The future of Iaith ar Daith
I don’t think I’ve ever been on a panel at the Eisteddfod before – not that I can remember, anyway. I’ve done other things – reenacted Merched Beca smashing tollbooths (in a very fetching dress), joined dozens of marches (which are always happily short on the Maes since nowhere’s too far away), and spent far too much time looking after stalls – but never actually been on a panel.
So Wednesday last week, in the S4C pavilion, was a new, shiny experience for me (and new experiences are my favourite things, right up there with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens). And what an interesting panel it was – chaired by Sara Peacock, the head of strategy for the Welsh language at S4C, and sitting beside two of our most wonderful Iaith ar Daith learners, Aleighcia Scott and Kiri Pritchard-Mclean. We had a big screen showing clips of Iaith ar Daith behind us, and we were talking mainly about the importance of confidence in the learning journey.
We were also responding to some of the attacks that have been made on S4C recently for including a character in Pobol y Cwm who is on the journey of learning Welsh.
As a long-term language activist myself, I’ve been puzzled by these attacks. They seem to be based on the idea that English being used in Pobol y Cwm is a ‘thin end of the wedge’ scenario, rather than an effective (and naturally limited) way to include learners in the Welsh-speaking cultural community. Sara made the hugely important point that to help encourage learners, we need to help Welsh speakers understand what does and doesn’t work – and while it’s okay to model the right way to support on Iaith ar Daith, we can’t focus on the mistakes that people make when we’re dealing with real people. It would be utterly unfair.
So having a learner as a character on Pobol y Cwm lets us model the good and bad in a fictional setting where there’s no blame or embarrassment for real people. It’s exactly the right way to do it.
And it’s vital.
As people who care about the Welsh language, we have a very simple (and very stark) choice to make. We can focus on ‘purity’, on grammatical ‘correctness’, on making sure that Welsh speakers never have to suffer the horror of hearing a few words in English on television, or we can focus on friendliness, informality, enjoyment, connection, and encouraging more people to use more Welsh.
The first option only leads in one direction.
I said on the panel that it would be interesting to have one day at the Eisteddfod when every single person who made a grammatical error in their Welsh had to apologise to everyone else from the main stage, on television. It would be the quietest day in the history of the Eisteddfod. It would sound like a Zen retreat. Government ministers and chaired bards would be checking every sentence with online grammar tools before opening their mouths.
And that silence descending over the Eisteddfod like a shroud would be the sound of a language dying.
It is in speaking a language that confidence grows – and it is also, ironically enough, in speaking a language that learners acquire the neural webs that lead to them speaking more ‘normally’ or more ‘correctly’. This is how languages work. We have to start by encouraging speech, and then everything else follows.
People like Kiri and Aleighcia are every bit as passionate about the Welsh language as any language activist. They also have the crucial ability and energy to build new audiences for the language, and to encourage more people to feel connected to Welsh, to feel interested in learning. If we want the genuinely bilingual country we are absolutely capable of building, we have to welcome, to encourage and to celebrate people like Kiri and Aleighcia. They will dive in (with the extraordinary courage needed to go through a learning process on television), they will use English when their Welsh runs short, but they will keep on going, keep on learning, keep on using more and more Welsh, and they and others like them will bring the rest of Wales with them.
Iaith ar Daith is just the beginning. Archimedes said ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.’ S4C has the opportunity and the vision to normalise high-profile Welsh people becoming confident Welsh speakers, and becoming passionate advocates of the Welsh language. That will become our lever, and it will change the future of our country.