For English, click on the English flag

In countries with more than one official or main language, we have to make choices about our language use when accessing services with some kind of digital interface. Most ATMs in Wales will compel you to make a choice between Welsh and English. Lloyds, perhaps, rather aggressively, asks you whether you’d like make a transaction in Welsh, forcing those who would like English to answer “no thanks” or Welsh speakers to answer hoffwn I would. It’s hoped that soon we won’t have to make these choices so often, partly because it doesn’t look like there’ll be any banks or ATMS left in Wales soon anyway, but also because technology will remember our initial choice on apps, ATMS and websites and so we won’t have to make a declaration every time we interact electronically with an institution.

Some multilingual organizations have multiple social media pages for their different linguistic customers and so delete the need for language selection. Estonian customers complain about cancelled flights to the airline’s Estonian Facebook page, whilst Lithuanian customers vent their frustration or like pictures of teddy bears looking out of plane windows via the airline’s Lithuanian social media mouthpiece.

But what happens when an organization decides to have one website or one social media channel and try to please all its customers at the same time? In bilingual output like Facebook pages and Twitter, choices still have to be made at some level. Which language to put first? How to signal the start of a different language in the same post? How to signal language choices in links?

Last year the people of Wales waved goodbye and/or celebrated the end of Arriva Trains Wales’ presence in Wales. A new not-for-profit transport company is now running the railroad show in Wales. Great news! What isn’t great is their social media output. It’s not the content that’s the problem (it’s as dull as anything else any other transport company generates), it’s their strange use of symbols for language choices

Screenshot 2019-05-05 at 12.57.58 - Edited.png
Facebook post from Transport for Wales, 1st May 1019

All their posts that contain links to Welsh and English versions of web pages are prefixed by either an English flag or a Welsh flag. The Saint George’s cross if you want to read it in English and y ddraig goch if you want to read the content in Welsh.

This might seem like something and nothing, but the use of national flags for language choice is deeply problematic. The Welsh Language Commissioner’s official guidance is against their use altogether. What do national flags signify? They denote a nation, country or people. The red cross denotes England, it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, denote English. English is spoken natively by an incredible number of people all over the world in many different countries- we can’t count them all because that would be impossible, but conservative estimates (1) are at somewhere between 360-400 million speakers. Would it make sense for people in Ireland, New Zealand, Malta, Hong Kong or South Africa to select a St George’s cross to read something in English? English doesn’t belong to England- it may have originated from there, but now the world owns it. And it’s exactly the same for other languages. Which flag would you pick for the following languages?

  1. Spanish: spoken in (to name but a few) the Philippines, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba.
  2. Portuguese: spoken in natively or by a significant number in (to name but a few) Brazil, Macau, São Tomé and Príncipe,
  3. French: spoken in (to name by a few) Canada, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Switzerland
  4. German: spoken in Austria & Switzerland

But what about the particular case of Wales. What’s the problem here? For lots of people in Wales, English is their first and only language. But these monolingual English speakers are still Welsh and they are still represented by Wales’ flag. The Welsh flag, and any other Welsh thing from lovespoons and Eisteddfodau to rugby matches and lava bread, belong to everyone, whether you had the privilege to grow up in a bilingual environment or not. There’s something simply accidentally nasty about using these flags. They don’t, I believe, signal two benign linguistic options, they are forcing the user to make a declaration: “click here if you can speak Welsh” or “click here if you’re not Welsh”.

What’s the way out then? How should Transport for Wales represent these languages without being exclusive or, possibly offensive? It’s easy, what about a simple CY for Welsh and EN for English. Or perhaps just put both without any heralding or announcing symbol before them and just let people read the ones they want! Whatever we choose to do with language choices, we absolutely must not tie these choices to national or cultural identity through the use of symbols such as flags.

  1. Crystal, David (2006). “Chapter 9: English worldwide”. In Denison, David; Hogg, Richard M. (eds.). A History of the English language. Cambridge University Press. pp. 420–439. ISBN 978-0-511-16893-2.


