Cymdogion ieithyddol eich ymennydd 

I lawer iawn o bobl sy’n medru mwy nag un iaith mae trawsieithu (neu translanguaging yn Saesneg) yn rhywbeth hollol anniddorol ac i siaradwyr Cymraeg mae’n rhywbeth nad yw’n hawdd iawn ei osgoi. Trawsieithu yw’r enw sy’n cael ei roi ar y broses o gymryd gwybodaeth i mewn drwy gyfrwng un iaith ac wedyn ei defnyddio mewn iaith arall. Gallai’r broses hon fod yn anffurfiol iawn; byddai darllen erthygl yn Saesneg ac wedyn sôn amdani ddiwrnodau yn ddiweddarach gyda’ch ffrindiau Cymraeg-eu-hiaith yn enghraifft o drawsieithu. Mae enghraifft fel hon yn ymddangos yn eithaf arferol i ni yng Nghymru- dyma’r hyn rydyn ni’n ei wneud bob dydd. Does dim modd i chi fyw eich bywyd drwy gyfrwng y Gymraeg yn unig- mae’r Saesneg o’n cwmpas ac mae’n rhaid i ni gymryd gwybodaeth i mewn yn un iaith ac wedyn defnyddio’r wybodaeth honno mewn cyd-destun ieithyddol arall. Mae’r pwnc wedi hawlio cryn dipyn o sylw yng Nghymru- credir taw yng Nghymru y daeth y term ‘trawsieithu’ i’r fei. Mae trawsieithu bellach yn rhan o gymwysterau cenedlaethol megis Lefel U Cymraeg Ail Iaith a Thystysgrif Sgiliau Iaith y Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Gwelir llawer o waith sy’n ystyried defnyddio trawsieithu mewn ysgolion uwchradd er mwyn meithrin sgiliau amlieithog a manteisio ar alluoedd ieithyddol amrywiol disgyblion mewn ymdrech i hybu cydweithrediad ieithyddol a diwylliannol mewn ysgolion rhyngwladol. Mae cysyniad syml y tu ôl i’w defnydd: nid oes angen i’r gwahanol ieithoedd y mae person yn eu siarad neu’n ceisio eu dysgu frwydro yn erbyn ei gilydd. Os ydych chi wedi dysgu mwy nag un iaith fel odolyn, fe fyddwch chi’n gyfarwydd â’r teimlad hynod o rwystredig o geisio dweud gair yn Almaeneg ond i’ch gwybodaeth Ffrangeg darfu ar y broses ar y foment olaf a striwo eich brawddeg Almaeneg berffaith. Mae diffodd un iaith er mwyn siarad iaith arall yn dasg wybyddol a hanner- hyd yn oed i siaradwyr rhugl neu alluog iawn. Os ydych chi wedi bod yn y gwaith yn siarad Cymraeg yn ddi-dor drwy’r dydd ac wedyn yn mynd i gyfarfod am 16:00 lle mae angen i chi gyfathrebu yn Saesneg mae’n gallu bod yn anodd diffodd eich Cymraeg: “If you’re mynd i consider- sorry… if you’re going to consider….” Mae hyn yn fwy anodd byth os oes pobl yn yr ystafell yr ydych chi fel arfer yn siarad Cymraeg â nhw. 

Mae’r ieithoedd yr ydyn ni’n eu siarad i gyd yn ein hymenyddiau ac maen nhw’n cystadlu yn erbyn ei gilydd am ein sylw. Felly, yn hytrach na mynnu mai un iaith yn unig a ganiateir mewn dosbarth, rhoddir rhyddid i ddisgyblion ddefnyddio pa bynnag iaith y maen nhw am ei defnyddio. Mae’r sefyllfa ieithyddol yn gallu bod yn hyblyg iawn. Efallai y byddai 5 disgybl wrthi’n gweithio ar brosiect a phob un yn chwilio am wybodaeth ar y we yn ei (h)iaith ei hunan. Gwglo ac ysgrifennu nodiadau yn Bwyleg, Portiwgaleg, Sbaeneg, Hwngareg a Chymraeg. Byddai’r dysgwyr wedyn yn dod at ei gilydd i drafod eu hymchwil drwy gyfrwng un iaith, efallai Saesneg ac wedyn ymateb i beth bynnag yw gofynion y dasg mewn iaith arall, efallai Ffrangeg. 

