This week, Rhodri Hughes discusses how going to a Welsh medium school gave him a more in-depth understanding of both Welsh and English published content.
Welsh is one of the oldest languages in Britain. Academics have noted the first instances of written Welsh being around 600 AD, but it is believed to have been spoken even earlier than this. However, minority languages in the UK—from Welsh to Scots Gaelic to Cornish to Manx—are at risk from the sheer prevalence and dominance of English. While English is critical and isn’t going anywhere, it would be a tragedy to lose such important parts of British history and culture.
In Wales, both citizens and the local government have made a deliberate and concerted effort to not only retain Welsh, but also increase the number of speakers. Part of this is simply by encouraging and utilising Welsh content for people to consume. This includes bilingual traffic signs, train announcements, the Eisteddfod and the growing demand for Welsh medium schools. As it stands, 22% of seven-year-olds in Wales are taught in Welsh medium schools, meaning they are taught most subjects through the Welsh language. The Welsh Government hopes to get 70% of pupils fluent in Welsh by the time they leave school in 2050.
I find it surprising that there has been quite a bit of controversy about this plan. Even in Wales, some parents are concerned that teaching in Welsh puts some students at a disadvantage if they’ve not been exposed to fluent Welsh at home. There are also fears that this is a very costly plan, and that money could be redirected to ‘modern’ foreign languages or added to the education budget in general.
For myself, I grew up in a town in Carmarthenshire and spent the majority of my education at Welsh medium schools. Speaking Welsh or the 'Famiaith' ('Mother Tongue') was heavily tied to the identity of these schools. They prided themselves on their mission to keep the Welsh language alive and encouraged the students to speak it at every opportunity. These schools also ensured that the student body had a basic understanding of the history of the Welsh language. We also learnt about the obstacles it faces; such as the 'Welsh-Not', and the persistent stigmatism that is often brought up when defending the need to keep the language alive.
I believe the benefit of being able to speak Welsh fluently from a young age meant that, once I got to secondary school, I had access to more complicated and sophisticated Welsh literature and content. This helped me to develop an appreciation for the language and its history, not to mention its natural musicality and complex poetic meters. Eventually, I went on to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge, where my knowledge of the Welsh language and literature proved very useful when approaching other language syntax, lexis and morphology.
Access to the content of minority languages is hugely important, especially when we consider ways these languages, and the stories that come with them, have influenced popular culture. The most obvious example is J.R.R Tolkien. Tolkien was a Medievalist and had a wide knowledge of various medieval languages including: Old English, Latin, Old Norse, Old & Medieval Irish, Medieval Welsh and so on. Each of these languages have had an influence on his works.
We see Old English inspirations in Smaug, which draws heavily on the dragon from Beowulf, Old Norse in the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit, Medieval Irish in the exile of the Noldor elves in The Simarillion has parallels with the Tuatha Dé Danann the old gods of Ireland and the list goes on. Without these influences, one could argue, The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and the Simarillion would not exist. As a knock-on effect, we probably wouldn’t have seen a resurgence of interest in medieval and fantasy settings in both film and television, meaning that Game of Thrones, Merlin, Vikings and Britannia might not have been so popular or even existed.
Introducing a variety of languages in schools, as well as access to the content of these languages, is hugely important. Letting students of all ages experience different languages and cultures can open their minds and teach them a lot about themselves and their peers, their ancestors and history.
Languages are complex, and everyone has a different relationship with languages and language learning. Because some might not find much value or enjoyment in another language, does not mean that we should pull it up by the root and leave it to die. There is value and magic in every language, and we should treasure them and keep them alive for others to discover their value and learn from the legacy that they have led.
About the Author
Rhodri Hughes grew up bilingual speaking both Welsh and English. He now works as a Product Development Executive at CLA. He holds a BA in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic during which he specialised in Medieval Welsh Literature and Language.