At this year’s Languages Live Show in London I was interviewed by travel correspondent Simon Calder for a BBC World Service programme on monolinguals and polyglots. Monolinguals are people who only speak one language, bilinguals are those who can speak 2 and polyglots are people who speak many. There are lots of high profile polyglots such as Alex Rawlings; being able to converse with speakers of over 10 different languages is undoubtedly a skill. Whilst people with the linguistic ability of Alex Rawlings are quite rare, people who are able to speak 2 languages are not. It’s almost impossible to count, but conservative estimates reckon that over half of the world’s population is able to use at least two languages fluently.
I’m not a polyglot by any stretch of the imagination, but I have seen lots of monolingual culture and attitudes as a language teacher. One of the things I discussed with Simon Calder was the prevailing attitude in Britain that we don’t need to speak another language. Why make the effort when the world seems increasingly to be turning to English? This is a valid question- think about the recent news reports from the Netherlands about the encroaching English-language takeover of Dutch universities.
But having to bother with other languages isn’t about what’s happening “over there in Europe”. This issue is particularly relevant to the position of Welsh: why should we bother teaching, learning and continuing to speak this minority language? It’s not just the world that speaks English, English is also the language of the UK. Think of the attention the mendacious and repugnant wind-up merchant Katie Hopkins recently attracted with her comments about the place of Welsh in the Welsh education system.
Language policy at government level is one issue, but I want to think about how English monolingual culture and mindset might find its way into the Welsh language classroom. Monolingual culture isn’t just about how we look out at the world, but it also affects how we look at one our own country.
If you only speak one language then that language is what language means. For the monolingual English speaker, the word ‘language’ and ‘English’ are completely synonymous. The distinction between the human faculty of language and the medium through which this can be expressed is completely collapsed. When this distinction is collapsed, it can make learning a second language as an adult very difficult because your capacity for language is being mediated by English. If you are learning a language that has a grammatical concept that your first language doesn’t have, you reach a stumbling block. Think about word order in German and Dutch, the absence of the words ‘the’ and ‘a’ in lots of Slavic languages, the apparent absence of grammatical tense in Mandarin or the concept of grammatical gender in French. These things often just don’t make sense to people who have little experience with other languages.
Welsh has a few such grammatical stumbling blocks for its monolingual English-speaking learners, such as its mutations system, the words for YES and NO and the extremely pliant forms of the verb ‘to be’. I often have learners express surprise that borders on disgust when we introduce the mutations system: “what do you mean the first letter changes?”, “How is CH like C?”.
Nick Yeo’s video ‘Seven controversial tips to help you learn Welsh’ recently generated a lot of attention amongst learners in the social media world. He starts off with by saying ‘Speaking Welsh incorrectly is more important than not speaking Welsh at all’. Nothing controversial so far. This is an encouraging and supportive view that those of us working in adult education subscribe to fully: no language teacher should expect completely grammatically correct utterances at all times.
A nyelv az egyetlen, amit rosszul is érdemes tudni
The Polyglots out there would also agree with Nick. Kató Lomb was a famous Hungarian polyglot who said ‘Language is the only thing worth knowing even poorly’ . She’s spot on. When you order a coffee in Hungarian even though you’ve message up the word-order, or you buy a train ticket in Dutch and you just didn’t get those fantastic voiced growling Gs correct is just doesn’t matter. Did you say ‘y cath’ instead of y gath’ to your neighbour? No matter. The point is that you did it and that you were understood. You got the coffee you wanted and can relax in the beautiful Central Cafe in Budapest, or you got the ticket to Amsterdam Amstel and not the Hague and you’ve resolved the dispute about which local animal has been defecating on your lawn.
Jyst dweud “ie” a “na
However, as a language teacher, I can’t agree with the idea that we should wholesale reject the idea of worrying about learning certain grammatical concepts or rules that don’t exist in our first language. We can’t just say to ourselves “In English, we have a word for ‘yes’ and a word for ‘no’ so this is what I’ll do in Welsh”. Nick Yeo goes through a list of the classic things that frustrate the adult learner of Welsh: mutations, answering Yes/No and formal versus informal language. ‘Jyst dweud “ie” a “na” (just say “ie” a “na”) he recommends instead of struggling with Welsh’s call and response question system. Just call everyone ‘ti’ and use informal language is another tip. This pick-n-mix approach will definitely make learning Welsh easier. If something isn’t like English, don’t worry, just try and squeeze some Welsh around an English frame and be done with it.
I want more and more people to learn and enjoy learning Welsh. We need more people to be interested in the fact that there are two languages in Wales and to access the linguistic, cognitive, cultural and economic benefits that come from being able to speak both English and Welsh. Nick Yeo’s encouraging video has its heart in the right place, but his grammatical pep talk risks becoming an ingredient for a Hopkins’ next fruitcake. It contributes to the sort of ignorance Rod Liddle displayed when he commented that the Welsh would prefer to rename the Severn Bridge ‘something indecipherable with no real vowels, such as Ysgythysgymlngwchgwch Bryggy’. By ‘real vowels’ he means the English vowels “A, E, I O, U”. His bridge name suggestion actually includes 8 vowels, but unfortunately ‘mln’ isn’t a possible end for a syllable in Welsh so his fab bridge name suggestion wouldn’t work. The idea being expressed here is that Welsh is weird; it’s a language with such exhibitionist eccentricities that it’s impossible. It’s an exclusive and absurd novelty. English isn’t just the language of the United Kingdom, English is language. Welsh doesn’t and shouldn’t have a place. Nick Yeo’s attempt to encourage by inviting learners not to bother with the more difficult aspects of the language feeds directly into the monolingual mindset that language is English and English is language.
Languages are incredibly varied and the way concepts are expressed differ radically around the world. This is what makes learning another language such a joy! It’s a different way of using our defining and amazing human faculty of language. It’s a different way of thinking. The language we are learning is a language, it has conventions and rules. If it didn’t it wouldn’t be another language. As learners of another language, we are allowed to make mistakes- we need to make mistakes in order to learn. But our learning won’t be helped by deciding not to bother with a more difficult aspect of the language on the basis that it doesn’t match what happens in English. Language is the human capacity for symbolic communication, English just happens to be one of the ways we can use this.