Lessons in Welsh revisited

My blog was one year old yesterday and in the spirit of anniversaries I went back and re-read my first post  only to find that I’ve come round in a full circle.  No surprise really, it’s that time of year. It’s week one of the Trinity TESOL certificate course which means I’ve been teaching Welsh again.  Four hours in the strange, guided experiment that provides the input for the Unknown Language assignment.

In my first post I wrote about how satisfying this four hour course is.  How I love to hear Welsh sounds chorused around the room, how it brings out another side of my teacher self, the joys of teaching a language from scratch. It all still rings true. And once again I experienced the strange combination of climax and anti-climax of the last lesson as we finished on a chorused shout of “iechyd da!”  (you can use Google translate if you want to hear it  – it’s what you say when you raise your glass).

Brains beer at The Yard, Cardiff

This time round I’m going to indulge myself in exploring the anti-climax a little further. The point of the course is not, of course, to teach Welsh. It is to put the trainee teachers in the shoes of a language learner. To give them a chance to reflect on how it feels to learn a new language.  To reflect also on past language learning experiences.  And that’s fine.  But as the teacher I find it really difficult not to get caught up in our language aims, to get carried away by the teaching role and I think my slightly down feeling at the end of the course is because I’ve invested quite a lot in those language aims, although they’re probably not ever (except for maybe one, or possibly two, exceptions) going to go any further.

So this time in revisiting the Welsh lessons I’m going to reflect on my aims, and in passing, look also at an accusation that is sometimes levelled at the Unknown Language element of the certificate course, be it Trinity or CELTA, that it indoctrinates the trainees in an English only dogma.  One of my Welsh students left this comment on that first post and satisfying as it is,  it does worry me a little that I may be perpetuating an English Not philosophy.

I can’t believe how much I have learnt in such a short space of time, from scratch and with no English spoken!

In my English classes I don’t operate an English only policy.  I’ve written and shared guest posts about using the students’ L1 in the classroom and it saddens me to think that my approach to teaching Welsh might be perceived as espousing a monolingual classroom.

But back to my aims. There’s not that much you can cover in four hours, but my basic aims are the following.

1 to introduce the learners  to the basic sound system.

There is a direct sound spelling relationship in Welsh, and although there are some sounds that are alien to the English speaking tongue, once you know the code it’s not an inexplicable stream of consonants (so true of lots of other languages too) it’s a system and an easy one to master.

My “real life” pay off here, because I think there should be one of some sort, is to enable the learners to pronounce place names correctly should they ever happen to visit Wales.

And yes, I do speak Welsh, and almost exclusively only Welsh throughout the classes.  Accompanied with a lot of simplification, body language, scaffolding of all the different sorts we’re used to.  Part of my aim is that the learners experience the sounds and rhythms of spoken Welsh. Part of the aim is to model different ways of giving support and scaffolding to instructions and presentations.

But keeping Welsh and English separate is as alien to me as keeping Welsh and Spanish apart would be for a Welsh speaker in Patagonia.  I grew up mixing the two, jumping from one to the other.   Denying a role for English (or any other mother tongue) in the classroom would seem very strange to me, so I allow a space for students to question and check in English when necessary, to discuss and support each other when they need to.

Spoken Welsh is peppered with borrowed words, helo, coffi, plîs, ffôn (that last one is actually borrowed from Greek of course, but via an English route) and, of course, I use these to help put across key structures, to lighten the load, and to compare the sounds of the two languages as we do with international words and cognates in any language. I may be using the Welsh version myself, but I know that the students are comparing with their own L1 versions in their minds.   I try and set this up in the first activity and draw on it when I can.

The first word I teach  is  “Helo!”  We repeat, we chorus, we exaggerate the intonation. And then we listen to the word in Saesneg : “Hello”, and compare the vowel sounds (more open in Welsh, more similar to Spanish or Italian)  and the voice range (wider).  We establish the labels Saesneg and Cymraeg and a means for allowing me to include the Lingua Franca in the classes without actually using it myself.

2 to present some basic patterns and lexical chunks that show some features of the language, e.g. question forms and short answers,  noun/adjective combinations,  non pluralisation after numbers

I present these patterns through modelling and repetition and practise them through drills, pairwork, mingles, simple role plays, the usual.  But we also stop and notice the building blocks – using the “Saesneg?” shorthand we translate key elements, identifying the key question word Beth (What)  or the noun adjective pattern in gwîn gwyn (white wine) and gwîn coch (red wine), contrasting it with the adjective noun combination in English.

