Former First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, has been on the news after he pointed out that it was necessary to be less critical of "learner Welsh" in order for the target of 1 million+ Welsh speakers to be reached.

This is a common call of many Welsh speakers and teachers, claiming that people are discouraged from using their Welsh by criticism of their grammar mistakes.

Carwyn Jones added a personal note by admitting he often felt insufficiently confident when using Welsh in formal contexts. This might sound shocking to some, especially if you know Jones grew up speaking Welsh.

Diglossia

However, this is not uncommon around the world for languages whose colloquial and standard registers are very diferent, as is the case of Welsh. In fact, a Brazilian linguist once wrote: "We must be polyglots in our own language."

He was referring to the specific challenges of being a (Brazilian) Portuguese (native) speaker, but his insights apply to Welsh. After all, both Brazilian Portuguese and Welsh are languages with different enough registers that native speakers need formal education to acquire the standard variant.

I studied a gigantic amount of the grammar of my own first language in school (in Brazil). It often felt pointless: as kids, we liked to point out we already knew how to speak, and that no one we knew spoke the way we were being taught. This state of affairs is often called "diglossia".

The language of the Constitution

The standard response to this is that mastering the formal register of the language is a question of citizenship, of empowerment. "The Constitution is written in formal Portuguese," we were often told. Ergo, the message went, in order to be full citizens, to fully participate in civic life, one had to learn the code of officialdom.

It is in that respect that speakers of a language often have to be polyglots in their own language. It is not even just a question of formal and informal registers: languages have several different registers.

Linguistic registers

As a learner myself, I can probably list at least five Welsh varieties:

  1. Bible Welsh
  2. Novel Welsh
  3. Cymru Fyw Welsh
  4. Learner textbook Welsh
  5. Spoken, informal, "native" Welsh

 

What does it mean, then, to say that one "speaks a language"? What does it mean to "speak Welsh"? Obviously it is absurd to require someone to master all registers of a language (in fact, there is a fun little Brazilian novella about a man who becomes a successful con artist precisely because he does master all registers).

Learnerisms

But it is clear that speaking a language means more than knowing vocabulary and being able to get your point across. For example, a common problem that Spanish speakers have when learning Portuguese is a linguistic phenomenon called "fossilisation".

The languages are so similar that, after a very short time of learning, a Spanish speaker can make themselves understood in Portuguese. After that point, there are no real pressures driving progress in language learning - since there is no concrete need to improve - and Portuguese proficiency "fossilises" at that stage. The result is that these speakers always sound like they're speaking Spanish sprinkled with Portuguese words.

I and many other millions of people around the world are lucky that our main target language - English - is relatively straight-forward in that regard because its formal and informal registers are remarkably similar. Therefore, I've never had the experience that Portuguese learners have - and that I am having now learning Welsh - of learning a language with several registers.

More than one proficiency

But ultimately I don't think this is about us, learners. After all, Carwyn Jones is not a "learner" in the common meaning of the term (what we call an L2 speaker). Welsh is his native language. But it might be possible that, like for many Portuguese speakers, he is not proficient in formal Welsh.

It is claimed that formal Portuguese is not the native language of anyone in Brazil - that everyone who speaks it has consciously learned it. Might this be the case for Welsh?

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We might find this an unfortunate state of affairs, a discriminatory framework that only accepts certain registers in certain contexts. This may be true but I don't know of any way of fixing it and it might be a common situation for many languages around the world and throughout history.

In the context of increasing Welsh nationhood I think it is valid to enquire about the role of the Welsh language within a framework of civic structures (this is what I understand by "Welsh language citizenship"). And these do tend to require a standard, prestige linguistic variant.

More Cymraeg polyglots

To go back to my point about learners, I don't see this as a problem that I have experienced. Not because I don't make mistakes (far from it!) but because Welsh speakers have displayed an endless fount of good will towards me, my learning, and my mistakes. In other words, I think it's possible that the status of "learner" liberates us to make mistakes and learn in ways that are not availabe to "native" speakers.

An illustrative anecdote: my grandmother is a native speaker of Polish but was born in Brazil. When she first visited Poland, in her 60s, she could "pass" as Polish, but encountered bewilderment when it transpired she didn't know what a "lift" was. It was explained to her that a box could take her to the next floor, but if they suspected her to be a "learner" of Polish (say, by her accent), they would assume she simply didn't know the word, not that she had never seen a lift.

In my experience, Welsh learners are encouraged and supported, but it is "native" Welsh speakers who might not master a certain register who get the most criticism. Therefore what I think is needed is a discussion about what we can do to support and foster the culture that would allow and encourage Welsh speakers to become polyglots in their own language.

Dr Rodolfo Piskorski teaches Portuguese at Cardiff University and Academic English at the University of South Wales. He was the first person to take the UK citizenship test in Welsh. He now runs the website Hir-Iaith, which provides language technology tools for Welsh learners, most notably the Hi-lite tool, which allows learners to read Welsh online texts and get grammar and mutation information.

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