In which I teach my Chinese students (and myself) all about Welsh


There’s a cliché that the ‘best English’ is spoken in Dublin. I’d like to put a new one into circulation: the friendliest variety of the language is that of the Welsh. When I left Cardiff a couple of weeks ago I felt genuinely sad to be moving away from a place where everyone I met in the course of two months greeted me in a helpful and engaging manner, even though I couldn’t speak a word of their official language. Well, one of their official languages. We managed, for the most part, to get by in English.

I spent eight weeks teaching almost exclusively Chinese students on a presessional course at Cardiff University. One reason I chose Cardiff is because I’m very interested in issues of language and identity, particularly national identity. I also thought it would be an opportunity to challenge my long-held patronising view of the Welsh language, which has occasionally caused me to use its very existence as a punchline whenever the name of a slightly absurd language is called for. Force of habit meant it was hard for me to overcome my slight amusement at finding in the university library a copy of the book ‘Business Welsh’. Surely the one phrase that would be most useful in such a setting would be ‘Edrychwch, pam nad ydym ni ddim ond yn gwneud y cyfarfod yn Saesneg?‘.

Things are, inevitably, considerably more involved, as is always the case with minority languages. The point of a language is not merely to communicate, after all, but to maintain and represent a particular culture and identity. Hence, gaining a better understanding of the role of Welsh is a way of rethinking other such languages. Besides, as this wonderful poem by Nayyirah Waheed implies, who wants to speak bloody English all the time? Nevertheless, in the relationship between Wales, Welsh, and English, contradictions abound. Reflecting on the role of Welsh in state school education put me in mind of a lengthy conversation I had with a young Spanish speaker in San Sebastian a number of years ago, who was frustrated that the Basque language was used to exclude people from other parts of Spain from public service jobs. On the one hand, I could relate to his annoyance. When I lived in Dublin I was prevented from applying for a civil service job by my total lack of Gaelic, and given the Welsh-English border is so fluid and that so many Welsh people don’t speak Welsh, it’s easy to understand why such exclusions, when and where they do exist, might create resentment. On the other hand, to complain about the imposition of such requirements is to ignore questions of historical injustice around identity which cannot simply be repressed. There are very good reasons why stickers reading ‘PARLA CATALAN!’ can be found on lampposts around Barcelona. The Spanish attitude to Catalan identity is exemplified in the nickname some speakers of castellano call Catalan: polaco (Polish), supposedly a language that few want or need to understand. Such attitudes are, as I write, provoking a potentially world-shaking response.

I suspect that Cardiff’s relationship with Welsh is rather like Dublin’s relationship with Irish. When I was living in Dublin, I barely noticed the existence of its second official language. Back then, as a confirmed monolingual, I didn’t spend much time thinking about languages. When I visited places like Singapore and Malaysia, I experienced and thought of them as essentially English-speaking countries. I must have just blanked out those portions of street signs and official notices that weren’t written in English. When I went to live in a non-English speaking country I became, as the young people like to say, woke, to the point where the role of languages and dialects became something of an abiding obsession in whichever country I happened to be living.

Wales is, of course, not as linguistically diverse as China (where I spent the academic year 2004-2005) or Italy (where I live now), but the Welsh language does have two distinct varieties. North and South Walians often don’t see tongue-to-tongue*. Those who have made the effort to learn the language (many of whom are from the south) are often disappointed to be responded to in English by ‘native speakers’ (who are more commonly found up north, and are (derisively, I think) known as Gogs)**. Nevertheless, the language has, since devolution, gained massively in prominence and official status right throughout the country. Many non-Welsh speaking-families now prefer to send their kids to Welsh language-schools, because Welsh medium institutions tend to achieve better Ofsted results***. The knotty implications of this are explored in a documentary called ‘The Welsh Knot‘, the title of which refers to a time in which the use of Welsh at school was severely discouraged.

Being in Cardiff in English meant I wasn’t exactly immersed in Welsh-speaking culture. In effect, given my level of exposure to Mandarin Chinese, I felt I was going to work in China every day, to the point where I started to feel I should be speaking it myself (I’d say my vocabulary, which had gone down over the years, made a sudden leap up from A1.1 to A1.1003). It was a conversation with a typically chatty Cardiff taxi driver that made me start to wonder about my students’ perceptions of the Welsh language. After all, although they were all effectively Mandarin native-speakers, some of them, particularly those from places like Sichuan, probably spoke different dialects at home. How did they think of Welsh? Did they recognise its existence? Did they think of Cardiff as a Welsh-speaking city?

