Sunday, 1 March 2009

English Not

I am having a bit of an identity struggle at the moment. I am an English woman, born in England, but living in the very Welsh part of Wales. This has not really been a problem before. I have learned a little Welsh, but it is a complex language and difficult to learn. I will never be fluent.

I thought that my children would help me to become part of the Welsh community. My children went to the Welsh playgroup, then the Welsh nursery and now they go to a category A Welsh school for a bilingual education. Yes, that is "bilingual", but I have discovered that what bilingual means to me, an English person is totally different to what it means to Welsh speakers.

In Wales bilingual means "Welsh" not Welsh and English, as I would interpret it.

On Friday we went to the school's annual Urdd Eisteddfod. My children joined in with the others to perform - individually - a song and a recitation in front of the Urdd Eisteddfod adjudicator with the aim of making it through to the county finals and then to the National Eisteddfod.

This is all a bit opaque to me. It is entirely in Welsh, so I don't really understand what it is my children are singing or reciting, save for the occasional word. I sit on a little hard chair watching child after child recite the same things over and over again in a language I cannot comprehend.

Then the headteacher stands up and says a few things. Welsh speaking members of the audience laugh. She must have said something funny. Then the children sing and then it seems we should be singing too, but I did not know and do not know the words anyway.

It is the same on sports day or at school meetings. All conducted in Welsh, perhaps with a little concession for English speaking parents.

And then there's the homework. "How do I say that word mummy?" How the hell should I know? We have a stab.

I ask: "What does that sentence mean?"

"I don't know," says H7.

It seems that H7 and R5 do not always understand what is going on at school, although I am assured that H7 is "doing really well" and "speaks Welsh like a native". Apparently, "you wouldn't know that she comes from an English family".

R5 is doing well too. "I don't know what we would do without her," said her teacher at the last parents' evening. Yes, maybe, but R5 says she doesn't know what is going on half of the time.

Is this tolerable, this opacity of school life?

Historically it was the other way around at school. Children who were overheard speaking Welsh had to wear a piece of wood, called the Welsh Not or Note, around their neck and were beaten for speaking their native language. Now the pendulum has swung far in the other direction, minus the beatings of course!

Every official document we get has to be bilingual. So we get two lots, sometimes of quite substantial documents. Half goes straight in the recycling. How much extra must that cost?

As far as I can see there is a separation in this area between Welsh and English. My children can be as fluent as a native, but they will always have English parents and will never be considered local.

The "bilingual" education my children have is almost entirely in Welsh. School productions pay lip service to the presence of English speaking parents with the occasional line, but the rest is Welsh.

It is an exclusive education; it excludes me.

On the wall in the school hall there is a poster which reads: "Siarad Cymraeg yn yr ysgol."

Speak Welsh in the school.

That, to me, is verging on an English Not.


  1. Sounds rather unfriendly of the parents at the school!

  2. Hello from an officially bilingual country. I think that when bilingualism is legislated it all becomes very expensive and verges on the ridiculous. Because it is legislated, we must provide 100% of services in French, even in areas where there are no French speakers - all at taxpayers' expense. So we have two of everything - and I mean everything.

  3. I find this very upsetting (as an ex-primary school teacher) and think that political correctness has gone too far. I have always thought that it is vitally important to lead parents hand-in-hand with what their children are doing; the children thrive and the parents feel included. I am sure you have spoken about how you feel PERSONALLY to the head ?? Is there a PTA or School Council to whom you can voice your concerns? (I don't mean to intrude.) Ann.

  4. Thanks Ann, Lindsay and Ponside for your comments. I have expressed my concerns (in a small way) to a friend who is also a governor, who is sympathetic but cannot truly understand as she is Welsh.

    It is a thoroughly nice school, the best in the area. The teachers are utterly fantastic and loved by the children (and parents).

    The fault really is all mine for not being a Welsh speaker and for allowing the not understanding of what is going on to bother me.

