Why look abroad?

I was struck by the sagacity of this observation by one company in Swansea, as reported in the Western Mail on Thursday:

One firm in Swansea said it routinely asked foreign interns to look over writing done by young recruits in Wales as the grammar of the second-language English speakers was usually superior.

Western Mail, 23 August 2012

I've no doubt that it's true. Those who can speak two languages usually have a better understanding of both since, by being able to compare one with the other, the differences in grammar are highlighted and therefore easier to comprehend. Those who speak only one language are at a disadvantage by having nothing to compare it with.

My only question is why they should look abroad. Wales has plenty of second-language English speakers who could do the same job equally well.

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Welsh not British said...

You only have to look on facebook to see just how poor some peoples grasp of English really is. I don't just mean the spelling or the grammar, but quite often they use completely the wrong words in sentences.

I was looking through the SWEP in work this week and they had a story of how someone was going to peddle hundreds of miles. That's a lot of selling!

Anonymous said...

Why do the writers at the Western Mail hate the Welsh so much? We're the only people who buy the damn rag!

Anonymous said...

I was once told that any document meant for an international audience should be read by a non first language English speaker first. This is because the audience will give words their literal dictionary meaning and not the colloquial one. Even bilingual Welsh people grow up in a culture where English is a first language, meaning that they will over look the nuances.

The classic example is to describe technology as 'mature' which we take to mean that it has been proven and the bugs have been eradicated. Someone who hasn't grown up an an English language culture would interpret it as meaning 'old' or 'obsolete'. At least one Welsh company has lost out on a contract because of this confusion.

Getting a document checked out by a second language English speaker is not always because our writing skills are poor.

Unknown said...

Anon - to be fair, I suspect they ahve been instructed to fin an anti-Welsh line. They certainly entertain, and even encourage hate-filled comments that question the very existence of the Welsh Language. I think they are getting desperate for readers, and have decided to target the White Flighters. Doomed to fail!

Unknown said...

* erratum - for fin, read find.

Anonymous said...

I noticed when I took German classes at my Welsh-medium high school, Glantaf, in Cardiff that the people who understood grammar best, were the kids who'd gone to an English-medium school which had a Welsh-language stream. They'd obviously been taught Welsh grammar whilst everyone else (whatever their background) had been taught Welsh 'naturally'.

I think you're right that those who speak both Welsh and English are more than one language are probably more grammatically aware, but they haven't necessarily been taught grammar. On the other hand, a person who's learnt English (or Welsh) as a true second language, has probably been taught English (or Welsh) grammar.


Efrogwr said...

I agree with S. Those Swansea employers will need to call on the services of the "true" second language learners. My experience of marking the papers of Welsh first language history undergraduates was that many of them had a poor grasp of Welsh grammar. Not only did they suffer like students who wrote in English from the British-wide fashion for not teaching the grammar of one's first language, but they lacked the reinforcement from newspapers, magazine, adverts, cornflake packets etc that we all take for granted in English. All the grammar I know myself, I learned when I started trying to learn languages as an adult. I found it very different when I lived in Germany and Russia. There people are taught the nuts and bolts of their own languages at school. Extensively. For years.
To much lay comparison of Welsh and English may be a bad idea. The Welsh language is becoming so weakened that this can just further undermine confidence in Welsh idiom. People assume that English is the norm...then, hey presto, you have words like "addysgu" because a langauge surely can't have the same word for "teach" and "learn" because, erm, English doesn't.

Cneifiwr said...

This is a very big subject, but the comments put their finger on it - the key to this is learning a second language in a formal setting.

The much wider point here is why we continue to tolerate giving jobs to people from outside Wales while so many bright and talented people from Wales end up having to move to England to make a career.

The response is always that X was the best candidate, but is it really the case that we don't have enough police officers capable of doing a chief constable's job? In Carmarthenshire we have a raft of council officers earning £60k +, but a good many of those blew in from elsewhere. Why in a county with so many Welsh speakers is it acceptable to have so many senior officers who cannot speak Welsh? The same is true in central government, the National Parks, and so on, and it's not just the top jobs.

Politicians from all parties talk about the need to create job opportunities for young people and make it possible for them to stay in their communities. Making the ability to communicate in Welsh a pre-requisite for more jobs in Y Fro Gymraeg would certainly help.

Anonymous said...

It's nice to make a broad, comment that Welsh/English bilinguals have better English Grammar but where's the proof behind that assertion? You would have to show that pupils in Welsh Medium schools outperform pupils in English Medium schools in English GCSE when the all-important socio-economic context was taken into account.

MH said...

I didn't expect people to go into such depth, but there are some interesting comments that are worth exploring.


