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Reading in a second language

Reading in your second or third language is difficult, especially when you first start. A popular idea amongst second language researchers has been percentage thresholds for understanding, i.e. what percentage of words in a text do you need to know in order to understand that text? Lots of research has considered how many word families a learner needs to know in order to adequately read a text. A word family can contain a number of different forms of a word, e.g. inform would be a family that would include: informed, information, informative, uninformative, informal, informing.

Early research reckoned that you needed about 3,000 word families or about 5,000 individual words in order to read a piece of prose text and understand it. There are lots of disagreement about what the threshold actually is, but most researchers’ findings seemed to coalesce around a figure of 95%. These research studies mainly used unfamiliar factual prose texts and tested comprehension by means of written comprehension tests and pass rates needed for formal examinations at university level education. This is quite a stringent way of testing. Lots of second or third language learners don’t have their gaze fixed on the goal of attaining a formal qualification. Research that looks at these kinds of thresholds isn’t really looking at a minimum level of comprehension, rather they’re looking at what you need to understand to pass a test.

It’s also quite difficult to work out how many words are in a word family. Paul Nation’s research on the British National Corpus shows that the most frequent 1000 word families of English average approximately six members each. Nation reckons that if you know 8000 word families then this means you can recognise and understand 34, 660 individual words. What does this mean for the thresholds idea? If we take the 1000 most common word families figure, this would mean that recognizing and understanding the most common words of English would actually mean knowing 6000 individual words. This is a smaller number than 34,660 but it’s still a dauntingly large figure. What are we meant to do with such a number? Would the idea be that this would inform teaching practices by making sure learners are exposed to the 6000 most frequent individual word tokens? Or that if we’re self-studying a language that we need to find out what the most common word families are and grill ourselves on these before we start reading?

Another problem with thresholds isn’t just how you test comprehension, but also what you get learners to read. Is the text formal or informal? Does the reader know something about the context of the piece already? Are they even interested in what they’re reading? Are they interested in reading in their first language? Are they competent readers in their first language? We know these things matter because research has shown they have big implications for how much a learner understands of a newly presented text.

Research by Norbert Schmitt and colleagues has found that the idea of a percentage threshold for academic texts could be as high as 98%. However, the researchers’ work doesn’t support the notion of a general threshold or benchmark figure above which readers can understand a text in their second language. Instead, they find there is a linear relationship between the percentage of vocabulary known and the level of understanding a reader has.

brown book page
Photo by Wendy van Zyl on Pexels.com

The upshot is that second language learners need to gradually increase their vocabulary in order to increase their understanding. Reading in your second language won’t make you fluent, nor is it an absolute given that it will increase your vocabulary. Wading your way through a French murder mystery or a Portuguese newspaper article might be satisfying once you finally finish it, but once you’ve put it down you’re probably going to continue with your day and forget any new words. Reading in an unstructured way isn’t helpful.  Within the world of education, it’s difficult to go a few weeks without someone referring to “strategies”. It’s often a mendacious term that on closer inspection doesn’t actually mean anything, just another jargonistic bit of educational language. However, in the case of reading in a second language, there are some concrete things you can do to make your reading time actually contribute to your language learning. Here are some “strategies” or tips:

Choosing something to read:

Easyread adaptations: These are brilliant. Whole books reworked into simplified vocabulary and sentence patterns. I started my second-language Swedish reading with some easyread versions of popular Swedish novels. These books allowed me to read adapted Swedish classics as well as gain access to contemporary Swedish fiction. I was able to read an adaptation of “A Man called Ove” by Fredrik Backman and then see the film adaptation. Easyreads can give you a lot of motivating cultural insight into the language you’re learning by affording you direct access to it in the early stages of your learning.

However, there are some caveats: easyreads are great when you’re first starting out, but is something it’s best to move away from as soon as you can. Easyreads use a very reduced vocabulary and simplified grammar. Publishing houses producing easyreads will have their own linguistic style guides meaning that across different books and authors you’ll essentially be exposing yourself to a restricted set of recycled sentence patterns.