Given a whole morning to work on my students’ note-taking skills through the use of an extended text, I decided to explore and develop their understanding of the role of the other official language of the country where (most of them) will be spending the next year. (I also thought that exposure to a totally unfamiliar language would help consolidate their understanding of English.) The first documentary I showed them followed younger learners from a range of countries going through a transition similar to my students, viz doing a crash language course in preparation for attending a (North) Welsh-medium secondary school. We also watched part of the one of I mentioned earlier, which centres on introducing a North Walian schoolgirl to a South Walian one; both of them study in Welsh medium schools but language plays a very different role in their lives outside the classroom. (The programme is described in detail here.) I introduced the topic to my class by saying a couple of Welsh greetings I’d taught myself (it was a unique situation in that it was the first time I’ve been the most proficient Welsh speaker in the room), and then asking them to do a short survey which I had prepared but have subsequently lost. (The results are thus not available for peer review.) They found answering the questionnaire entertaining, as they’d recently put together a similar survey of their own. In response to a question about which parts of China they thought similar to Cardiff in linguistic terms, many chose a region geographically close to their own where a substantially different dialect was spoken: Guizhou, Guangzhou and Shanghai were mentioned. Their estimate of what proportion of the local population spoke Welsh was 80% (it’s actually 20%). Asked for their opinion as to whether I spoke Welsh, about half guessed yes, which I thought was interesting as they know that I’m not from Wales. I also asked them if they could think of any words they’d learnt in Welsh, and a couple of them wrote down ‘prifysgol’, a word they’d seen hundreds of times over the previous few weeks for fairly obvious reasons.

While the results of my research were inconclusive, they did help me think about the ubiquity of linguistic diversity, and they both confirmed and challenged my assumptions that my students would automatically transfer their perceptions of their own country’s minority languages onto Welsh. Had I hung onto the results, I’d have more of value to impart. (Apparently the Welsh phrase for ‘sorry’ is ‘mae’n ddrwg’.)

Languages are multifarious, lithe, fluid creatures, filling up all available spaces to fit snugly into the social form. I suspect that my class, indeed the whole cohort of pressessional students in Cardiff, will, in the course of their courses, start to develop their own codes, relative to their new environment, mixing in English words and names and possibly even Welsh ones. Language creates and affirms shared identity: wherever new identities are being formed, new forms of language emerge to satisfy the collective need. That’s how classes, tribes and cultures are formed, and that process in some important ways reflects a more significant function of language than mere communication. When I first began to learn about the role of dialects in other cultures, I’d badger representatives of those cultures with a question which I now understand to be irrelevant and misleading: if you go to part X of your country, can you understand what people say to you? It’s a daft question, because the answer is almost inevitably: yes, because if, for example, a person from Rome goes to Napoli, or if someone from Sichuan visits Shanghai – or, for that matter, when someone from Cardiff finds themselves in Caernarvon – the locals will automatically communicate with them in their mutually understood language, not in the specific local variety. I’m sympathetic to the idea that there are no such things as languages, only language – in other words, that borders and boundaries between languages are artificial****. However, acknowledging that reality doesn’t help to resolve the status of different dialects and languages. The State has a responsibility to recognise the diverse cultural backgrounds that make up the population.

When people migrate to areas where a strong local dialect prevails, a variety of things can happen, depending on their kind of interactions they develop. Some assimilate, some develop hybrid varieties, some remain at a linguistic (and, presumably, therefore, social) distance from the local culture. Then there are very particular expressions and pronunciations which give the speaker the status of insider; code-switching, i.e. swapping between languages or varieties of a language in the course of a single conversation or utterance, is, after all, a ubiquitous feature of human speech. We all do it within our own languages, mimicking other social actors in order to take on or discard particular social roles. To switch between languages or dialects rapidly can take very great skill, but can be extremely useful. (On a side note, the fact that I look German means that in speaking German in a German-speaking country I get away with using a great deal of English vocabulary.) It would be interesting to know how this operates with regard to Welsh and English. As I said to the taxi driver, I can’t imagine that sort of thing is actively encouraged at the Eisteffod. One curious detail I found about about some of my students’ perceptions of Welsh is that when they didn’t understand what (for example) a shopkeeper was saying to them in English, they just assumed they’d started speaking Welsh, which some, it turned out, thought of it as a mere dialect of English. Such mortifying linguistic confusion may explain why some students included in the bibliographies of their final essays seemingly random references to texts published in Turkish and Portuguese . Oddly enough, however, none of them cited any works written in Welsh. Byddai hynny’n fucking hyfryd!

