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).
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.