The gift of tongues

By | 8 March 2015

Learning to speak another language may be hard, but it has long-lasting benefits.

It’s not often a sign in a supermarket car park stops you in your tracks. But, newly moved back to Wales, I paused recently when confronted with a sign which identified where you could collect goods previously ordered on line. The word which arrested me was ‘clicio’, as close as the Welsh language currently gets to defining how you do business online. It made me smile, and I thought it was wonderful. Here is an example of an ancient language accommodating the 21st century and its jargon, as it must if it is to stay viable through these years of national distinctions dissolving, and sustain its very existence for the next generation and the one after that. Languages have always adapted to modern times – hence the boom in pedantry in English, with purists grumbling about the misuse of ‘infer’ and ‘deduce’ and ‘hopefully’, for instance.
So ‘clicio’ is linguistic progress. But it was a bit of a surprise, in a Welsh language TV soap opera, to hear a character rattle away in Welsh, then suddenly end her sentence with an emphatic pronunciation of two words: “big time”. She didn’t quite use the air gesture for inverted commas, but she came pretty close. But why use the English words at all, when Welsh certainly has simple equivalents? Later she described her partner, as she apparently hauled him by his tie into the bedroom, as “cute” – and again, I’m stopped in my tracks. Can Welsh really not accommodate such a nuanced notion as ‘cute’. (Pause for audience participation – go on then, tell me what it would be in French or German, because ‘cute’ is not quite as simple as ‘good looking’ or ‘handsome’, is it?)
I grew up in the years when the English (as the event was perceived by the Welsh) evacuated and drowned a Welsh valley to provide a reservoir and water for Liverpool. The small, Welsh-speaking village of Capel Celyn was at the heart of the valley. Google the name – it’s a heartbreaking story. The event shocked and scarred the Welsh psyche and hardened and crystallised nascent Welsh nationalism. In some ways, today’s Wales – with its own government, free prescriptions for all, culture and media dominated by Welsh speakers and Welsh lessons compulsory in every primary school – is a product of those days and an event which proved a unifying force. Part of the new nationalism was the realisation of the importance of the language as a source of identity. If you did not use it, you would likely lose it.
The late 20th century saw the fight back, to the point where completely monoglot English families saw the academic advantages of the Welsh-medium secondary schools and the improved career prospects for Welsh speakers, and committed their own children to Welsh-medium schools, intending them to become bilingual, as surely as they would if they had been brought up in France.
My parents arrived in North Wales before the Anglicisation of Wales, spearheaded by television, had really started. Few people in the village spoke English at all, and then under duress. Speaking Welsh was a great excluder, useful if you neither knew nor trusted the incomer. The grammar school I duly attended, in a town four miles away, divided its first year into two classes, not by ability but by language – 1E was taught in English, 1W received every subject through the medium of Welsh. Most staff were bilingual.
So at 11, I arrived into a curriculum which included Latin, French and Welsh, no options. And my parents muttered that learning Welsh was a waste of time.
Not being fortune tellers, they were wrong: it would have changed my life if I had bothered to become fluent in Welsh. It would have opened the door to Welsh broadcasting and I might never have gone near a classroom at all.
It’s a pity we cannot reach out to today’s students and convince them that learning a language could change their lives. When Estelle Morris dismantled the old prescription that everyone should study a foreign language up to GCSE, it was a bit like a parent abandoning bedtime. Children don’t enjoy going to bed early, but parents make them do it because it’s good for them. We know it, children don’t, but we do it anyway – tough, Junior, live with it.
Learning a new language anywhere other than in the cradle or possibly while working in a bar is hard work. You have a head full of sophisticated thoughts and sentence constructions with dangling adverbial clauses, and now your vocabulary is limited and alien grammatical constructions are bewildering. I know – I survived (I choose the verb advisedly) two terms of Russian evening classes and emerged able to do little more than say “please” and “thank you” and – weirdly – “I have lost my passport but I am not a spy.”
Lessons were a salutary reminder of how it felt to be not the smarty-pants teacher, but a learner again – handicapped by ignorance, arrogance and fear of looking stupid in equal measure.
Every lesson was terrifying. Why didn’t I do the homework? Will she ask me next? Does everyone else know the answer? Most often and most cripplingly, “Am I going to look stupid?” Next to two Polish students? Absolutely.
Multiply my agonised, competitive, reluctant, time-pressed and therefore “It’s not my fault!” attitude by the simple fact of being a teenager, and you have a recipe for drop-out followed by a teacher response of “Good riddance!” When we should be saying, “Stop with the attitude and get back in here – it’s like bedtime, you hate it, but it’s good for you. A new language is hard, but you will be glad of it one day – like having good teeth if you keep brushing them. Get over it.” The secretary of state for education should have said just that. And praise the Lord that Gove did.
But even so, we are left with a lingering arrogance which says, “Why should I? Everyone talks English – it’s the one language that binds us all. Big global business uses English because for everyone else it’s a given second language – from the cradle, from kindergarten, in the media, in films and videos – English, flooding the world. Lucky me! Born a native speaker Ha!”’
Are we at the tail end of this dominance? Is Chinese the universal language to come? Like my parents, I might say, “Nah – have you seen it? Or the problems you will have with pronouncing a word meaning four different things, depending on your inflection?” ‘Inflection’ for goodness sake? Chinese orals would be a nightmare. How familiar is British youth with the very idea of inflection? Chinese? It will never catch on.
But my parents, in a tiny village in North Wales, before TV really brought English to the hills and valleys, and they started to feel at home even if they never spoke the language, were wrong. And I may be equally wrong about Chinese. And I do know that if I were 18 again, I would rather face my future in this amazing world with two languages at my disposal than just one.
And I would be smug in both.
This article first appeared in Independent Education Today at on 1 March 2015.

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