S raises the point about being taught formal grammar. I'd say that there are two broad ways of learning a language: one is intuitive and the other relies more heavily on grammar.

In an ideal world, what should happen is that you learn your first language or languages intuitively when young, simply relying on what "sounds right" or what you're told is right by parents and teachers. But you then need to understand why it is right and, as a simple definition, that's what learning grammar is about. As Efrogwr said, it's about the mechanics of the language.

Grammar is good in that it makes learning another language easier if you already have a good grasp of grammatical concepts. It speeds things up. I think that is probably what S meant by "true second language", but I would refine it slightly to say that if you're trying to earn a language over, say, two to five years (as is the case with second languages at secondary school, or learning as an adult) then a more grammar-based approach can be very helpful if you already have a good grasp of grammar.

Indeed that's how we used to teach second languages, and it wasn't a bad way of teaching/learning (wouldn't it be useful if English had a word that included both?) The only reason it's not such a good way of teaching/learning now is that we can no longer rely on people understanding what grammatical terms and concepts are.

I didn't really grasp how little formal grammar was now being taught/learnt until I started teaching another language to adults some twenty years or so ago. I found that I couldn't rely on people having enough grammatical knowledge for me to talk about moods, tenses and cases without having to explain what they were. Perhaps for some languages you don't need this, especially just for basic conversation, but I'm afraid they're pretty essential for Hellenistic Greek. In the end, I came to the conclusion that it was more productive to teach the basics of grammar in English, rather than try to teach a new language and its grammar at the same time.


But I still stand by what I said. Even those who don't have a particularly strong grasp of formal grammar, but who speak two languages, will still be aware of the differences at a more intuitive level. They may not know technical grammatical terms like mood, aspect, participle or preposition; but they will notice that in one language the word used to describe something tends to come before what it's describing in one language, but that it's different in the other; or that in one language you change the ends of words, but in the other you change the beginnings. At a basic level you can get by quite well simply on the basis of what has come to "sound right" in each language.

And I admit that I sometimes rely on it too. Even though I probably have a good grasp of grammar, I always look at what I write and ask whether it "sounds right" ... and I will deliberately break a rule or two if I think it reads better. Rules change over time, anyway. I remember being criticized for using a "singular they", as in, "If a person does this, they'll regret it." I did it because it was gender neutral, now it's commonplace.


Anon 17:43 makes a good point by saying that those who speak global languages often fail to realize that those who speak them as second languages can have a quite a limited grasp of nuance and vocabulary. You can probably count yourself as an English speaker with a core vocabulary of as little as 1,500 words.

But anybody who speaks two languages will be aware of idioms and colloquialisms simply because they'll know that the way of expressing an idea in one language doesn't always work in the other.

MH said...

Anyway, all the above doesn't have anything specifically to do with Welsh. It was about language in general. In fact when I wrote the post I intended it to apply just as much to second language English speakers whose first language was Polish, Urdu or Somali as it would to those whose first language was Welsh.

But I take Cneifiwr's somewhat separate point that we tend not to put enough emphasis on bilingualism in Welsh and English as something necessary to do some jobs, especially senior jobs, in Wales.

In any organization that employs a medium or large number of people to deal with the public, there will usually be room for staff who cannot speak both languages. It's perfectly acceptable to have people who can only speak one language provided there are enough other staff to meet the demand for service in the other ... whatever that level of demand is.

Therefore in a more Anglicized area of Wales, perhaps only two of the ten checkout staff in a supermarket would need to speak Welsh. But if a customer wants to complain to a supervisor, and there are only two, then one of them would need to speak Welsh. And if the customer needs to speak to the manager, and there is only one, then by rights that manager would need to speak both English and Welsh.

So in this example, at the lower level only 20% would need to speak Welsh, but at the middle level 50% would need to, and at the top level 100% would need to. In order to provide a proper bilingual service, this is the pattern we should come expect for all staff that deal with the public. The lesson is pretty obvious, although it will obviously take time to filter up. Which of the checkout staff are more likely to get promoted to the level of supervisor; the ones who speak both Welsh and English or the ones that speak only one of the two languages? Which of the supervisors is more likely to get promoted to manager; the one who speaks both Welsh and English or the one that speaks only one of the two languages?

Anonymous said...

@ Efrogwr: there's nothing sinister about "addysgu" - it means 'to educate' and is therefore not a neogolism designed to replace 'dysgu' in the sense of 'to teach'.

Anonymous said...

According to the Geiriadur Pryfysgol Cymru addysgu was first attested in 1547. So I don't think Efrogwr was suggesting it was a neologism.

More likely he was thinking about those who might trying to create a situation in which addysgu would be used only to mean teach, leaving dysgu to mean learn, i.e. trying to impose exclusive new meanings on words that were not used that way before.

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