    The problem might be alleviated by a translation service (like at the opera). Perhaps that will happen in the future when funding allows.

  5. Oh, Mags, I do feel for you. I have trotted round to events in the village and felt like a spare part because I can't join in the conversation (or, at least only on a very elementary level!). I know that folks aren't being unfriendly to me but just get caught up in speaking to each other in their own language, which is fine. Mind you, it's the same for my Welsh neighbours who come from near Cardiff and have never spoken Welsh. You would like to think there would be more at school for parents like you as, after all, it's about what's best for the children.

  6. I'm an English person in Wales too, though our part isn't particularly Welsh (except when it suits). We too receive most official documents and publications printed in both languages which seems an unnecessary and wasteful expense.

    My concern would be my children's achievements - providing they are happy and learning and gaining the skills to deal with life both in Wales and in that big wide world beyond the Welsh border I probably wouldn't be too concerned. Aggrieved that I was excluded though. I always thought education was about partnership.

  7. Good grief, how on earth do you manage? And your little ones seem to manage well, but if they don't understand a lot of the time how will they be able to continue as the work load increases. Are there other parents/children in the same situation? Maybe you could band together to lobby the school. It must all be very stressful for you. And all that paperwork in the recycling bin - how wasteful.

  8. This is tricky, isn't it. The fact is that Welsh as a language is still fighting a rearguard action to stop its decline. And the legislation which promotes the language in the curriculum and in government paperwork is less than 20 years old. But you're being made to feel like a foreigner when you're a citizen, and I remember the bewildered faces of other parents at my daughter's inner city school in London, who clearly couldn't follow what was being said. I don't think Welsh speakers are confident enough of their language's survival to be able to provide fully bilingual services in Welsh schools. And perhaps like many English speakers who are reluctant to provide Turkish, Polish, Urdu and so on translations, they don't think they should have to? But I know I'm glad I'm not struggling with language, here in the Brecon Beacons, as I too like to feel fully involved in my children's education. The subject of Welsh can be a political minefield.

  9. You live, and I was born, north of that imaginary, historical line called the Landsker, which joins the defences the Normans built to keep the Welsh of Pembrokeshire up in the hills!!! Keeping the culture and language alive is important to us, and the Eisteddfod movement is a superb way of doing this.
    For those who do not know, it amounts to an annual, nationwide (Wales), talent competition, with classes in singing, recitation, playing of musical instruments, drama, dance and other arts.
    The lowest, starting rung, is at school level, and the annual St.David's Day concert is part of the talent spotting. Local and regional heats follow, and it culminates in the annual Urdd festival where the best youth talent performs and competes (televised for those of you who can receive the Welsh Channel 4.) The likes of Bryn Terfel, Connie Fisher and the harpist to the Prince of Wales will have come up through the ranks. All children get a chance to perform, to compete, to learn success (and failure.) As far as I know, the process is unique in the UK.
    They do, obviously, compete in Welsh, but you should be aware that not everyone singing away at songs and hymns in Welsh will understand what the words mean - many of us were taught a new Welsh carol every year for the Christmas carol service, also a Latin and French one!

  10. Thanks for that excellent explanation of the Eisteddfod process The Veg Artist! I totally agree and don't have any problem with the singing in Welsh (or any other language for that matter).

    It is wonderful that every child, no matter what their ability, gets their chance to perform. (And in our case Connie Fisher's singing teacher was there as pianist - Connie being a former member of the choir here).

    My problem is the bits in between. My meagre Welsh just cannot keep up with the speed of native Welsh speakers and I don't know what is going on, neither it seems do my children. That is why I sometimes feel excluded. As ChrisH says above, I often feel like a spare part. I want to be fully involved in my children's education and that is a little challenging when it is all in a language I have tried to learn, but do not speak fluently.