Here’s a table of Wenglish words with translation into English and proper Welsh:

English Wenglish Welsh
to enjoy joio mwynhau
to like licio hoffi
to share siario rhannu
to drive dreifio gyrru
to smoke smocio ysmygu
to use iwsio defnyddio
to find ffeindio dod o hyd i

Languages always borrow words from other languages. This is simply what happens in a globalised world in which we can hear and see other languages. English has borrowed an awful lot of words from other languages (from the word moped nicked from Swedish, to Hindi giving us the words shampoo and bungalow, to Dutch’s gifts of aloof, bluff, dam, yacht, smelt, snack, to the pronoun they form Icelandic and the thousands of French loanwords) as well as stealing lots of phrases (e.g. de facto, en route). Now that English is a behemoth linguistic force majeure, it’s other languages that are borrowing things from English and not the other way round. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that a minority language like Welsh is adopting words from the super-dominant language in the British Isles. English speakers are seemingly fascinated by phrases and words from their language that get co-opted into other languages. Radio Sweden, a national English-medium broadcast service in Sweden, recently did a feature of the phenomenon of the importing of English swear words into Swedish.

Whilst lots of my adult learners laugh at words like smocio (ysmygu, to smoke) or smwddio (to iron), I’ve never encountered a learner who’s irritated at the use of “Wenglish” (which I’m now going to put in quotation marks from now on). This learner on Twitter was irritated. His call for linguistic purism criticised first language speakers for using “Wenglish” over Welsh words. It sparked a small Cymric Twitter storm as well as this article on the BBC’s Welsh language service, BBC Cymru Fyw.

The complaining learner on Twitter prefers to use what he calls “actual Welsh words”. The response from lots of native speakers has been that when they say dreifio instead of gyrru they are in fact using a Welsh word. It’s not just that fluent speakers see these words as actually being Welsh ones- rather, it’s that they are linguistically adapted when they are imported into Welsh. Siario is a linguistically Welsh word. These words aren’t just imported unchanged into Welsh. They are adapted to suit Welsh orthographic conventions (e.g. using f for “v”) and are pronounced according to the phonological rules of Welsh. This means they are said in a way that, for example, obeys Welsh’s stress placement rule. For example, proffesiynol (professional) has stress on the penultimate syllable, whereas the word in English has stress on the second syllable. Welsh doesn’t have a vowel reduction rule in unstressed syllables like most British varieties of English. This rule in English means we say “problem” as “problum” and not “problemme” and “Adam” as “Adum”. The vowel in the unstressed syllable is called schwa and is the most common sound in the English language. But in Welsh we keep the vowels’ original quality even in unstressed syllables, meaning that problem is pronounced as “problemme”. Welsh also has a tendency for word-final voicing. Lots of sounds can be put into pairs in which the only thing distinguishing the two sounds is whether it’s voiced or voiceless, compare “v” with “f” or “d” with “t” in English. Welsh’s preference for word-final voicing means that words like “cricket” and “basket” are rendered in Welsh with voiced consonants at the end: criced, basged.

When verbs are imported into Welsh, they also take Welsh inflexions (aka word-endings). It’s very common in North Wales for people to say licio for to like. -io is a common verbal ending in Welsh. The word like hasn’t just been wholesale imported into the language. Dw i’n like dancing isn’t a permissible sentence in Welsh: dw i’n licio dawnsio is though. The verb licio would also change its ending when we convert it into the conditional tense: Liciet ti goffi? (Would you like coffee?). Last week I was at a wedding in south east England and someone in response to my saying I was a Welsh tutor said “dim parcio!” and started laughing. Perhaps he’d just availed himself too readily of the free booze, but he seemed to genuinely find that phrase entertaining. A have a friend who finds cwstard funny (even though the English word is actually pilfered from the French word croustade) It’s a strange kind of mentality this. But it’s not too far removed from the way the Twitter learner calls out “Wenglish”. Both mentalities seem to think that Welsh should have its own words or different words from English. Welsh is somehow lessened by importing words from English. It becomes less of a language in these people’s eyes and more of a “patois” or dialect of English.

