Y Ffindir, ti yw’r unig wlad i mi…

Following the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, Welsh has official status in Wales and cannot be treated any less favourably than English. You have the right to access public services through the medium of Welsh in person and in correspondence. You have the right to use Welsh in court. You have the freedom to use the language without hindrance from others. This is obviously a good thing. But whilst Wales might have two languages that must be treated equally by certain arms of the state, this doesn’t mean that language isn’t a politically sensitive area of public discourse. Tensions often flare up when decisions have to be made about new schools and how much money should be invested in the provision of Welsh when it comes to broadcasting. People question the role of the Welsh Language Commissioner, whose job it is to promote and protect the right to use Welsh. Every translation mistake or spelling error on a Welsh sign seems like a news story about how pointless or important the language is (depending on your point of view). It often seems like we’re completely consumed by our language issues.

In order to inject some objectivity into the debates bubbling away in Wales, our policy-makers are often on the look for comparisons- other countries that have a fairly hefty number of minority language speakers. One comparison that’s often drawn is with Finland. The Nordic countries are trendy. We in the UK like to read about the Nordic countries. These countries actively encourage paternity leave, are known for having better work-life balances, for being happier, for having multi-party democracies that depend on inter-party cooperation, for having national drink problems and debates about immigration and integration. The Nordics are like Britain in some respects, but in other respects, they couldn’t be further away from us. They unquestionably have better words than we do in English (or Welsh, for that matter):

  • Lagom (Swedish): exactly enough, a moderation of anything (food, money, happiness)
  • Hygge (Danish): cosiness and warmth
  • Dugnadsånd (Norwegian): the spirit of working together for the benefit of the community.
  • Kyykkyviini (Finnish): “squat wine”, the cheapest wine placed on the lowest shelves in the state alcohol monopolies in Finland.
  • Gluggaveður (Icelandic): “window weather”, you look out of the window and it looks nice, but when you actually step outside it’s not as clement as you thought and you haven’t got the right jacket on.
  • Mjørki (Faroese): a belt of fog through which you can pass in an aeroplane or boat.
Turku, Finland | Pixabay

But why is Finland a good point of comparison? Why does the Welsh Government like to send teachers over there on reconnaissance missions? Finnish is overwhelmingly the majority language, however, Finns have the right to access services in Swedish as well. In Finland, place names often have both a Finnish and a Swedish variant.

But how useful is the Wales-Finland comparison? Well, in terms of the number of speakers, the official status, the use of the language at government level and speaker rights, it’s not a bad one.  In both countries, there is a minority language that has official status, is used by the Government and is a mandatory subject in school. Where the speakers of both languages are to be found also makes it an attractive comparison, in both countries we see speaker communities of the minority language increasing in number the further towards the sea we get.

Linguistic typology is the sub-discipline of Linguistics that examines how similar or dissimilar languages are to each other. It tries to group languages together and describe patterns and trends in the sounds and grammars of the languages of the world. For typological reasons, Finland does make for a good comparison with Wales. The language pairs in both countries are quite distant. Finnish isn’t, from a typologist’s perspective, a European language: it belongs to the Uralic Family of Language and Swedish is a member of the Indo-European Family. Finnish has grammatical case (like German, but many, many more!) which means that nouns change depending on the function they play in a sentence. So the word ‘house’ in Finnish could appear as any of the following options (to name but a few):

  • talo
  • talon
  • taloa
  • talossa
  • talostani
  • taloonsa
  • talolta
  • talolle
  • taloksi
  • taloineen 

Swedish doesn’t have anything like this, like English it doesn’t really have grammatical case, having effectively dumped it centuries ago. Welsh and English, meanwhile, are in the same language family (the Indo-European Family), however, are part of different (and arguably distant) branches: Welsh is a Celtic language and English is a (West-) Germanic language. Welsh has a number of features English doesn’t:

So when we think about policymakers and educators trying to promote the use of the minority language in Finland and Wales or public service provision and the linguistic demands placed on the public sector, we might think that it’s going to be objectively “harder”. It’s not like Spanish and Catalan (estimates vary, but lost of linguisticians reckon that 80%-85% of words are mutually intelligible in Catalan and Spanish), or like Swedish and Norwegian, or even German or Dutch or the different varieties of modern Arabic. If you stand outside the gates of Lisbon’s Castelo de São Jorge in August you can see and hear a flock of hassled Spanish tour guides speaking Spanish loudly to the castle staff who in turn are speaking emphatically and calmly back in Portuguese. Eventually, they sort it out and the guides can move their crowds through the castle towards the inflight-magazine-like views over beautiful Lisbon. It works. You can’t, however, just speak Welsh at a non-Welsh-speaker speaker and expect them to work it out, nor can a Finnish speaker just speak Finnish at a non-Finnish-speaking person and expect them to fill in the gaps. There are just too many gaps.

Helsinki | Helsingfors, Suomi \ Finland. Pixabay

Another parallel can be found in the form of angry people writing irate comments on Twitter in both countries. Wales and Finland both have the problem that there are a substantial number (or perhaps a loud minority) of people who object to the presence of an official minority language in their country. These people say that the minority language isn’t necessary and that money spent on promoting it or providing services for its speakers could be better spent elsewhere.  There are also concerns that Finnish kids should be learning languages other than Swedish, languages that are “more useful”.  On the opposite side of the debate, just like Welsh speakers in Wales, Swedish speakers in Finland are becoming concerned about speaker numbers. This is one of the most compelling reasons for justifying using Finland as a point of comparison with Wales; both countries enjoy a degree of linguistic policy controversy and both countries’ speakers are anxious about the longevity of their language’s presence in their country.

