The Day I Became An Expert On Welsh Bilingual Education (and other stories)

Dicen que los Colombians dejan todo hasta el último momento -¡¡ hasta tres goles!!

(They say Colombians leave everything until the last minute – even three goals!)

This is a quote that has been flying around after the qualifying world cup match against Chile a few weeks ago… 3-0 down at half time, they managed to recover 3 goals in the 2nd half, qualifying for the world cup for the first time in SIXTEEN YEARS. Only Colombia would be that energised by last minute pressure. 

So when I was asked, three days in advance, to do a short lecture on the bilingual situation of Welsh in schools to a group of students at San Andres University, I was quite pleased for the notice! 

Let me explain how the hell this happened. 

Alberto, our family friend in Bogotá, is an academic specialising in bilingualism and he was going to be in San Andres for three weeks delivering a course to some teachers about the state of bilingualism there. Being the languages geek that I am, and realising this tied in perfectly with the my visit to the island anyway, I asked if I could tag along to the course for a few days…

So I get this email.

How would you feel about doing a presentation about the bilingual situation of Wales, including the topic of bilingual education there? How does it work? We don´t know anything about the topic here. 30 mins okay?


30 mins? I don´t know if I could talk for 3 minutes about Welsh. My incessant Gavin and Stacey quoting was rusty, I couldn´t remember even one of Nessa´s catch phrases. But I didn´t think that was quite what he was looking for.

I replied saying that he probably knew as much as I did and asked for confirmation about whether this was actually happening. But infrequent computer availability on both sides meant it was 20 minutes before meeting Alberto to travel to the university that I finally got confirmation of the lecture.

I frantically googled a few things and took some illegible notes on the back of various business cards, having forgotten my notebook, and ran to meet him, still not believing it was actually happening. I new slightly more than I had known 5 minutes before, but that still wasn´t very much. Not much at all. 

We had some time to spare before the class started and so I took a walk in the evening sunlight along the beach, soaking my trousers and wriggling my toes in the sand like I was five years old again. I felt so relaxed and at peace… until I realised two massive dogs were following me. Everything Abel the dog-whisperer taught me in Buenos Aires about staying calm with dogs came flooding back – no eye contact, don´t run – they think you´re playing, just stay very calm… but as one went to bite my leg I panicked and turned sharply to take a short cut when I was certain the dogs weren´t looking. I thought I was safe but suddenly heard barking again and realised that they´d sniffed me out, and had made some mates along the way. I zigzagged the main road, dodging the motos and buses and constantly changing direction until I was sure they couldn´t keep up. 

Eventually I arrived: red-faced, soaked in sand up to my knees and heart racing. They were all waiting for me to start. This is how I learned that in San Andrés things start on time. 

´So…. Welsh,´ I started, feeling like Tamsin Greig in Black Books when she has to deliver a staff training day for a company she doesn´t actually work for.

´Welsh is an interesting phenomenon.´

Where was I going with this? I stopped and took a look at the group of adults, who, pens poised, were clearly hanging on to my every word. 

I stopped and tried first to learn their names to use up some time but this backfired as I couldn´t understand their accents and one slightly larger lady in the front row kept tutting and shaking her heard… I was not making many friends with this ice-breaker.

I settled for a quiz with one of the few stats I had picked up off the internet but I realised pretty quickly that these guys didn´t even know where Wales was. So I relaxed a little – this was going to be like doing 100% target language with Year 7 German – JUST MAKE IT UP, THEY´LL NEVER KNOW! (What´s that, Aisha, you used to live in Germany? Until you were 8? F**k!!)

I drew a somewhat phallic map of the British Isles which I think completely wiped out the South East and made Devon look like a separate nation. I labelled Wales and then began to explain the little I had picked up from WickyP: 25% of children in Wales receive a 100% Welsh education, and ooh did you know that there are no private schools that only teach in Welsh? What do you think that says about the prestige of the language?

Man, I was good. And I could tell by their faces that this was one of the most structured lectures they´d had in a while. I mean I had a map and everything! I managed to blag the education bit but then they wanted to know about Welsh itself. Where do you see it? I closed my eyes and pictured the train station in Cardiff which I had last visited on an open day in 2002. ´The signs are bilingual.´ I said confidently. ´And newspapers. And radio. Yeah. And it´s usually in the smaller towns and communities that people speak only Welsh. Yeah – there is quite a struggle to get the younger generation engaged…´ This was definitely not on Wicky P. I was freestyling here. 

´Is it like English?´ someone asked. 

Oh, they wan´t to learn some Welsh.  What the hell was I going to do? I racked my brains. Bore da. That was a dead cert. Iachhi da for cheers? (so glad I have a Welsh friend who likes her vino…). Ali G´s trip to Wales sprung to mind – Dwee Hoffee Coffee? I wrote it all up, resorting to language teacher extraordinaire with visuals and everything. It felt good to hold a board marker again after so long…

They seemed pretty happy with my beginners Welsh course. Then the question round started and I began every answer with, ´now this is an area of the topic I am less of an expert on…´ Who did I think I was? 

They bought it and I felt a bit bad, but also secretly quite chuffed. ´That was really good,´one girl said as I sat down, still covered in sand, still not sure what the hell had just happened.

After this and the Suzuki lecture I feel a little bit like a lecturing version of Leo De Caprio in ´Catch me if you Can´… or maybe it´s just the product of far too many last minute essays and lesson plans over the years. This is what a university education and a PGCE give you these days – the art of last minute preparation. And what better place to do it than in Colombia?Image

The aftermath of my lesson





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