to hunt and the old stay in the village to look after the children, similarly we should all have roles in our communities. The right-wing idea that the market, or individual people and organisations should fulfill these roles, by creating wealth, that is then spent charitably, rather than the state is completely understandable, it is one way of getting to this good society that the Western world has struggled to achieve. However, the modern political right in the UK have abandoned the whole community idea, instead to serve a subset of society, or people like ‘us’, people who are conservatives. I just don’t get this and it makes me angry, it’s just so divisive and pits sections of our society against each other, when we should all be working for the good of our communities. I don’t understand why right wing people are not more angry with ‘their’ politicians for dividing society. How can you gain a sense of achievement from making things worse, it’s below the neutrality of a video game, it should be guilt. It is simply harder to gain a full sense of achievement when all you are doing is making a worsening situation just that little bit less bad.

I appreciate that we don’t live in local communities anymore, that we live in our various globally connected niches. However, local communities, where at least geography is shared is so important. It’s why I associate with the Welsh, simply as the people who live in Wales, rather than some weird racial/ religious identity. I think as humanity, we lose a sense of community at our peril. A sense of achievement is greater than hatred of another lot of people.