Article on learning Welsh/other languages in the Guardian

There is an article in the Guardian on someone who said they would learn Welsh in order to get a job as an RSPB public affairs officer, but was unable to do it.

Basically, she seems to be saying that learning languages is really hard, and you can’t do it unless you have an interest doing it outside work.

She didn’t want to give up her social life outside London and Cardiff to practice Welsh in the evenings, and had no intrinsic interest in learning Welsh.

Well, there would be opportunities inside Cardiff to do that, of course, but normally I would say if she didn’t have interest in learning Welsh, fair enough.

Her last point is “But failure always teaches you something, and “know thyself” isn’t a bad lesson to have taken away. Even if I can’t quite remember how to say it in Welsh.”

Just seems a pity she seems to have wasted a charity’s money and taken someone else’s job for a year or so in order to gain a lesson for herself.

And whatever the situation, pity she didn’t have access to SSiW at the time- can’t help thinking it may have been tailor made for her ( as for most people!)

Looking back, the goal was probably unrealistic: anyone working in a press office knows it’s hard enough to do a live radio or TV interview in your mother tongue, let alone a second language.

Yes, just a bit unrealistic!

Chwarae teg, she was only 24, and at 24, I didn’t know my pen ôl from my elin, either. The people really at fault there were her new employers. What were they thinking of? I hope at least she was paid, unlike that unfortunate Belgian chap mentioned in the article.

24 is an excellent age to learn another language - if she had been enthusiastic about learning Welsh and thrown herself into it.
And 24 is well past the age of majority. Pitt the younger and all that.
I still don’t know my pen ôl from my elin, but I don’t use that as an excuse.

That whole article just makes me feel sad about the state of language teaching.

And the fact that she can spend an evening talking Welsh to three Welsh-speaking friends, and still describe herself as having ‘failed to learn Welsh’…

But when she says “And in the end, the truth is that there were always other things I enjoyed doing more than learning Welsh well enough to do that job.”
I’m not sure that in this case you can hang the blame on language teaching.
As you know, people can and do become fluent through the use of “normal” courses and enthusiastic use of the language. (The numbers game is important, of course.)

Attitude is the most important thing whatever the course is like, even with something like SSiW.

If she was conversing for the evening, (it’s not clear from the article exactly what went on in that evening) then surely the language teaching was working, anyway? I mean, one or the other :wink:

But yes, if she had had more evenings like the one she describes, she would likely have been well on the way to being able to use the language appropriately in her job. She didn’t want to.

Fair enough in other circumstances, as I say.

But on the general point you make, I repeat the last line of my first post for emphasis,

“And whatever the situation, pity she didn’t have access to SSiW at the time- can’t help thinking it may have been tailor made for her ( as for most people!)”

I’m not sure that in this case you can hang the blame on language teaching.

No, absolutely not, agreed. I’m kind of thinking of language teaching in its widest possible sense here - the whole environment of it, of people calling themselves failures and thinking that it can’t really be done, the sense of pessimism that pervades so much of this kind of writing, the sense that even if you do it you’re going to be grinding away miserably wishing you could do something else…

That bit where she says ‘The goal was probably unrealistic’ is the nadir for me - plus the fact that she apparently spent an evening talking Welsh with friends, but was still a failure…

Oh, I see, yes, absolutely.

And SSiW certainly increases the basic “enjoyment” factor of lessons in deciding whether to do a lesson or do something else. (whether even that would have been enough in her case, I have no idea.)

What an interesting article. A bit sad, but very thought-provoking. I was especially struck by the employer’s role in language learning.

In the writer’s case the RSPB obviously gave her a good start with the 8 week course in Lampeter (I’m going to assume they paid - I know of other instances where they have), and she obviously managed to maintain momentum since she got a GCSE a year later. But how did they help her to keep going? I wonder whether the stress she felt came from her own feelings of failing or were fuelled by pressure from her employer. If the latter, I wonder how they supported her after the initial up-front cash to cover course fees / staff cover.

The writer talks a bit about other things that employers can do to encourage learners to keep going, but they aren’t particularly well developed in the piece. Does anyone else have any experience of organisations which have good on-going support for committed learners? Not just “we’ll throw some money at evening classes”, but perhaps “we’ll ensure that you can learn in work time” or “we’ll make it part of everyone’s job to help you learn” or, “we’ll find ways of celebrating your successes”, or even (dare I say it) “we’ll endorse SSiW as the most successful way of creating competent language users”.