It’s not just about defending the use of these words by fluent speakers, or indeed by anyone who chooses consciously or otherwise to use them. There’s perhaps also a pedagogical consideration. Should we also be using these words more in Welsh second language education in schools, universities and adult courses? Are tutors guilty of presenting “pure Welsh” vocabulary when learners may not hear these words so frequently outside of the classroom environment? Are tutors linguistic hypocrites for teaching gyrru and hoffi, but then saying sa i’n licio dreifio i Aberystwyth (I don’t like driving to Aberystwyth) instead of the more standard dw i ddim yn hoffi gyrru i Aberystwyth? Perhaps the word hoffi is actually on the way out and we should just teach people licio instead? Whatever we decide, it seems tutors might also be guilty of the same kind of linguistic snobbery displayed by the Twitter learner.

No-one is bothered about the hundreds of thousands of loanwords in English, probably because most of them were borrowed hundreds of years ago. Welsh’s taking words from English is just an inevitability. It’s just what languages do. It’s not to do with the laziness of native speakers and it’s not about choosing non-Welsh words over linguistically indigenous ones. These loanwords’ gradual incorporation into Welsh is an example of Linguistic change happening in real time. It should be interesting to observe and, if we want, participate in it.

Perhaps we need to present “Wenglish” words as Welsh words and through guiding our learners through correct pronunciation offer them an insight into how these loanwords have become part of modern spoken Welsh.

There’s definitely no point in despairing of these words. They exist. Jyst relacswch!

half of twenty less than five times twenty

What’s “42” in Welsh?

There are two options:

Pedwar deg dau or dau a deugain

Welsh has two counting systems. One is decimal (i.e. centred on a base of tens) and the other is vigesimal (i.e. centred on a base of twenties). When we talk about a “base of tens” what we mean is that the system pivots around 10 when we form numbers above 10. In English, we have such a decimal system. “Seventy” is “7 lots of ten” (“-ty” from the Old English tig meaning ten). But lots of languages don’t form their numbers in reference to 10. In our Welsh example,  Pedwar deg dau is the decimal version, literally “four ten two”. Dau a deugain is the vigesimal version, literally “two  two-twenty”.

Perhaps somewhat apocryphally, Welsh has ended up with two number systems because Patagonian Welsh speakers in Argentina created a decimal system for use in their Welsh medium schools and this number system was then imported across the Atlantic. This leads to a bit of a muddled situation in Wales, which often confuses learners, where there are two versions of all numbers between 11-99. We tend to use these different systems in different contexts. So we talk about someone being pedwar ugain for age (literally “four twenty” for 80) and driving trigain miles (literally “three twenty” for 60), but we’re more likely to talk about there being dau ddeg (“two ten”, 20) chairs or other things we’re counting. Weights, measurements, money, time and ages are still mostly referred to using the “old” (i.e. vigesimal) system. However, this is rapidly changing as more and more adult learners become part of the Welsh language community and as school children just see the old numbers as exactly that: old.

The ancient Babylonians apparently had a sexigesimal number system (with a base of 60), well, they sort of did. That’s objectively weird. Welsh’s number system being vigesimal based isn’t weird. Loads of languages have a system which is (at least in part) based on this: French, Basque, Inuit languages to name but a few. What’s perhaps intriguing about Welsh’s “old” system is that’s it’s slightly mixed. 15 is an important pivot sometimes:

16 Un ar bymtheg One on fifteen
19 Pedwar ar bymtheg Four on fifteen
35 Pymtheg ar hugain Fifteen on twenty

The old system is full of inconsistencies. The pattern in the teens is, for example, broken by the words pymtheg for 15 and deunaw for 18 (“two nine”). If 14 is pedwar ar ddeg (“four on ten”), then why isn’t 15 just pump ar ddeg (“five on ten”)? And why not have 18 as wyth ar ddeg (“eight on ten”)?

The system isn’t really strictly about a base of 20 as opposed to 10 either- sometimes it’s both. 90 is deg a phedwair ugain (“ten and four twenty”). Danish is a language that makes good use of the idea of using 20 as the base. Danish is a (largely) vigesimal system, but interestingly the 20 bit has been lost slightly. Sindstyve is the part of Danish numbers meaning x20 which isn’t really pronounced in modern spoken Danish anymore. So tredsindtyve for 60 is just pronounced tres nowadays.

Here are some numbers in Danish that make the Welsh system look completely boring.