Another reason to progress onto reading something else is that you can get complacent. You can feel as though you’re making tonnes of progress. If you only need to look up two words every page in an easyread book it’s easy to cut yourself some slack and think that you’ve mastered the art of reading in your second language, or at least made substantial progress. The problem is that this confidence is quickly quashed when you then open a newspaper or try and read an email in your second language.

Avoid parallel texts! These seem like a great idea, but, unless you are incredibly disciplined or can avoid all the peripheral visual cues bombarding you subconsciously from the other side of the page, they aren’t very useful. Reading parallel texts removes a great deal of the useful linguistic challenge of reading. When we see a word we don’t know we can just automatically glance across and get a translation. We don’t have to think about the relationship between the word as it appears on the page and the other words surrounding it. We don’t form an association between this new word and others in the target language, instead, we just get a translation. Speaking and understanding a second language isn’t about translating. We don’t want to know that chamar = to call in Portuguese. Anyone could Google that. Instead, we want to know what  Pode-me chamar um taxi para onze da manhã? means and we want to make an association between how chamar appears here and how a person introduces themselves by saying chamo-me.

Read something you’ve already read in English: One of the hardest things about reading a novel in a second or third language is building up the necessary context in which the characters appear and against which the story is played out. You have to work out where the story takes place (and then perhaps look it up), work out who’s related to who, who’s in a relationship with who, who hates who, glean any information about reported action (i.e. aspects of the story that happen before the author starts telling you what’s happening now). If you already know all this, then you can focus on the actual language. It might not mean reading for pleasure in exactly the same way as reading a book for the first time, but it will constructively lighten the linguistic load when reading in your second or third language.

Read books that are part of the same series: We mentioned context above and it’s the same idea here. Recurring characters and familiar locations will help as you’ll already have the context before you’ve opened the book. I’m a fan of the great Henning Mankell’s Wallander books. I know the eponymous detective has a poor relationship with his daughter, is divorced, has a borderline drinking problem, is a bit of a hypochondriac,  increasingly doesn’t have any friends, finds it difficult to talk to women but somehow managed to have a Latvian girlfriend (after solving the murder of her husband) for a short time before she realised all his unattractive aforementioned characteristics and left him. This means I can get on with the actual story and new words instead of pouring over the initial pages trying to work out who’s who and why they don’t like each other.  Reading books that are part of a series gives you some much-needed confidence in the reading endeavour without affording you the false sense of security we can feel when reading easyreads.

Read the news: This is again a “strategy” of context. If you’ve already listened to or read the news in your first language that day, then you’ll know most of what’s already happening in the world (or at least what the world’s media are focussing on). This means you’ll be able to fill in lots of gaps. Using something like Google news is a good way to start. Read an article about an event in your language, then search Google news for translated keywords to find coverage of the same item in the language you’re learning.

Social media: Most people spend at least some time swiping and trawling through a news feed each day. You can easily turn this zombie activity into something more linguistic by liking or following media outlets, famous people or organizations that produce context in your target language and by turning off the irritating translate function on your webbrowser that auto-translates any non-English content. This isn’t as substantial as reading a book of course, but it does mean you’ll convert some deadtime into something useful. If you only pick up one new word about a news item as you’re eating your sandwich at your desk, at least that’s one more word than would otherwise have been drawn to your attention during that part of the day.