English isn’t the only other language we call on.  When we’re working on building up a dialogue at the bar we learn two versions of please, the borrowed plîs and the unborrowed – or at least not borrowed from English – os gweli di’n dda. In the previous lesson we’ve looked at languages and the languages the learners speak, so I ask them again who can speak French (works with Catalan too) and compare the Welsh version to the French s’il vous plait. (The literal translation of the Welsh is If you see well).   When I elicit iechyd da by drawing two clinking glasses in the board we go through the whole gamut of possible replies from all the languages we know, half know, or just know how to raise a glass in.  A very token nod to plurilingualism – and maybe one that goes unnoticed.  I don’t know. This time I’m going to ask the other tutors when they’ve marked the assignments whether there was any mention of the use of contrasting and comparing languages.

And so to my last aim:

3 to give the learners the experience of making language choices, of creating new utterances and generating new expressions using the minimal linguistic resources of three and a half hours of input.

We set up a situation – boy meets girl in party.  Sean is Welsh, Paula is learning.  Sean likes Paula, he approaches her.  Paula likes Sean, they strike up a conversation.  Making Paula a learner allows for repetition, for mixing the two languages if necessary , for slow and careful conversation. By the way, Paula can be English, or Spanish, or Italian, or whatever the class want her to be.  This allows for more language mixing as well.

Each time I use this activity it works differently. Sometimes the whole class build up the conversation on the board together. Another time they all grabbed pen and paper and started drafting a dialogue, another they all took the opening line ( Helo, Sion dw i ...) and spontaneously turned to a partner and took it from there, using almost every single scrap of language they’d learnt as well as asking for new words (dancing was one).

So,  aims revisited, classes revisited, I still don’t think I’ve allayed my doubts, or addressed the accusation. Do I perpetuate the English Only dogma, am I indoctrinating the trainees? I guess I’d better ask them.

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19 Responses to Lessons in Welsh revisited

  1. Happy Blog Birthday!
    I agree you should ask the learners! Why don’t you also ask them to think what the differences are between them being motivated adult learners and school-children? Would be interesting to discuss!
    Enjoy!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Thank you, Naomi!
      Feeling slightly sheepish for having missed the actual date!
      My part in the training course is more or less done so it isn’t really my place to ask that question, but it’s one of the areas the trainees are invited to discuss in the Unknown Language Assignment which they have to complete in week one and which I think can be a very valuable exercise in reflection, not only on the experience itself, but also looking at the bigger picture – as you suggest. But I’ll get to see some of them again at the end of the course for an extension on using technology – I’ll definitely remember to ask them then!

  2. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Ceri,
    This is a fascinating post. I love seeing how quickly anyone can pick up the basics of any language – certainly puts paid to the notion that some people can’t learn languages.
    As for ‘English only’, I think it’s important for prospective teachers to realise that it IS possible to teach without using L1, as some might be inclined to translate everything, and I don’t think that is a productive approach long-term. It might be interesting to have a discussion at the end of the class for the teachers/students to realise that L1 has a place, but doesn’t have to dominate in order for the students to learn. For me, before my CELTA lesson in Greek I had never studied only in L2 (despite being in the fourth year of a languages degree), and I didn’t know it was possible. It was a real eye-opener.
    I’d really like to learn some Welsh…I have an idea for a new blog, which I might ask your help with at some point, so watch this space!
    Sandy

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Sandy,
      Thanks for your comments. Your feelings about being taught solely in the target language are echoed by lots of the trainees. Personally I think it’s a positive experience. I loved my Swedish classes when I did my PGCE. Nothing much stuck mind you except for the sounds and the intonation and a huge admiration for our tutor!
      Really looking forward to hearing more about your new blog idea.
      Ceri

  3. T Bestwick says:

    Hi Ceri,
    I certainly don’t think you’re scaring the trainees into believing there’s no place for L1 in the classroom! Learning Welsh in an “English-free” environment just makes them aware of how much can be achieved through non-verbal communication when language is a barrier.
    T 🙂

  4. Lourdes says:

    Happy Blog birthday.
    Congratulations and thank you very much for your work and ideas.

    Lourdes Roldán.