50 halvtreds [(3-½) x 20] ~“half of 20 less than 3 times twenty”
60 tres [3 x 20] ~“3 times twenty”
70 halvfjerds [(4-½) x 20] ~“half of twenty less than four times twenty”
80 firs [4 x 20] ~“four times twenty”
90 halvfems [(5-½) x 20] ~“half of twenty less than five times twenty”

“Half of twenty less than five times twenty” is much more exciting than Welsh’s version of 90. Instead of trying to crowbar the vigesimal theme throughout, Welsh just opts for “ten and four twenties” for 90 and combines a decimal and a vigesimal system, much like French. Danish, however, is loyal to the vigesimal cause and renders 10 by talking about it as half twenty.

If you only speak English and you’re learning a vigesimal number system, then this can cause a headache. But this headache is compounded by the fact that there are actually two different number systems to learn in Welsh. Another thing that causes my learners and tutees to despair is feminine number forms (dwy gath (two cats) but dau gi (two dogs). Yet another trauma is the placement of the noun in quantified noun phrases, e.g. dwy gath ar hugain (“two cat on twenty” for 22 cats) and pedair punt a deugain (“four pound on two twenty” for £44). Ordinal numbers seem to cause even more distress: y bedwaredd ar bymtheg a phedwar ugain  (“the fourth on fifteen and four twenty” for 99th). The learners that make the most progress are always those who look at this kind of linguistic irregularity and think “there’s a challenge!”. Human languages have created a seemingly infinite number of interesting and different systems for things like numbers. Getting our heads around something like Danish or Welsh numbers might be tricky, but it’s a good bit of linguistic legwork and a means of realising our linguistic potential. English numbers are so boring! We can do so much better!

Check out my resource page on the numbers to find out more.

The elephant in the classroom

At the end of March, I met with other City Lit language tutors to discuss how we teach pronunciation to our learners. Pronunciation was described as the elephant in the language classroom. It’s a problem from the outset for every single learner and yet it’s difficult to sort it out. Worst of all is trying to sort it out with advanced learners who might speak with pristine grammar, but with pronunciation that is at times hard to understand. Pronunciation is difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s comprised of many different elements: the way you say individual sounds, intonation (variations in the pitch of voice), rhythm (the variation in stress over syllables and words) to name just a few. Whilst there’s the issue of what element of pronunciation we ought to focus on in class, there’s also the added problem of learners having to produce sounds they don’t have in their own language(s).  

Drilling is the most common phenomenon. The teacher stands at the front and blasts you with a load of sounds which are either completely new or if they aren’t new then they’re in combinations that your own language doesn’t allow (e.g. <gwl> in Welsh or strč prst skrz krk in Czech/Slovak). There’s also the additional problem of trying to hear the difference between sounds which your own language doesn’t count as different. If you’ve ever tried to learn Mandarin you’ll immediately think of those seemingly impossible sounds that are represented in Pinyin as: z, zh, j, c, ch and q. They’re all affricates, i.e. scratchy sounds produced with turbulence in the mouth. But for an English speaker, the types of phonetic differences that are so obvious to a Mandarin speaker just can’t be heard. Drilling isn’t going to help you understand the differences between these two sounds. You need some metalinguistic knowledge- you need to be introduced to the phonetic underpinnings of sounds in order to understand the differences. Doing so will enable you to hear the differences and then to start producing the sounds yourself.

Phonetics is the scientific study of the sounds of human language. Trained phoneticians can produce any sound that occurs in any language by consulting their nifty chart. So how can we use phonetics to give our language learners insight about the sounds they are trying to produce. I’m not talking about blinding them with phonetic labels and terms for the sake of it, but using phonetics in such a way that it has a practical application in a language learning environment. With my beginner learners, I’m currently trying vowel quadrilaterals as a way of improving the pronunciation of vowels. 

Vowel quadrilaterals

Vowels are incredibly slippery things and always so difficult for learners to get their heads around. The problem is worse for speakers of lots of British varieties of English because over 70% of vowel sounds in English end up being pronounced as the vowel schwa /ə/. This is the vowel at the start of the word ago or at the end of the name Adam. Vowels in unstressed syllables in English become this vowel. This is “good English” and students on TEFL and English as second languages courses are introduced to this rule as a way of improving their pronunciation.