  11. Your blog has expressed the fears I have for my grandchildren's education. They moved to Carmarthenshire a year ago and the eldest (6) is attending the local primary. She has just been moved into the welsh half because she is a bright child and it has been decided that the welsh secondary school is the best option for her.
    Her parents are English and non-Welsh speaking although my son (her father) did Welsh at school up to "O" Level and is now taking some more lessons. He is unlikely to become proficient in the language because he is not sufficiently motivated.
    We have lived in Wales since 1967 but in or around the Vale of Glamorgan and do not speak Welsh.
    I think it can be difficult for the off-spring of non-Welsh speakers because the parents can be of little help and as you point out feel alienated from the culture.
    It is interesting to compare this situation with that of my other son, who until last week lived in the Netherlands where everyone was glad to talk to him in English (He has moved to the Dutch speaking part of Belgium). His children will end up speaking Dutch, English and French.

  12. been there done this - not at school but at home when in laws would lapse into their native Welsh causing us outlaws to be well and truly left out. Not good but good luck with the school.

  13. I think this is so difficult PM. Like you I am an English-born person living in Wales and trying to learn Welsh (which I love). I think we are perhaps lucky here in the North East in that, although perhaps a third of the locals here are Welsh speaking, it is not "Welsh Wales" in an intensely nationalistic way. We have had nothing but welcome and a great deal of support from the Welsh speakers who are clearly pleased to find an incomer taking Welsh seriously and learning the language. It is a hard language and I am still massively incompetent.
    I wonder if your children really don't understand what is going on? They sound bright and happy and my experience with my neice and nephew at their age going into a French school with no French at all was that they really did pick the language up at a startling rate and after about 18 months were really bilingual, with only the odd hesitancy. My son used to claim he didn't understand things in his entirely English speaking school when he was about 6, just to wind me up I think! I think the idea of talking to the head about how you feel is really good, and maybe doing that in combination with redoubling your own efforts with Welsh. I am sure people would appreciate that you were really committed! Presumably this is the best school for them so it would be great if you could feel better about it and more involved generally.
    Good luck! I have been learning for two years and reckon I am about three years away from being able to have a decent conversation with anyone other than another Welsh learner!

  14. This sounds a difficult one Mags. So easy to feel isolated and yet not something you expect so close to England somehow. At least you are making the effort to learn Welsh which shows you are trying to integrate. Good luck xx

  15. Gosh Mags this was fascinating and really informative. I can really sympathise with you and am surprised that your girls, born and brought up in Wales and Welsh speaking, would still never be fully integrated. I can understand historically how such things can be, but moving away from the theoretical to the here and now, I think it's narrow minded. It must be hard to always feel slightly excluded, although I guess that must be what happens to millions of people who immigrate into any country. You're brave to write about such things.

  16. Gosh, been there and got the blardy t-shirt on this thorny subject! My children all went to a Category A school (Welsh-speaking), and my daughters on to a Welsh-only secondary school in Carmarthen (I shan't mention it by name). They had no problems with the language, but I felt a complete outsider. In fact, the only thing that made sports days bearable was the hooch hidden in a friend's Lucozade bottle!!! We have taken part in and attended Eistedfodds from one end of Wales to the other, and I took great pride in seeing "our" school win the Can Actol one year, but I never understood any but a few words. I am not a natural linguist. I am still an English incomer, though we've been here 21 years now.

    I understand how difficult it must be to have to fight to keep a language alive, but there is another side to the coin where it is actively forced on Welsh areas which have not been Welsh-speaking for many generations. Choice should come into the equation.

    Bilinguialism is one thing, but a P.C. bilingualism is another, and I am relieved this is my son's final year in school. However well you speak the language, you are still English at the end of the day . . . nothing can alter that.

  17. Wow. I am speechless. How incredibly hard for you. How are the other parents and do you have any mates you can have a giggle with... in english?
    Parents need to know whats going on... awful that it is such an uphill struggle. Hope it gets easier. Will come back for updates.


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