  5. simon pearlman says:

    birthdays all round at the moment! happy blog birthday. deseo mucho mas!
    agree with doubts. i feel in two hours a week we want to create as much confidence as poss in english, english only is one way to to that, albeit not the most efficient or always the most comfortable but i try to remember the occasional mantra of “the journey is as important as the destination”.

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Si, nice to see you here!
      I suspect that when you say two hours a week you’re referring to classes with younger learners rather than adults. I’m no expert in that field, as you know, but I also suspect that what happens there is a maximising of the use of English rather than a denial of the L1, and a huge acceptance and embracing of any utterances from the kids – in English, in the L1 in response to English, and any other possible combination of the two. And yes, of course, the “journey”, the process is important – is everything maybe? And that’s why I believe that we can’t ignore the fact that a constant companion on that journey is the L1 and all other L2s that the students hold in their heads and the constant conscious and unconscious connections that are being made between them.
      One to discuss over a cool beer, I think!

  6. seburnt says:

    I don’t think that you’ve perpetuated the ridiculous idea of an English Only policy by administering your lesson this way, but more likely just done what you intended–shown trainees how it feels to be a language learner. If anything remotely close to your doubts, this lesson, with variants used in many training courses, can demonstrate that these policies do exist in some programs, but that learning in this way can be mentally exhausting. One way my instructor helped drive that point was to reprimand us when we said anything in English. Another is that in teaching us basic Japanese during that lesson, he did it in a way that was not communicative nor particularly pleasant!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Ty,
      I like the anecdote 🙂
      Did he make it unpleasant on purpose? I guess so! A nice way of course to learn what not to do. Might try that next time 😉
      Ceri

      • seburnt says:

        Yes, he absolutely did. He wanted to show how a combination of straight drilling, lecturing and a teacher unaware of their vocal tone and facial expressions could come across to new learners.

  7. Guido says:

    Diolch yn fawr, Ceri a blog-blwydd hapus! (hopefully, LLOLL)

  8. Ceri Jones says:

    I love blogblwydd!
    diolch yn fawr i ti 🙂

  9. David Warr says:

    This is a lovely post, Ceri, structured by objectivity and written with love. My mam always says iechyd da when she has a glass of ginger wine. A belated happy blogblwydd too!

  10. Ceri Jones says:

    Diolch yn fawr iawn for such a lovely comment, David 🙂
    Made my day!

  11. Steve B from last year says:

    Wow Ceri your blog has matured some since I last dipped into it! It’s gonna take me some time to process all that has been posted since then, but let me say your writings remain as fascinating as ever. I love your insights into the language-learning process, and whilst my classroom-o-phobia has still yet prevented me from capitalising on my investment, the personal gain is more than money could ever express.

    After watching (sorî) the X Factor auditions in Wales this evening, during the first few disastrous attempts at singing, I was able to massively take the p out of my Welsh friends whilst softening the blow with the few words of Welsh you taught me a year ago. I do it with rugby matches, or whatever else comes up, and always get such a lovely reception, even if I start with “Dwi’n ddim hoffi” and then switch to English! So with this in mind I went looking for you on facebook, I couldn’t find you, but was delighted to discover the top hit was Ceri Jones from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwrndrobwllllantisiliogogogoch, which I’ve just typed from memory and only bothered to learn after my Welsh lessons with you. So don’t fear the potential futility of the unknown language module – it still gives gifts long after the event that have nothing to do with its TEFLing aim – cultural links, in-jokes and the works. As I typed in my FB status this evening (and excuse me for this)… ffycin wych.

    So thanks again for the gift you gave us. I for one shall treasure it forever.

    Love and best wishes,
    Steve

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Helo Steve! Shwmai?
      Diolch YN FAWR am y comment! I’m incredibly impressed by the fact that you still remember how to write Llanfair PG! As you said ff***** gwych 🙂
      Sorry to hear about the classroom-o-phonia, but then again not all roads lead us where we think we’re going and I’d be interested to hear where the Cert road did take you.
      And as for Ceri Joneses on fb – there are hundreds of us (no surprise, there were three of us in my class in secondary school). But I am there. Keep looking – or maybe chase me up on Twitter? (@cerirhiannon).
      Thanks again for the comment, Steve, very much appreciated, but a big “gwen” on my face 🙂
      Hwyl fawr,
      Ceri

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