ɑ ɵ ɛ ɪ œ ɶ ø

Daniel Jones was a 20th-century phonetician who came up with the idea of “cardinal vowels”. These are a bit like reference vowels with which we can compare and contrast vowels of the languages of the world. The cardinal vowels are arranged on a grid formation shown below. Vowels on the right of a pair are rounded (i.e. lips pursed into a circle- think French and Swedish vowels or how someone from Cardiff might say “ear”), whilst vowels on the left of the pairs are unrounded (i.e. pronounced with spread lips). There are two axes: height (running vertically) and frontness/backness (running laterally). 

Cardinal vowels on a vowel chart

Height is referring to jaw height, i.e. how open the mouth is when the vowel is pronounced. So /ɑ/ is said with a gaping at-the-dentist style mouth, whereas /u/ is made with a very narrow mouth opening. Fronted means that the tongue is further forward (or at least that’s one definition- really there’s also just something about /i, e/ and the rest of the front ones that just sounds more “front” than the ones at the back. Whilst the quality of the vowel is determined by height and frontness, there’s also the dimension of roundness. This means we can have two vowels with exactly the same height and frontness, but which differ as one is rounded and one is unrounded. For example, if you were struggling to say the Swedish vowel written as ö in the word nöt (nut), you could aim for the unrounded cardinal vowel /e/ and then round your lips to make the rounded /ø/ sound.

Welsh Vowel Quad

Vowel quad Cymraeg

A work in progress! Southern Welsh vowels (N.b. these aren’t IPA symbols)

This quadrilateral uses the actual letters of Welsh instead of phonetic symbols, but this doesn’t matter so much for teaching a phonemic (“phonetic”) language like Welsh where there is a(n almost) one-to-one correspondence between a letter or letter chain (called a grapheme) and a sound (called a phoneme).

A graph like this can be useful to help learners visualize the differences between the sounds they are trying to produce. It also goes beyond simple pronunciation instructions such as “if you see a circumflex over a vowel then it’s just a long version of that vowel”. This rule doesn’t quite cut it. and ŵ aren’t really just long and short versions of each other. w, e.g. in the word cwm (valley), sounds like the vowel in the word cup when said by a northern English speaker so that it rhymes with put, wheres the ŵ has a different quality. ŵ is produced slightly higher, with the mouth more closed and the tongue slightly further back.

One colleague described how the problem of pronunciation is amplified when teaching British learners as opposed to learners from other countries. My colleague pointed out the eager readiness of French people to correct learners’ pronunciation, however, she felt that Brits never deign to correct a non-native speaker’s pronunciation. The situation is perhaps amplified in London where every interaction with a person is in a different accent. Perhaps we also just need to be more direct with our learners who are often extremely anxious about improving their pronunciation and sounding comfortably intelligible. This is a problem learners want us to help them solve. I think by employing more phonetic methods we can expunge the embarrassment element from the process by equipping learners with the words they need to describe and analyse the sounds they are themselves aiming to produce. There’s a different between “I just can’t make that sound- I never get it right!” and a learner instead thinking “I need to say that vowel as rounded and not unrounded” or “I need to increase the height of my i sound”. 

comfortably intelligible

When you speak the language you are learning as an adult, it’s unlikely that the native speakers listening to you will reply with “What part of France/Italy/Finland/Catalunia are you from?”. You will sound like you’re a second language learner. Tracey Derwing and Murray Munro write that ‘most learners who strive for nativeness are likely to become disheartened’. Everything is against you it seems: time, age, your brain.

There are a lot of reasons to suggest that striving for native-like pronunciation is doomed right from the start. Firstly, it’s difficult to perceive linguistic sounds that aren’t present in your first language or languages. Our developing sound systems fossilize when we are children, many researchers suggest 6 years of age as a cut-off point. Newborn babies are able to perceive fine phonetic differences in sounds, but this incredible ability quickly fades as the infant tunes into only those linguistic sounds he or she needs to understand the ambient language or languages. After 6 years of age, any language learned will be learned with at least some degree of measurable non-nativeness. Other researchers say that 12 is the very last point at which a language can begin to be learned with minimal non-nativeness elements. This doesn’t mean that your accent cannot change: the social pressures exerted on teenagers often lead to some changes in accent. However, the changes aren’t radical changes to the way the sounds of the language are produced, rather represent small markers of identity.