*Thanks to Terry for teaching me the English word ‘Walian’.

**According to my mum, an English speaker can learn French in half the time it takes to learn Welsh. (N.B. My mum doesn’t speak Welsh, and may well have gleaned that information from the Daily Mail, so it might be ceilliau.)

***More thanks to Terry for pointing out that the local equivalent of Ofsted is actually called Estyn, which, to its credit, sounds a bit less like the name of a character from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.

**** Someone who’s demonstrated this is Diego Marani, the inventor of the ‘language’ (actually more of a game) Europanto.

Six days in Splott

Image borrowed from @AndyReganCDF*

“Isn’t that Ninjah?”

My companion laughs. Everyone in Cardiff knows Ninjah, and when I mention him the response is always the same. As soon as I’d said that I’d be spending a couple of months here a friend of who knows the city told me I must look out for him. I listened to his somewhat madcap first album, watched a couple of videos in which he entertained people on of the city’s main thoroughfares by banging percussively on some bins, and started following his escapades on Facebook. And it is him, cycling towards us, half an hour after I arrived. I tell my friend about it and he’s surprised it took me so long to bump onto him.

The area I’m staying in is called Splott. When I got off the coach and told the taxi driver where we were going, his unenthusiastic response told me it held something of interest, and as we were driving along one of is narrow streets or tiny terraced houses I saw a mural proclaiming pride in the area. It’s clearly economically and socially deprived, but not lacking in curiosity or character. Or indeed controversy, starting with its bathetic name. There’s an apocryphal tale that it derives from ‘God’s plot’. In a more contemporary attempt to talk up where he lives, the landlord of my Airbnb place prefers to refer to it as /spləʊ/. In addition to the name, it’s got quite an involved history. Apparently a lot of Irish moved there in the late 19th century, taking refuge from the famine. Clashes with the local Presbyterian population ensued. As a legacy of that period, Splott still has quite a collection of churches. They were joined by a number of factories, including a steelworks and brewery and, at one point, a university for disadvantaged youth. Both the steelworks and the brewery shut down in the late 1970s.

Shirley Bassey grew up in Splott and started to make her name there, singing in the local pubs, of which there used to be dozens. Now there are two or three. There is very little passing trade to bolster the dwindling disposable income of the locals. When I set foot into one of them, one of the drinkers mentions Deliverance. The place in question is a amiable, run-down, drinking barn, with a handful of local men getting properly drunk to the jukeboxes and and looking forward to the karaoke on Friday. The patrons are welcoming and happy to talk, sharing tales of long days in insecure jobs.

The effect of two-thirds of a decade of ‘savage cuts’ (thanks Nick) are very visible. Local churches have regular and well-attended food banks. A couple of years ago the cash-strapped council shut down a popular swimming pool, provoking furious protests. Along with the pride, there’s defiance, as seen in the drive-by gestures of the mobility scooter owners in this locally-filmed video (directed, as it happens, by Ninah). It shows off the Magic Roundabout, which marks one end of Splott. The area is hard to walk to and around. When, on my third day, a church collapsed, the ensuing detours made it even more isolated. Still, while the tragedy ruined my sole attempt to get to work by bus, it did make it even easier to talk to people. On my way home from an exploration of the remaining local pubs (which mostly involved conversations about all the pubs which have closed), people asked me for directions, which was quite entertaining.

