Memories of Wales

January 20, 2011 § 13 Comments

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
Nelson Mandela

Candy thoroughly enjoyed her homeland sojourn, and has returned with a timely post on English in South Africa that neatly adds to the wonderful posts on translation in the classroom by Ceri and David and Andrew.

Gwyneth rang up my mam this evening. She was my mam’s best friend from when they were little girls growing up and doing everything and going everywhere together, not that there was much you could get up to go in a small coastal town in mid-Wales way-back-when. The biggest mischief seemed to be knocking on windows and running off, and swapping the words, in Welsh, in chapel, to say “I am the bread and butter” rather than “I am the bread of life”. “Myfi yw bara menyn” and not “Myfi yw bara y bowyd”.

The phone call watered the seed of an idea for a blog post which I felt like contributing to the subject of the importance of your mother tongue.

The two old ladies greeted each other in Welsh and reminisced. It’s pleasing to hear the stories from when the world was still in black and white, and my own memories flooded back too. Like the hymn Jerusalem, that portrays a pre-industrialised, idyllic, fantasy England, my Wales is a land of legends and heroes, where the mountain Cader Idris, “the seat of Idris”, a giant who roamed the land, overshadows one of the many farms on which my relatives raised their livestock.

The village of Beddgelert is not too far away either, home to one of the saddest stories I ever heard, “bedd” meaning “grave” of Gelert, the faithful dog slain by his owner Prince Llewellyn on returning from the hunt and being confronted with an upturned crib and the dog’s bloodied mouth, leading him to mistakenly believe Gelert had killed the baby heir it had been left to guard. Too late did he discover the blood was from the corpse of a malicious wolf; the baby lay unharmed under the crib.

The men I knew had great big hairy sideburns and great big hairy forearms from flipping sheep onto their backs to sheer them. I had a nightmare one night in one farmhouse we were staying at of a fox chasing after me and biting my backside. I’d been playing with a posse of puppies out in the farmyard earlier and the event had eased itself into my night-time.

When I visit schools in the UK, it is common to see “Welcome” written in the reception area in weird and wonderful scripts. Language switching and mixing is a natural human trait outside the classroom. Translating between Welsh and English happened all the time within the thick stone walls of the farmhouses, and Welsh is once again compulsory in Wales.

Community languages, as they are known here in the UK, are now promoted and valued, and EAL (English as an Additional Language) teachers I recently shared a table with in a workshop all had stories to tell of how the children they had taught gained self-confidence and self-respect from being allowed to use their own language in class to teach the English-speaking children, who enjoyed it immensely as well.

Personally too, I can think of many students of all ages who have revelled in the role of teacher when offered the chance to present a phrase or two of their language, and can bring to mind the fun we’ve all had translating English compound nouns into languages from all over. I like how English can pile up nouns all in a row, whereas most other languages seem to work from the other direction, using prepositional and postpositional phrases. Using colour to show word class literally shows the different word orders and grammars languages can have. Excluding L1 from the classroom doesn’t reflect the translating skills we use in our lives, and denies us access to a well of memories.


§ 13 Responses to Memories of Wales

  • Ceri says:

    A beautiful post, David. It strikes so many chords (Welsh ones as well!) and the last two paragraphs say so much about what I feel is important in the on-going L1/L2 debate.

  • andrewpickles says:

    Nice, I enjoyed that thanks. I went to school in Oswestry and spent many happy hours (and several wet unhappy hours) on Cader Idris and around Bala and Snowdonia – brought back memories,

    all the best


  • […] here’s a link to a post by David Warr at the Language Garden about the importance of allowing space for L1 in the classroom (with a […]

  • dingtonia says:

    Thank you David – there is much to think about here. I work in a complete immersion environment where the use of L1 is frowned upon. I understand and subscribe totally to the value of working in a complete immersion environment, but it does preclude noticing, wondering about and enjoying the interplay between languages. Having grown up in a multilingual country, it is almost second nature to me to thrown in words from all over the place when I speak. And well I remember being asked during DELTA training to use The Silent Way to get the class to pronounce a notoriously difficult Afrikaans word! I felt like the “Keeper of All Knowledge” for about five minutes!


    • David Warr says:

      Andrew at Idle Tefl Thoughts makes a good point about how allowing translation activities reducing learners’ desire to translate and speak in L1 at other times, which can become bothersome. But like you, I do enjoy being in an L1-free classroom, and when I’ve been a language student too.

  • What a beautiful quote and post – you are a bit of an artist you are, I loved what you did with Harmer’s work the other day – I think I was too busy to comment but I noticed it.

    I generally stick to L1 in my classes but like you and many other teachers see value in translation especially because so much of language is not literal and by not ever translating you have no idea if the “real” concept in a chunk of language has really been transfered across between two parties.

    Your story was especially touching because I often think sadly about the fact I know not one single word of my own grandmother’s ancestors despite holding on so very tightly to them (the Kalinago) – I wonder if that means that really, I am missing a heart :-).

    • David Warr says:

      Hi Karenne, you comments are lovely, with a tinge of sadness, as you say, about losing heritage. I remember reading the history of the Kalinago on your blog last year. I’ve been trying to remember a quote, something like “what the child loses, the grandchild…” and there I forget exactly, but basically, it’s about wanting to rediscover what has been lost. The older we get, the more we think about these things, I guess.

  • Kirsten says:

    What a coincidence, I only read that Mandela quotation in an article I was reading yesterday! will go and read the rest of the post now!

  • Kirsten says:

    Being from the Wirral, our family spent many moments in a caravan in Anglesey, so I have a certain affection for Wales. I kind of want to learn some Welsh. L1 in class…being “new” I’ve sort of been trained against using their L1 and letting them use L1. However, I’m not very strict and so let them use it for work, but I must admit it’s very disconcerting when they sit there gossipping in Spanish right in front of my nose and I can’t quite catch what they are saying. But for “scaffolding” and helping each other, I think it’s nice to to use L1, and when they ask “How do you say “dar de comer”? it shows they are wanting to push the limits of their knowledge, so I do help them out (though I try to geet them to explain it a little in other ways first).

    I feel with English, as it’s my L1 and I don’t get to have a secret little language I can revert to without being understood by other people (where going extra-Scouse and my tendency to speak really fast can help), that my English is rather special. No student will ever have the same relationship with English as they never got to hear my nana and grandad saying things like “I’ll av yeh guts for garters”. That sort of English is really special to me. I know that in L1 you can express yourself in a way that’s limited in another language and it feels like you’re not 100% yourself. At least that’s how I feel. People certainly love to share a special knowledge of something close and personal to them.

    • David Warr says:

      Hi Kirsten, it’s a problem all teachers have, the learners idly gossiping away in L1. I refer you to the post by Andrew I mention below. It’s well worth a read. The idea of letting learners have a chance to use L1 in the formality of an activity may result in them not needing or wanting to use it so much elsewhere. I agree that when they specifically ask for a translation into English, that’s good news. I’ve used these opportunities in the past to improve my knowledge of their L1 (Italian and Portuguese mainly), and I think you showing a willingness and joy in learning a foreign language, without being forced to, can also put language learning in a positive light. The blog on motivation in the link in these comments is also very useful. Finally, your memories of your nana and grandad saying such things is what you’ll keep with you always. Thanks for the comments, they’re very expressive.

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