Your first language also has a huge effect. Negative transfer is the name given to sounds and rules in your first language that migrate into your second language. For example, English has a rule that reduces all vowels in unstressed syllables to the central vowel called schwa (as in the second syllable as the name Adam). Schwa is the most common sound in the English language. Welsh doesn’t have this rule and schwa (represented by the letter y) is a vowel in its own right. This means that it can be difficult to get adult learners to realise their vowels when speaking Welsh, we end up with “Cunolfun” (IPA: /kənɔlvən/) instead of canolfan /kanɔlvan/. (Interestingly though, this vowel reduction rule also exists in Catalan and means Catalans are at a bit of an advantage over speakers of other Romance Languages when it comes to speaking English).

Then there other extra-linguistic factors, such as how much exposure you have to the language outside of class and how much you continue to use your first or other languages whilst you learn the target one. “Length of residence” is another important factor, though this is perhaps a difficult concept in the case of Wales where many learners have lived in Wales all their lives, they just haven’t spoken Welsh.

Motivation is another arguably monstrously important factor. Why are you learning the language? Is it because you’re just interested in the language (a noble reason in and of itself of course!) or is it because you don’t want to stir the calm linguistic waters of your in-laws’ house by rocking up at their house at Christmas and trying to communicate in broken Slovak? Have you got kids in a Welsh medium school? Do you want to read an ancient Icelandic text? Do you want to improve your German opera singing? Are you interested in speaking at all? Perhaps you’ve just got a fascination for Mandarin’s non-alphabetic writing system and only speak when your teacher compels you to do so. Alene Moyer investigated the correlation between professional motivation and native-like pronunciation finding an interesting relationship between perceived nativeness and professional motivation for language learning.

This raises a few questions, first of which is whether there’s any point in trying to improve your pronunciation. Most of the studies seem to suggest it’s a doomed project. What are the reasons for not worrying about pronunciation, then? I think an important part of not trying too hard might be that it’s good to sound like you’re not a native speaker. It marks you as a learner and may (unless you’re in France) mean that your interlocutor will adjust their speech and give you more time during the interaction. Your identity as a learner is also important. You’re never going to become Portuguese, you’re always going to be a British person who’s moved to Portugal and this is part of your identity. You might have been born in Wales and then moved to London as a child and now be trying to find your Welsh again, but the fact that you lived elsewhere as a child is a part of who you are. It’s a part of your identity that will become a part of your linguistic identity- and that’s interesting and something of which you can be proud.

Another reason is that you don’t need to sound like a native speaker in order to be understood and to use the language. The famous phonetician David Abercrombie stated that “language learners need no more than a comfortably intelligible pronunciation”. There are also so many varieties of the language you’re learning that it’s difficult to say objectively whether you’re “speaking it like a native” or not. Think about the extreme differences in pronunciation in Welsh between the North and the South. Some northerners have got a palatal version of ll that means they make this sound without smiling and passing air through the sides of the tongue, instead, it’s made in a similar way to the sound in the German word ich. In the North, they’ve also got a difference in pronunciation between u and i; they don’t need to say “i-dot” or “u-bedol” when they’re spelling things out because these letters are different sounds. Think about the differences between Candian French and French as spoken in the French Republic. What about the rhythm and cadence of North East England varieties of English and how this differs from the intonational patterns of Suffolk English. What’s native to one native speaker isn’t necessarily native to another native speaker.

Have a listen to These Islands Now on Radio Scotland. In Episode 1, “the Europeans Who Have Made Sheltand Their Home” (strange title, Shetlanders are Europeans too I think…), Richard Forbes interviews a group of people from continental Europe who moved out to the North Sea to start a life there. Their accents are brilliant! The woman from Hungary has an accent that it a harmonious blend of Shetlandic and Hungarian English. She is a good example of non-nativeness as a proud identity marker and also the notion that nativeness is difficult to measure. Her Shetlandic-Magyar English has features that are very native in Shetland, but not in other parts of Scotland or the UK.