Splott is probably not dissimilar to a lot of smaller towns in Wales or the north of England. There may even be areas of Sheffield (my hometown) which are comparable. On June 23rd last year, Cardiff voted to remain in the EU, but I can see why Wales as a whole rebelled. Whatever Vince Cable and (oh yes!) Nick Clegg have to say on the matter, you can’t separate the Brexit vote from the increasingly dire conditions in which so many are forced to live. Splott is clearly struggling but by no means the worst. While for some life seems to revolve around the acquisition and consumption of cans of beer, the takeaways are mostly old-school Chinese rather than fried chicken, and although there are some betting shops (which may well help explain the disappearance of the pubs) there isn’t a Ladbrokes and Paddy Power and another Ladbrokes on every corner. That may well change. After all, once the safety net is torn down, people will grab at anything in the attempt to survive.

There’s quite a contrast with the city centre, which seems to have been refurbished to suit the assumed requirements of slumming premier league footballers. On a Sunday afternoon it proved impossible to find somewhere to eat that was neither a sports bar or part of a chain, those gargantuan blinged-up all-you-can-eateries which only justify the extortionate prices if you eat enough for a week. Cardiff Bay is nice to look at and from, but it’s a shame that it has the exact same seven or eight franchised restaurants, thought to attract the right kind of consumers. It’s a pity when other parts of the city have so much character.

The local market, once I track it down, proved to be one of those places which take place in a car park and specialise in cans of vehicle spraypaint and hefty bacon sandwiches. Easy to disparage, perhaps, but it’s what people most need on a Saturday morning, and you can set out your own stall for only £7 a day. It’s a shame the council clearly does nothing to promote it or to maintain the premises. The wrong kind of enterprise, the wrong kind of consumer. It seems I stood out in my overcolourful shirt (passing comment from stallholder: “I didn’t know we were in fucking Bermuda!“), because when I asked someone about other markets around town, after a couple of references to local landmarks which met with blank looks, he uttered the (for me) delightful phrase “You’re not British, are you?”. Regular readers of this blog will understand my joy on being asked this.  As it happens, I wouldn’t actually mind being Welsh, although of course I’m not really anything more than a tourist. If you want to know more about Splott, this is an excellent place to look.

O Cardiff! part 1

O Cardiff! I’ll be staying with (or in) you for seven weeks this summer
O Cardiff! while I work on a presessional course at the university
O Cardiff! I think there’s only one university
O Cardiff! (I’ve just checked, there are two).

O Cardiff! when I opened Facebook this morning on the way to work
O Cardiff! there was an advert for a local company which hires out white vans
O Cardiff! just below an article about the Cardiff racist who carried out
O Cardiff! the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park.

O Cardiff! I will miss my wife and young child back in Italy
O Cardiff! but they’ll be there for three weeks in a holiday cottage
O Cardiff! from mid to late August
O Cardiff! I don’t have to make a joke about burnt-down holiday cottages.

O Cardiff! you are near my favourite city in the UK: Bristol.
O Cardiff! the English city that most resembles Berlin
O Cardiff! so I’ll be visiting there a fair amount to see friends.

O Cardiff! I wonder if I’ll learn any Welsh
O Cardiff! I’m curious to be around another local language
O Cardiff! being spoken in my ‘own’ country
O Cardiff! although you are not in whatever the Welsh call the Gaeltacht
O Cardiff! I hope I will overcome my slightly racist tendency
O Cardiff! to use your language as the easy punchline
O Cardiff! to any jokes about obscure languages.

O Cardiff! I’d be grateful if you could teach me
O Cardiff! teach me something about the difference between England and Britain
O Cardiff! having lived in Dublin, I wonder if there’s a similar distance in terms of
O Cardiff! cultural identity
O Cardiff! especially given that I’ll be (briefly, in some ways) an immigrant.

O Cardiff! I see you voted to stay in the EU
O Cardiff! and elected a full complement of Labour MPs.

O Cardiff! you will be the eighth capital city I’ve ‘lived’ in
O Cardiff! if spending seven weeks there
O Cardiff! can be considered living in any meaningful sense.

O Cardiff! I think you have a large Chinese population
O Cardiff! although when I google Cardiff Chinese it just tells me about restaurants
O Cardiff! if so it will be of particular interest to my students
O Cardiff! who will almost certainly be almost all Chinese
O Cardiff! so I’m looking forward to finding out
O Cardiff! what they make of the place in terms of national identity.

O Cardiff! I welcome suggestions on galleries and other things to see and do
O Cardiff! and am happy to hear from anyone in or nearby
O Cardiff! who wants to hang out while I’m there.