A Life in Languages, Part 2

26. Dec 2018

But before we explore the lofty heights of the British A-Level system, we need to rewind a little, and investigate the following riddle. How can someone be raised monolingually, become bilingual, and then no longer qualify as bilingual, in the same sense, later in life? 

Well that’s exactly what I did. You see my father, Gareth, had been brought up bilingual, but my mother was part of the 80% of the Welsh population whose acquaintance with this ancient language was passing at best, and at worst reduced to a mere smattering of words that pepper their English-language conversation: ‘Ych a fi’ (eeurgh or eeew) being one of them… 

And so our home language, for all three kids, was English. At junior school we’d been made to ask in Welsh if we could go to the toilet, but beyond that essential use and a few token allusions in school assembly, including learning a few Welsh hymns, that was it. It was, to all intents and purposes, a foreign language. There was no Welsh TV channel either back then, so my exposure to it was very intermittent, on some of the remote farms my father visited to collect payments for the goods bought on credit in his clothes shop.

And so when I progressed to the local Boys’ Grammar School, there were five classes in our year. Four were English-speaking, and one made up entirely of the boys who came from Welsh-speaking families and had been to Welsh-medium primary schools. They had names like Dafydd, Llion, Alun and Geraint, whereas the rest of the four classes were made up of Johns, Marks, Antonys and… Andrews. 

As I mentioned in my earlier blog, I sailed through Welsh lessons in the first year, picking up 98s and 99s in the exams. But something happened in the Spring, towards the end of Form 1: my father suddenly had a burst of consciousness about his Welshness, and decided to attend a literary course to inject energy into a language he hadn’t actively used for years, apart from with his customers. 

Not to be outdone, and keen, as ever, to impress my father, I suddenly announced that in Form 2, I would go to join the Welsh stream. Aged all of 11, I went to see the terrifying headmaster of the school and told him of my plans. Gravely, he told me how big a leap it was, but consented when I insisted, equally gravely.

And so, in the summer that year, I swotted like mad, and finally entered the new year as a fully signed-up member of the Welsh stream. Sure, I had to struggle at first, and my mistakes caused a fair amount of mirth amongst the Welsh-speaking boys who’d known each other for years, but I survived the trial by ordeal.

All our classes were in Welsh (except for maths and English literature), as were the exams of course. And by the time I reached 16, I did all my O-levels in Welsh too. I had become completely bilingual…

But then I chose to do French, German and English for A-levels, and that marked the beginning of a slow decline in my Welsh which never really reversed in the following 35 years. 

I learned back then for the first time that even your own language, without practice, can suffer. Sure, it can be revived, and when I go home to Wales, I can still chat away… but something has been irrevocably lost. 

But as we all know, trying to keep multiple languages going could be a never-ending pursuit…

To be continued…

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