Whilst non-native pronunciation may be acceptably unachievable, there is change afoot I think. Adult education hasn’t been very good at teaching pronunciation. Pronunciation is often relegated to teaching initial sounds in the first few lessons only.  In European languages, there has historically also been an almost total lack of teaching intonation, rhythm and stress. But things seem to be changing. In Wales, there is increasing research output which highlights the neglect that pronunciation receives in Cymraeg i Oedolion (Welsh for Adults). A recent paper by researchers at the School of Welsh in Cardiff  highlights the fact that little attention is given to pronunciation beyond the initial cwrs mynediad (beginners’ course), despite the fact that a majority of learners surveyed stated that the pronunciation of particular sounds (voiceless nasals (triggered by nasal mutations), ll, ch) continued to represent difficulty.

The Cardiff academics are calling on more research that will result in the development of technologically-driven pronunciation exercises and more opportunities for learners to speak with a variety of native speakers. There’s a growing call for the implementation of phonetic instruction when it comes to teaching adult learners the individual sounds of the target language.

I can’t help think that for all the research offering poor prognoses for pronunciation in adult second language learning, the fault might not all be down to fossilized phonologies or ages. It looks like our learners haven’t been being equipped with the phonetic skills and knowledge to evaluate their own productions and improve. But we seem to be slowly realizing.

There are some aspect of the pronunciation of the language you’re learning that simply have to be mastered if you are going to communicate effectively. You’ll need to do at least a bit of discernable voiceless lateral frication (ll) in Welsh if you’re going to do some speaking (or pronounce the name of the ever popular beach-side village Llangrannog without irritating the locals). If you don’t make some progress with the tones of Mandarin, it’s going to be impossible to get by and you need to make some half decent attempts to differentiate all of Swedish’s vowels.

Because they cannot say “Qongqothwane”

When it comes to sounds, you are physically capable of producing all the sounds on the International Phonetic Association’s chart of the sounds of the world’s languages . Your mouth is an instrument that all other humans on earth also have. You are physically capable of making the click sounds of Xhosa, most famously broadcast to the Western World by Miriam Makeba’s fantastic music. You can also say the voiceless nasal sounds (ngh, nh, mh) of Welsh and its voiceless lateral fricative (ll). What’s stopping you is the fact that you don’t use these sounds in your language and so they don’t represent linguistic sounds. Another problem is that you can’t perceive these differences in the speech of other people because your brain has shut off these distinctions as they weren’t relevant to the language you were learning when you were a baby.

We do need to think about pronunciation if we’re to be ‘comfortably intelligible’. The challenge for language teachers is to find ways of helping you make these sounds as best as you can. There’s a lot of research saying we’ll never be native-like speakers of our second and third languages, but that shouldn’t stop us fulfilling our potential. I’ll never sound like a Swede when I order my coffee in Stockholm, but once in Finland, an Ålander said I “spoke Swedish like a Swede” and that (even if it was a politically motivated insult) is all the encouragement I need!

Multidialectal Sweden

In Stockholm you can really hear you’re in Stockholm. Not just because everyone’s speaking Swedish, and also English better than you or your British friends are, but because everything sounds so very Stockholmish. The Stockholm dialect stands out, so much so that Sara Myrberg managed to get a PhD thesis out of describing the particular intonation and rhythm of Stockholm Swedish.  Swedish is divided up into 6 broad regional varieties in the Kingdom of Sweden and Stockholmers speak the so-called Central Swedish variety. Stockholm Swedish has that sing-songy cadence that we think is so typically Swedish. It also has a distinction between two very exotic sounds that aren’t as distinct in other varieties of the language (and certainly don’t appear in English). These are the sounds that appear at the start of the words kör and skjuta respectively. The first word (meaning ‘drives’, i.e. ‘he drives’) starts with the sound [ɕ], a voiceless alveolo-palatal fricative. This is like a sh sound in English, but the tongue is behind the front teeth and the mouth narrowly open (a sort of biting, smiling sh)-sound. The sound at the beginning of skjuta is so particular that the International Phonetic Association had to add it especially to their chart of symbols for describing the languages of the world. It’s represented by the symbol [ɧ] and called a voiceless postalveolar-velar fricative. It’s a source of debate amongst phoneticians, but this sound is like the end of the Scottish word loch with a simultaneous sh-sound added. However Phoneticians describe Stockholm Swedish, I’d like to offer the completely unscientific assessment that it sounds brilliant  (have a listen to this voice-over man advertising his own Stockholmska voice).