Mae trawsieithu yn rhywbeth yr ydw i wrth fy modd yn ei wneud gyda disgyblion o bob lefel ac mae sawl ffordd i’w ddefnyddio. Gan amlaf, bydda i’n darparu deunydd darllen neu fideo Saesneg i’r myfyriwr ei ddarllen neu wylio cyn y sesiwn nesaf. Byddwn ni wedyn yn mynd ati i drafod y deunydd hwn yn Gymraeg yn ystod y wers. Gall darparu cwestiynau dealladwyedd o flaen llaw yn Gymraeg helpu dysgwyr nad yw’n hyderus iawn yn siarad yn ddigymell neu ddysgwyr sydd yn hoffi paratoi o flaen llaw. 

Does dim rhaid trafod y deunydd yn yr iaith darged- yn lle, gellir darparu deunydd yn Gymraeg ac wedyn ei drafod yn Saesneg. Yr hyn sy’n bwysig yw bod yr iaith darged yn bresenol yn un cam o’r broses isod:

MEWNBWN > PROSESU > ALLBWN 

Rhywbeth arall sy’n hynod o effeithiol yw trawsieithu “cudd”: gellir gosod tasg i’r dysgwr sydd yn gyfangwbl drwy gyfrwng yr iaith darged, hynny yw, byddai pob cam uchod yn yr iaith darged ond bod y cam prosesu yn cynnwys iaith gyntaf y dysgwr mewn ffordd lai amlwg. Er enghraifft, gellir gofyn wrth y dysgwr ddarllen cyfieithiad o lyfr Saesneg y mae e neu hi’n gyfarwydd iawn ag ef. Dyma rywbeth dwi wedi’i drïo fy hun yn yr iaith dwi’n ei dysgu, sef Swedeg. Dwi’n ffan mawr o waith F Scott Fitzgerald, yn enwedig “the Great Gatsby”. Dyma lyfr yr ydw i wedi’i ddarllen nifer o weithiau ers i mi ei ddarllen am y tro cyntaf yn yr ysgol. Dwi’n gyfarywdd iawn â’r stori a’i themâu a’i chymeriadau. Felly, er yr oeddwn i’n straffaglu’n sylweddol ar adegau i ddeall brawddeg neu baragraff, roeddwn i’n gallu defnyddio fy ngwybodaeth am y nofel i ddehongli’r hyn oedd yn digwydd. Roedd yn heriol, ond roedd yn caniatáu imi gyfieithu heb eiriadur ac i ddyfalbarhau gyda chynnwys ieithyddol a oedd y tu hwnt i fy lefel gallu presennol.   

Dwi’n ddigon ffodus i gael llawer o ddysgwyr brwdfrydig iawn sy’n medru sawl iaith. Dwi wedi mwynhau gosod tasgau sy’n galluogi fy nysgwyr i adolygu eu sgiliau Eidaleg wrth iddynt wneud eu gwaith cartref Gymraeg drwy ysgrifennu crynodeb Cymraeg o erthygl yn Corriere della sera. Mae’n ffordd hynod o effiethiol i’r Polyglots sydd am ddysgu gymaint â phosib a hwyluso’r broses o gaffael dwy iaith newydd ar yr un pryd. Ond yr hyn yr ydw i’n ei sylweddoli nawr yw nid oes angen eich bod yn medru sawl iaith er mwyn elwa o drawsieithu. Does dim angen i chi fod yn hollol rhugl mewn iaith arall chwaith. Yr hyn sydd angen yw bod yn agored i ddefnyddio ieithoedd mewn modd hyblyg a chreadigol.  

Felly, peidiwch â cheisio gwahanu eich ieithoedd- cymdogion yn eich pen ydyn nhw, felly mae’n rhaid i chi sicrhau bod digon o Gymraeg rhyngddyn nhw. 

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.

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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.

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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

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.
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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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

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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.

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.

/kənɔlfən/

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.