Putting the ‘Mother’ in ‘Mother Tongue’

On a fine spring evening in 2004, I was walking through Soho, London, to meet my blind date – a chap called Geraint Huw. According to my friend who arranged the evening, Geraint was tall, and dark and Welsh. He even spoke Welsh!

‘”Welsh?  – Is that actually a language?’’ I asked  –  ignorant fool that I was!

Well, against all probability, the date went well.  I had a snog and learnt my first Welsh words: ‘ ‘’P’nawn da’’.  I had no idea at the time, but the direction of my life was about to change altogether.

Fourteen years later, here I am, married to Geraint Huw, living in Wales, working through the medium of Welsh, writing novels in Welsh and raising my children through the medium of Welsh.

In my experience, being a parent means existing in a permanent state of feeling guilty:  Am I doing the best for my children? Are they watching too much TV? Do I pay them enough attention?  But being a Welsh learner raises a further question: In which language should I speak to my children?

I’m the parent who spends the majority of time with the children, so it’s me who puts the ‘mother’ in ‘mother tongue’. It’s quite a responsibility. A first language ought to be the place where you can feel comfortable,, where you can express yourself naturally and where you can be yourself.  If I were to choose English as the primary language at home, perhaps it would delay my children from feeling comfortable using Welsh. On the other hand, if I were to speak Welsh at home, would I feel totally ‘like myself’ with my children?

Obviously there are many people who speak both languages at home, but I have a feeling that if we were to use both languages I would become lazy very quickly and turn to English, thus slipping out of the habit of speaking Welsh. Then, what would have been the point of all the effort I’ve put into learning the language so far? So, it’s Welsh all the way then. But…. my Welsh isn’t perfect. Is it possible this route might deprive my children both of good Welsh and good English?

The truth is my fears are borne of prejudice. As a person who has been brought up with one language – and that being the language of the majority – it is difficult for me to imagine how different the experience would have been growing up with a minority language as my mother tongue. But the evidence is all around me: I have never met a Welsh speaking person who couldn’t also speak English.

As they grow up, my children are putting pay to my fears. My 6-year-old daughter corrects my Welsh sometimes – which shows that her grasp of Welsh is already stronger than mine. And despite every parental effort to only use Welsh, the children bring English into the household via their discovery of the likes of Netflix and CBeebies as well as their choice of English language books and magazines. They insist on both languages.

Growing up bilingually, the children have the best of both worlds: the deep roots of their country, and the means to extend beyond its borders. Whilst Welsh language schools do a fantastic job of creating the next generation of Welsh speakers, this isn’t the same thing as creating native Welsh speakers. That is a responsibility for us, the parents. Education can bring the language into the home – it’s love that will keep it there.

Sarah Reynolds is an author and Welsh learner. She reached the final round of Learner of the Year 2016. Her first Welsh novel, Dysgu Byw, is available at your local bookshop or at www.gomer.co.uk. Find Sarah’s blog at: www.saesnesyngnghymru.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Niall

    “The truth is my fears are borne of prejudice.”

    I don’t think that’s true. Your fears were certainly reasonable, and in some circumstances it’s better to leave one language to a particular parent.

    But no two families are identical, and the number of variables affecting what the right decision is is huge.

    I’m glad it worked for you, but don’t let yourself think that the families who opt for “one parent, one language” aren’t just as capable of bringing up competent native speakers than those who opt for a monolingual household.

  2. Jorge Alexandre de Sousa Gomes

    Fantastic testimony, diolch yn fawr iawn! And congratulations: besides being so intelligent, you are also a wonderful mother and your husband no doubt is a wonderful parent too! Your kids are eager to learn and improve their language skills, this is truly a blessing as well! What a wonderful, bilingual family!!

Leave a Reply