‘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...
“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