I’m Welsh but I’m not a confident Welsh speaker. On the daily, this doesn’t make me ponder on Welshness, on national identity and bilingualism but last week I took my boys to Cardiff Bay for this year’s Urdd Eisteddfod where it felt like a bigger deal on the Maes.
We were non Welsh speakers at a Welsh speaking event in Wales. We had a lovely day and we did feel welcome but also at a remove. I felt like a visitor, an outsider, somehow other.
The Urdd Eisteddfod is one of Europe’s largest touring youth festivals. As well as all of the stalls and activities on the Maes, there are loads of competitions for children and young people in things like singing and dancing following regional rounds. About 15,000 competitors take part through the week. The Urdd was set up to give children and young people the chance to learn and socialise in Welsh.
We toyed with sending the boys to Welsh school back in 2012 but our closest English primary school is behind our house. We cross no roads to get there, I can hear the playground from home and garden and it’s a cracking school.
The seven year old was in his absolute element in the Senedd display of the 2D and 3D art and design competitions. He’s a model making fiend and a puppet fan boy. He was so genuinely impressed with the paintings and drawings “wow, I can’t believe this one only came second, it’s a winner for me”, it was unsurprising when he looked up at me, his eyes glowing with creative crafting ideas and asked “how can I join in Mum?” like it’s Blue Peter and anyone can enter. Sorry babes, you can’t because you don’t go to a Welsh medium school. *insert sad child’s face* That’s where it feels excluding and exclusive. Which is understandable knowing that the Urdd exists for Welsh speaking children.
When I posted about this on Instagram I had a reply from a teacher at an English medium high school who told me that they had pupils compete so it turns out they don’t have to go to Iaith Cymraeg schools to participate. I did not know this. I thought the Urdd Eisteddfodau were a cultural rite of passage that my kids would have no part of in the same way that the opportunity wasn’t there for me as a child who grew up in Wales at English language schools. And that’s as a pupil who did extra Welsh (true story) and chose to do Welsh GCSE and A Level.
My Welsh is OK, I can get by to a limit. If you did A level French, that’s the kind of language vibe. Except it’s not. I’ve got an A Level in it but I don’t only encounter it at the boulangerie on my holidays. I work all over Wales so Welsh is at meetings, seminars, conferences, it’s in the lunch time chats and evening meals out, it’s sprinkled through emails, it’s on print, websites, in theatre productions, social media strategies. And that’s just work.
At the Urdd Eisteddfod we made an effort to use as much Welsh as we could all day. The 10 year old ordered his hot chocolate all by himself and enjoyed his “un siocled poeth”, the 7 year old said “diolch” to pretty much everyone in Cardiff Bay.
They were in awe at how much Welsh I used (my children are very easily impressed) “how did we not know you can speak another language?!” I can’t, I’m really not that confident with it but I do try when I can. I felt guilty and lazy for not using it more at home when I do make the effort in work emails and events. I want to use Welsh with them more at home, beyond our current “nos da cariad” (good night love) and “pwy sy’n barod?” (who’s ready?).
It was a lush day out though, one of those exhausting days where you walk for miles, while away time soaking up live music, have a nosey in every trade stall, race cars in virtual reality, golf, join a band, colour in, trampoline, make a bead bracelet, toast mshmallows and bump into a couple of people you know. As it was free entry this year I treated us to drinks and a fairground ride without the inward panic about spending all of the money.
It felt right to expose the boys to a world where people assume you can speak Welsh, it opens their mind up to realising it’s the first language for some people and it’s alive in Wales, not just something to learn in the classroom.