‘Bilin­gual­ism is child’s play and Welsh should be en­cour­aged’

In our fi­nal ar­ti­cle to co­in­cide with this week­end’s Shwmae Su’mae Day, pre­sen­ter Siôn To­mos Owen tells how his own ex­pe­ri­ence of par­ent­hood helps shat­ter ‘the myth that learn­ing two lan­guages con­fuses’ chil­dren...

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“PEO­PLE can’t get their heads around the fact that my daugh­ter, Eira, can speak and un­der­stand two lan­guages; she’s only two. I think the fact that she can has shat­tered the myth that learn­ing Welsh can con­fuse young chil­dren.”

Siôn To­mos Owen was born and bred in the Val­leys.

He lives in Tre­orchy with his wife and daugh­ter and is the host of S4C’s Pobol y Rhondda – a se­ries that looks at the idio­syn­cra­sies of his home town and its peo­ple.

He says that he’s spo­ken Welsh more and more since tak­ing on the role, a fact which in­trigued and puz­zled me in equal mea­sure. Was he lack­ing con­fi­dence to speak Welsh? Was he “out of prac­tice”?

“No,” says Siôn. “It’s be­cause now peo­ple have seen me on telly, they know I can speak Welsh.”

This re­cur­ring theme among this year’s Shwmae Su’mae cham­pi­ons is both con­cern­ing and en­light­en­ing: peo­ple con­verse in English be­cause they as­sume the per­son they’re talk­ing to can’t, or won’t want to, speak Welsh.

“Some­times you do have to go out of your way to speak Welsh, that’s why Shwmae Su’mae Day is a great op­por­tu­nity to pro­mote it.

“I only really got to know about it last year, and on the back of that I bought a Welsh-lan­guage book for my daugh­ter, who I only speak Welsh to. So it can work, and I hope peo­ple who don’t speak Welsh that much can go out and speak the lan­guage on the week­end; I know I’m go­ing to.” Welsh comes nat­u­rally to Siôn. He was brought up speak­ing Welsh (“my mother couldn’t even speak English un­til she was nine!”) and he speaks it every day: to his mother, his brother, his cousin and his daugh­ter. His wife has learned Welsh and speaks to their daugh­ter in English, help­ing to craft the twoyear-old’s bilin­gual skills that so amaze some of the lo­cals.

“We were in the shop the other day,” ex­plains Siôn, “and my daugh­ter said some­thing in Welsh to one per­son and then switched to English when some­one else asked her an­other ques­tion.

“Peo­ple were amazed, but I just take that for granted. It’s strange to ex­plain but it seems seam­less to me; it’s nat­u­ral to flip be­tween the two with­out thinking be­cause I’ve al­ways done that.”

Siôn’s re­laxed at­ti­tude is mir­rored in his be­lief that the Welsh lan­guage should not be thrust upon peo­ple like some manda­tory bur­den; an al­ba­tross around one’s neck that will de­mote from the plea­sure of speak­ing or learn­ing it.

“The lan­guage needs to be en­cour­aged, not forced. Shwmae Su’mae seems to be a mod­ern way of pro­mot­ing the lan­guage. It’s im­por­tant that it doesn’t have a rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing old-fash­ioned, and I think this is a fresh ap­proach, rather than telling peo­ple to use the lan­guage be­cause it’s ‘dy­ing out’.

“In the 1990s, for ex­am­ple, I re­mem­ber the lan­guage be­ing forced on peo­ple a lot of the time and peo­ple re­belled against it.

“I had friends in school, we could all speak Welsh, but we spoke to each other in English all the time to rebel.

“Now – with the same group of friends – we speak Welsh.”

This idea of the lan­guage be­ing forced, Siôn be­lieves, is in part down to the me­dia, and how sec­tions of it por­tray the Welsh lan­guage in a neg­a­tive light.

“The de­fault ques­tion is al­ways – why does it need to ex­ist?

“Why is this asked? It doesn’t hap­pen with any other lan­guage. Even if you go to Spain you can see and hear the English lan­guage ev­ery­where – they have English pubs, for ex­am­ple – and they ex­pect that to be the lan­guage that’s spo­ken.

“But the me­dia grabs on to some­thing and the an­gle that they nat­u­rally go for is al­ways the same: they sug­gest that we are try­ing to force the Welsh lan­guage when we are not.”

Siôn’s re­fresh­ing at­ti­tude won’t be any dif­fer­ent this week­end.

He ad­mits: “We all have friends and peo­ple we know that we speak English to be­cause that’s been in­grained over a long time.

“But if we can start a new en­counter or a new re­la­tion­ship in Welsh, it will work.

“It’s a great idea to pro­mote the use of the lan­guage and I’ll be out and about in Tre­orchy mak­ing the most of it.”

> ‘Peo­ple can’t get their heads around the fact that my daugh­ter can speak and un­der­stand two lan­guages’ – Siôn To­mos Owen with his two-year-old daugh­ter, Eira

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