Image result for ystad sweden pixabay
Ystad, Sweden (Kurt Wallander’s hometown) from pixabay.com

Whilst reading:

Don’t stop! If you see a word you don’t understand have a quick think about it, but don’t stop and reach for a dictionary. What you want to do is gain an overall understanding of the passage first. If you’re reading a book, aim to get to the end of a chapter before doing any googling or dictionary work. When you come across a word you don’t understand, simply underline it and move on. At the end of the chapter review all your underlined words. Whatever you do, don’t just immediately look up an unknown word. Instead, try and glean something from the word. Think about possible language families that word may belong to. Can you see any word endings that give you a clue about whether it’s a noun or a verb, whether it’s a masculine or feminine word? Can you see which case it’s in or whether it’s plural or singular? Once you’ve done this, then look it up. Make a note of the meaning in a list- don’t write a translation by the word in the book as you’ll just end up looking at that when you come to re-read it. Then re-read the chapter or passage paying attention to your underlined words, looking them up in your list if you’ve forgotten.

After you’ve read

Try and summarise what you’ve read in your second language by speaking out loud or discussing it with your language tutor. Writing a summary can also be a good way of practising the unfamiliar words that you collected by underlining as you went along. If you’ve kept a list of unfamiliar words from a text, try using these in written or spoken sentences.

Let’s say you didn’t know the following word:

threw 

You can start by keeping the word exactly as it is but changing the context:

  • I threw the ball to him
  • They threw the ball to me

You could then change the tense and person of the word and think about synonyms:

  • I had thrown it <> I had chucked it
  • I‘ll throw it across to you <> I’ll fling it across to you
  • You‘re throwing it to far <> You’re lobbing it too far
  • He throws the rubbish out on Fridays <> He puts the rubbish out on Fridays

The first sign of madness

Do you talk to yourself in your second or third language? Probably not because that would be weird, wouldn’t it? Another reason not to do it is because most language learning for adults is firmly rooted in what’s sometimes termed the conduit approach or communicative approach. This is what commonly drives pedagogy in adult second language classes: the passing back and forth of information between conversational partners. This can be very structured, e.g. in the form of a gap fill exercise  (e.g. relaying information about missing train times on a timetable). It might be less formally structured but still controlled by the teacher to some degree, e.g. “find out the following pieces of information from your partner”. Alternatively, your language teacher might set the communication context and ascribe roles, e.g. “you’re in a cafe in Istria, you are the waiter and you three are customers”. This is all good language practice. Ultimately you want to be able to talk to your in-laws in Welsh about something or you want to order something at a cafe in Croatia. That is, you want to communicate. However, language isn’t just something we do to other people in order to produce some kind of effect- language is also in our heads and we vocalise things even when no-one is around to hear it. If we’re struggling with a procedural task then we might talk ourselves through what the options are. This kind of speech often manifests itself as telegrammatic, i.e. not in full or proper sentences. It’s the kind of language we need after we’ve bought something from IKEA:

“Hmmmm. That one… no- wrong piece. Where is…? Right, put that…and yes! Done!”

analysis blackboard board bubble
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Children who are learning their first language get to use this kind of speech all day every day. They get to sit in a chair in the middle of a room and point at things, name them and receive a constant stream of linguistic feedback from adults. They get to say absolute nonsense, but adults process it as having communicative import and offer interpretations and corrections of what the child says. A small barely-verbal child might say “It’s a booo blah eurgh!” and an adult will reply “Yes, it’s a sheep! It’s not blue though. Do you want the sheep?”. It’s very unfair really- we never get this optimum language learning environment ever again. All this language practice means kids end up speaking their native language fluently whilst having made no automatic or conscious effort.

They then use their language skills to talk to themselves whilst engaged in procedural tasks and play. Lev Vygotsky was a famous Soviet psychologist whose work on the development of children is difficult for any social sciences undergraduate to avoid. Vygotsky found that when children are confronted with difficult tasks they engage in private or self-directed speech in order to focus their attention and ultimately overcome these difficulties:

> “Where’s the pencil? I need a blue pencil. Never mind, I’ll draw with the red one and wet it with water; it will become dark and look like blue” (from Vysgotsky’s Thought and Language)

James Lantolf & William Frawley offered categorizations of private speech in the context of second language learning:

Object-regulation: this kind of language allows the speaker to “get a grip” of the situation or difficult they’re currently facing. These might take the form of metacomments about the task or about how the speaker is feeling about completing it. Some examples from Steven McCafferty include the following, which were taken from second language research on describing complex picture sequences:

  • “Think this picture is not good”
  • “I can do this in Spanish but not in English”
  • “I can see a boy walking down the street”

Other-regulation: addressing (otherwise irrelevant) questions to someone, i.e. in Mcafferty’s picture description task the subjects in the studies he considers often ask the researcher questions, e.g. “This picture… do you want to tell me, I tell you where he is or…?”. Also in this category are questions the speaker asks of themself, e.g. “How do I say this…? Hmmm. I know this word…”

Self-regulation: this is the final category identified by Lantolf & Frawley and concerns speech which signals the speaker is making progress in the task or correcting a difficulty or mistake, e.g. “five monkeys are playing with a man- no- the man is angry”.

Steven McCafferty surveys a number of studies that have examined second language speakers’ self-directed or private speech and finds that learners expend just as much or more effort in self-regulating and talking to themselves as they do in actually communicating and completing the task at hand. We use language to talk to ourselves when we’re small children, however, it doesn’t look as though talking to ourselves is something that dies out completely. It resurfaces in our native language when we’re engaged in completing a difficult task and it can also resurface in second language contexts. It seems that we have a  natural linguistic predisposition to speak to ourselves.

However, adult language learners aren’t encouraged to speak to themselves. The focus is always on communicating, on imparting information to others and receiving information from conversational partners during evening classes. But what about talking to yourself in the target language? I teach a lot of people over Skype and in person who don’t live somewhere where Welsh is spoken, either in Wales, or England or more exotically in Canada and further afield. “I’ve got no-one to talk to! No-one to practice with”. Yes you have, you have yourself. It’s not the first sign of madness, it’s the first sign of language learning. If kids can talk to themselves, why can’t adult learners?


Here are some examples of how and when to use self-directed speech in your target language:  

  • Prepare a list of self-directed phrases, e.g.:
    • “No that’s not right”
    • “Where did I put my pen?”
    • “I’ll move this a bit”
    • “That’s better”
  • Use self-directed speech when engaging in a procedural task, e.g. talk yourself through the constituent stages of making a cake or mending your bicycle.
  • Plan in your target language: if you’re flicking through your calendar to try and find a convenient time to do something then go through the options out loud in the target language, e.g.:
    • “I can’t do Monday because I have a Greek lesson”
    • “I’ve got a meeting in Cardiff on Thursday so I can’t do it then”
    • “August would be best, but which day… ?”
  • Swear! Swearing in a second or third language has recently become a subject of psycholinguistic investigation. Language scientists use the term reduced emotional resonance to describe how second language speakers feel when they describe their new language as “meaning less to them” or “having less impact” than their native tongue. Swearing can be difficult because you don’t have the insight into what is normal or acceptable in your target language, particularly if you don’t live somewhere where the language you’re learning is routinely spoken. But swearing, particularly when used as an exclamation, is something everyone does, it’s automatic, it’s real-time language and represents a perfect opportunity for self-directed speech. Try replacing your first language exclamations with some from your target language- making sure they won’t cause a scene if you use them. Remember, you might have reduced emotional resonance in your second language, so check with a trustworthy native or proficient speaker before committing yourself to a selection of profanities! By making a conscious effort to swear or exclaim in your target language you can start to make language use, previously something confined to a classroom or book, into something which is instead instantly on your tongue, delivered without hesitation and used in real-time. Eventually, you can scream automatically, loudly and confidently at yourself in Polish or Welsh when you next drop something out your foot or realise you’ve forgotten your umbrella when it starts raining.