Swedes love talking about all the different Swedishses they’ve managed to cram into their country. Youtuber Daniel Norberg became a household name following his parodies of the cult-like popular programme Melodifestivalen, a contest to find Sweden’s Eurovision entry. His multidialectal new bulletins are of course exaggerations, but they’re also quite accurate. To someone who didn’t know anything about Swedish Norberg’s different impersonations might as well be different languages altogether.

Swedes take an active pride in their particular Swedish. I spent 6 weeks this summer in Värmland, a county full os beavers, moose and eagles that shares a border with Norway. I can tell you first hand how the Värmlanders have no doubt that they speak Värmlandska first and Swedish second. To an outsider their variety of Swedish sounds like Norwegian. It has it’s own forms of pronouns, a vowel sound that doesn’t appear in other Swedish varieties and a host of other particular and interesting distinguishing characteristics. Throughout the 6 weeks, I caused offence numerous times by saying to a Norwegian that I didn’t speak Swedish or to a Värmlander that I didn’t speak Norwegian.

As you’re settling into your horrendously decorated but cozy cabin on one of the ferries to Finland, the announcements on the tannoy are in reassuring Finlandic Swedish. This might just be a clever bit of branding to help you get in the mood for the otherworldly serenity of the Åland Islands. It could be a political statement, to reaffirm the message that you are leaving the Kingdom of Sweden and travelling to the autonomous monolingually Swedish and demilitarized region of Finland. Or it could just be because Swedish speakers know that there are many different varieties of their language- varieties that they’re used to hearing and aren’t afraid of hearing. The ferries don’t need the sort of soulless, nowhere language that stations managed by National Rail use for their English announcements all over the United Kingdom.

Unlike in most of the UK, regional accents are to be heard everywhere in Sweden. The national Broadcaster, Sveriges Radio, has a regional radio channel called P4, with different versions in the different regions of Sweden. The presenters sound like they are actually from the region they’re reporting about and speaking to. This is something that simply doesn’t happen in the UK. The voices we hear are sanitized and standardized, perhaps not in the style of a British Pathé newsreel, but we definitely wouldn’t hear a Geordie reading the News at 10 or hear a Liverpudlian presenting Radio 4’s Today programme. “Accents” are for comedians, whether this is the Pub Landlord or Stuart Lee’s dipping into a Birmingham accent everytime he impersonates a racist or an idiot. We seem to be okay with hearing foreign varieties of English, Mark Carney’s Canadian English never seems to get off relatively unparodied. But a Welsh accent in the House of Commons needs laughing at and we simply cannot understand what a Glaswegian is saying.

There are glimmers of hope for the promotion of different accents being given a platform to be heard. In London Underground stations pre-recorded announcements are made by that particular station’s staff. This means you can hear a Southern London Accent or a Multicultural London English accent telling you how to be careful on the escalators or giving you a service update.

In Wales we’re not exactly guilt-free, but we do make an effort to make sure different varieties of Welsh and different words are heard. Guto ab Iago’s recent article in Welsh language magazine Barn on regional varieties of Catalan and the political turmoil that their uses and names cause made interesting comparative reference to the situation in Wales. ab Iago points out that a generation raised on Cyw, S4C’s young children’s programmes, have become versed in the many varieties of Welsh.  S4C have made an effort to ensure that ‘[…] the presenters and cartoon voice artists speak a manner of different pretty dialects’.  Often it’s the case that on S4C a Gog is interviewing a Hwntw. Both will be using different pronouns, different ways of negating sentences- but all is well. Everyone understands each other and no-one ridicules each other. There’s a “bidialectism” in Wales that is actively promoted. It’s not just the national television channel that’s promoting this; the Welsh Joint Education Committee’s exam papers will include an asterisk next to any word in its exam scripts that might have different regionals forms.

We’re lucky in the UK. The varieties of English that exist are numerous and varied. The differences are something people newly arrived in the UK often comment on. We can afford to be a bit more Swedish, a bit more Finnish and a bit more Welsh in our treatment of these different varieties. This variety could be the cause for national celebration (perhaps even a bit of pride) and not ridicule or linguistic censorship.

Ysgythysgymlngwchgwch Bryggy

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.

Ysgythysgymlngwchgwch Bryggy

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.