“Away with mandatory Swedish”, Campaign sticker from Pois Pakkoruotsi – kampanja

However, this is where the comparison probably stops. This brief overview tells us that lots of things are similar, however, the differences between the linguistic cultures of Finland and Wales couldn’t be further apart. The primary reason concerns attitudes towards languages. The UK is, primarily, a monolingual country.  62% of Britons can’t speak any other language apart from English. English is a behemoth that dominates the world and it’s no surprise that this necessarily means that the people in natively-English speaking countries like the UK have ever-diminishing interest in speaking or listening to anything that isn’t English. English is language, is very much the mentality, a mindset visible in the dreadful phrase “foreign language”. It’s also no surprise that this UK-national mentality is also reflected in Wales. Foreign language uptake at GCSE level is plummetting in Wales, with school management seemingly increasingly disinterested in giving their pupils linguistic access to the outside world. Perhaps Brexit will change this, as our politicians seek to close out Europe, we may find future generations are suddenly more interested in languages as a means of pushing back against cultural isolationism. But for the time being, “English is all we need” is the majority view in the UK. If it’s not the majority view or at least the status quo. Learning another language is often seen as being some kind of ostentatious, intellectual hobby (“Who wants to learn Welsh in London!?” exclaims every single person I have ever met in London in reply to my response about what I do for a living).

The situation in Finland is the complete inverse. The Finns are amongst the most multilingual people on the face of the earth. 9 out of 10 Finns can speak at least one other language apart from Finnish. Finnish schools often introduce languages through content and language integrated learning, a method in which the language is taught incidentally alongside or integrated into teaching the subject matter. This is done from an early age in Finnish schools meaning that Finnish kids are well-used to hearing and using languages other than Finnish. Moreover, they’re used to actually using other languages in a way with extends well beyond the unstimulating 2 hours of Welsh second language lessons provided to secondary school kids in Wales.

In Finland, monolingualism isn’t normal- isn’t weird. Monolinguals (if you can find one) are seen as being uneducated and parochial. If you sit in a coffee shop in Helsinki or any other Finnish town during the summer, you can witness the linguistic trapezist Finn in action. The person behind the counter takes an order for coffees in English from an American freshly disembarked from a cruise ship, then speaks in Finnish to her colleague before serving a customer in Swedish. When she clears a table she gives some directions in German to some tourists and then speaks a few words of Russian with the child of a Russian couple. In Britain, this person would have their own oversubscribed Youtube channel and or be a high-flying academic at a London University. In Finland, she’s just a normal person. Nothing fancy about speaking 5 languages in as many minutes. This difference in attitudes matters. How can Wales be compared to a country like Finland? How can we compare the ways the two languages are promoted and used in both countries when their baseline linguistic cultural attitudes are so astoundingly different?

Another point at which Swedish in Finland and Welsh in Wales go their radically separate ways is when we think of Finland as a country. Finland is an independent republic, whose official languages are also both official languages of the EU. Swedish is also spoken outside of Finland. Just across the Gulf of Bothnia lies Sweden; once the colonial power in Finland. Stockholm will always be the destination of choice for young Swedish-speaking Finns. Welsh doesn’t have a comparably linguistically enticing neighbour (the presence of Welsh in Patagonia in Argentina is unquestionably exciting, but you can’t nip over on the ferry). One of the main problems in Wales is convincing people of the worth of learning Welsh, and whilst we’ve got lots of cultural reasons readily available, we often struggle to make an economic case for learning Welsh when questioned by a belligerent monolingual.

the Åland Islands, Finland | Pixabay

Åland is the last point of difference I think needs a mention. The Åland Islands is an autonomous region of Finland spreading across over 6000 islands between Sweden’s eastern coast and Turku on the west coast of Finland. The Islands are staunchly proud of their astoundingly beautiful skerries and islands. They have their own flag, their own national anthem, parliament, number plates and stamps (as they are keen to point out to tourists). Ålanders are also exempt from Finnish national service as their islands are completely demilitarised. Islanders are Finns, however, are monolingually Swedish. We in Wales might have Ynys Môn, but we don’t have anything like Åland. There are no monolingually Welsh areas or people in Wales anymore. Growing up in North Pembrokeshire we had some elderly neighbours in the village who struggled to speak English on the rare occasions they needed to, but people with these kinds of linguistic profiles will soon disappear from Wales.

So what’s important when it comes to comparisons? Speaker numbers and official status matter. But culture and attitudes to other languages play a hugely important role- perhaps the most important role. It’s difficult to think of what the perfect linguistic comparison with Wales might be. Comparing Wales with a country that’s “better” at something, like education, doesn’t mean it’s not useful. The point of the exploratory missions by teachers was to see what might be emulated back in Wales. However, when we start thinking about language use and how people feel about languages in general, then perhaps we need to question what we might get out of comparing Cymru with Suomi. When we place Wales and Finland “wholesale” next to each other, they couldn’t look more different, but perhaps we need to look at the comparison on a smaller scale, e.g. by comparing individual towns, communities or families. Perhaps a comparison that looks at an approach in an individual Finnish school and compares it with an individual Welsh school might prove useful. What is the best comparison with Wales? Who knows. But useful and interesting comparisons need to consider linguistic culture and attitudes. If we don’t take into account national linguistic mindsets then we might end up being too aspirational and unrealistic in our policies, outlooks and hopes for our own country.

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.

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.