Ieithoedd online

I’ve recently become an online language tutee after having taught online for the past 2 years. It wasn’t ‘til I suddenly became an online student that I started to really think about learning a language over something like Skype. 10 years ago technologies such as Skype and podcasting were seen as “disruptive technologies” as they provided novel ways of doing familiar tasks like learning languages. You don’t need a phone to phone someone and you don’t need a contract with a broadcaster to make your own radio programme and beam it across the globe.

books business computer connection

From a teacher’s perspective, I used to think that teaching absolute beginners over Skype perhaps isn’t the best way to get started with a language. The initial interaction can be a bit strange for the tutee: you have to sit there whilst your teacher goes over the sounds of the language and basic introductory phrases. There’s no choral repetition here- the focus is entirely on you. It’s like some kind of examination. However, I now realise that the unease I felt whilst seemingly grilling the Welsh alphabet with absolute beginners wasn’t shared by my learners. My learners liked the fact that they were the centre of linguistic attention and that they weren’t being made to linguistically perform in a room of strangers after a fatiguing day at work. They also appreciated the time they were afforded to repeat themselves or to ask me to repeat phrases until they heard a difference in the sounds we were trying to contrast. When we are learning a language as a child, we are given undivided and total linguistic attention. Everything we say, even if it’s a just a blench is interpreted by the adults around us as having linguistic intent or import. This opportunity for language learning is never afforded to us ever again. Children who change to a different linguistic school environment get the next best thing, but thereafter you will never again get such focussed attention to learn another language. Online tuition gives you, even if only for an hour, the total and unhindered attention of someone who will listen to you stumble your way through a sentence and give you 1:1 encouragement and feedback.

This is the most expensive carpet

Whilst I do teach structured and more formal sessions online, the most optimum learning definitely occurs when the session resembles a conversation and not a lesson. The sessions I enjoy most as a teacher and as a student are the ones in which some material has been set beforehand, e.g. a youtube clip, a book chapter, a poem or a news article. These sessions can then function as much like a natural conversation as possible. The problem with formal and structured lessons over Skype is that they can quickly turn into a business conference call.

One of the reasons for this is the content of the lesson, or rather the context in which the grammar you’re teaching is set. A real challenge for language teachers in class is to select contexts that matter to their students. What’s the point in learning about some moribund aspect of Welsh or Chinese culture if you’re not actually interested in it? I love my Swedish coursebook, but it’s like something out of the ark. Here are some of the gripping chapter titles:

  • En frånskild kvinna: a divorced woman
    • A woman gets on with her life 
  • Ett bra köp: a good buy
    • A tedious couple go to a department store and buy a new carpet
  • Skvaller: gossiping
    • Two women sit and talk about the salacious gossip in their block of flats: a couple has bought a new car, a neighbour ostensibly buys a lot of clothes and a student recently accidentally smashed a wine bottle on the stairs (whilst in a state of complete sobriety on returning from the off license during the day)
  • I Tvättstugan: in the laundry room
    • Mr and Mrs Nillson patronisingly instruct a foreign couple who have newly moved into the block of flats how to properly operate the washing machine in the communal laundry room.
  • Kristina och kärlekan: Kristina and love
    • Kristina, who is 25, is utterly desperate to marry a man and start a family. Sometimes she goes to a dance, picks up “some boy” and before they righteously  “part ways at her door” they agree to meet for a coffee the next day.

These are meaningless contexts to me and I don’t suspect that they’re particularly impactful for anyone else either. When I was at secondary school I remember a peer of mine getting into a disagreement with our French teacher, “why do I need to learn how to say when I put the bins out in French?!” they asked frustratingly. They weren’t being insolent (as the French teacher thought)- they had a point. What Welsh 13-year-old puts the bins out, let alone would need to communicate this information to someone in French? We don’t learn things we’re not interested in. However, somehow in adult education, we forget about meanings that matter. We seem to unquestionably accept any reading material or context offered. The Mari Lwyd? The 1997 Devolution Referendum. The Assassination of Olaf Palme. The Emirate of Granada. Japanese tourist sites. Celebrating Ramadan. We don’t mind because ultimately in a class situation we can’t choose. We can’t say to our fellow learners and our teacher “I’m sorry, I’m just not interested in Mr and Mrs Nillson’s condescending laundry room nonsense”. However, online you can say this. You’re paying someone in a very direct way, which puts the locus of control on you. But above the economic power the Skype language learner has, the best online language sessions are those in which the conversation is led by the learner talking about something that interests them. The learner can control the context. Even better are situations in which a mutual interest between the tutor and the tutee can form the basis of discussion. I’m lucky in that my tutees are all interesting people with lots of interesting stories to tell. There is always something that people want to tell or share. Something motivating to them in their lives that can be used to motivate them in their language learning endeavours.

The best learning happens in these situations. You can almost forget your respective roles of learner and instructor and focus instead on communicating with each other. Something that works really well is for the tutor to send the learner a glossary of any words or phrases that they needed translating during the course of the conversation’s flow after the session has finished. These make for the most meaningful word lists for learners to learn because they learnt these words, not in the context of someone else’s discussion about purchasing a carpet, but in a meaningful, natural and actually-experienced conversation. Learners can then think “oh, I know the word for that, we learnt it when we spoke about volunteering” whilst they search for a word in the target language instead of thinking “We learnt that word in the third session” or “we learn that word in the chapter about buying a carpet”. Natural and meaningful links can be created between words.

Another aspect of online language learning that needs celebrating is that fact that it’s a medium that democratises language learning. Not everyone can afford the time or money that adult evening classes require. Initial costs associated with evening classes can be a real barrier to taking the initial language learning step- you’ve not only got to pay the course fee, but also buy the often eye-wateringly expensive text and exercise books. Websites like italki offer a huge range of community teachers offering informal tuition as well as professional language teachers with a myriad range of prices. Somewhere in the world is someone charging an agreeable price. Teachers are scattered across the globe so mismatching timezones also mean that you can always find someone to teach you at a time convenient to you.

Watch our for your pronunciation… 

The challenge presented by Skype learning for the teacher is to understand what the goals of the learner are and to respond to these accordingly. If the learner just wants conversational practice online, then that’s fine. But if they also want to continue learning the language and make some linguistic progress, then the online conversations need managing in order to make sure there’s still a learning goal or target in the session. This could be something like using vocabulary used in the previous session in a new context, or it could be using a particular pattern that was set as part of some previously set homework. Without keeping an eagle pedagogical eye on the interactions, the learner won’t progress and sessions will stagnate. If the learner is interested in more than just practising chatting, then tasks need to be set outside the sessions. My online tutor has a nifty approach to improving my pronunciation online by giving me a little “watch out for” section at the end of the wordlists he sends at the end of each session. “Watch out for how you say “g” in the following words (they’re hard, not soft G’s)”. The little notes approach is a good one, you can also give little hints about grammar “Remember that you need two negative elements in a negative sentence: you said “mae e ddim” instead of “dyw e ddim”. Whatever you ask your tutor to do, there should be some kind of reflection provided after the session. If you want to progress then ask for homework, a wordlist of vocabulary you learnt in the session, a list of errors you made. Anything that means you’re not just shutting the laptop lid and not thinking about your Skype session ’til the next one. 

Discover Welsh

Image result for Pembrokeshire
Dinbych-y-Pysgod (Tenby), Pixabay

I’ll be taking one of this year’s Discover Welsh sessions at City Lit. We’ll introduce pronunciation and stress rules in Welsh in order to get you confidently and accurately pronouncing the language.  Basic introductory phrases will be taught and practised in this informal and supportive session.

This session is pitched at absolute beginners. If you’ve been thinking about learning Welsh, this is a brilliant first step. Hope to see you there!

Wales’ sad export

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 now 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 chops the country up into three broad parts:

  • 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)

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.

Click here to read the rest of this post (published as an opinion piece in nation.cymru)

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.