Perhaps these are unrealistic expectations, but it seems a shame to read, as we do in the article, of a learner going under when they were obviously close to succeeding.

What I don’t understand is why languages are treated by the most people as some obscure exception to other normal work skills.

If you’d been given a technical support mangers job on the condition you learned and passed ITIL and found it too hard or didn’t like it it would just be tough.

Likewise or an NVq assessor job on the condition you learned and passed TAQA likewise.
Why are languages so different? It’s just a skill. Learn it or don’t but don’t get a job saying you’ll will then whinge it’s too hard and you don’t like it after all.

People get jobs they can’t do properly all the time, that’s life you just have to go get a different one. Why is it a news story?

@Leia: You make a pretty good point. I’m not familiar with the qualifications you’re citing, but I guess there’s a pass / fail element to them. In the case of the lady who wrote the article, how do you think the RSPB (or any other employer) should measure success in language learning and how long do you think they should allow to reach that level? The standard evening class route suggests that it will take a good few years to reach fluency - but passing the levels doesn’t really guarantee fluency. Should the employer develop their own proficiency tests and how long should the person be allowed to reach them? Other ideas?

(I’m asking out of genuine interest because these are really interesting questions which are debated in my workplace and I think I remember you commenting on workplace training before),

Because everyone sees learning a language as something that’s incredibly hard to do - never mind that the vast majority of people in Europe are at least bilingual. Honestly, I think that any job that requires language skills should require the person to already speak the language. Best way to test that? Hold the interview in the language (or languages) that you require the candidate to be proficient in.

Sure, for some languages that might be impractical, but you’re hardly going to only have one person on your payroll who speaks a given language if it’s that important.

@Chris: Good point. If a language is essential then interview in that language. But there are jobs where other specialist skills are valued more by an employer and they are willing to accept a commitment to learn the language. I don’t know if this was the case with the RSPB lady, but I think that that is one of the places where it all gets complicated.

In the case of a commitment to learn the language, I’d probably have an informal chat every now and then to see how things are going. Once those chats are regularly in the target language, you can get a pretty good feel for how their language skills are coming along. Of course, this requires commitment on the part of the employer to help the employee to develop beyond simply throwing money at it.

She did well to get a GCSE in a year, but that level of skill doesn’t qualify you do do PR interviews and the like in a language.

I got a grade A in GCSE German (as an adult learner) after 2 years of part time study, and I would have been a million miles from being able to hold down a PR job in it.

I think languages are different actually, and traditional classes are notoriously bad at being able to produce fluent speakers in foreign languages.

The people at fault here, I still think, were really her employers. Look again at her job description:

I’d just been appointed public affairs officer for the RSPB in Wales. It was my first proper job after graduating and the role was to be the outward-facing person – press officer, campaigns and member liaison – for the charity. There was one condition: I had to become competent enough in Welsh to conduct media interviews, participate in meetings and give talks in the language of the nation in which I was working.

One might ask why they simply didn’t employ a local first language speaker.

It’s not a foreign language, so it’s not really like learning German where there are limited chances for face-to-face practice.
But your last question: Yes. That.

Maybe because they weren’t actually that concerned about the Welsh language.

I’ve always thought these “commitment to learn Welsh” things were a way of paying lip service to the Welsh language whilst allowing whoever you have hired to simply go to a class once in a while (when reasonably possible, of course) and then hopefully have it all forgotten after a while.

[Rather like Mark James, the leader of the Carmarthenshire County Council promising to learn Welsh as a condition for being Chief Executive. Hey, that worked. Bit counter productive for him if he did, if course. Fewer Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire the better, of course, as shown by their policies, and one day Labour may have more councilors than Plaid Cymru, and be able to run things without having to get support from the (cough, cough) “independents” to run the council.]

Anyhow, I digress.
After first reading the above article, I thought it was actually good that here at least her employers seemed to be following up on her commitment and requirement.

However, though the article certainly implies she lost her job because she didn’t reach a required standard of Welsh, reading closer, at no point in the article does she actually say this. In fact, at no point in the article does she actually state there was pressure from her employers on the matter. What she says is her explanation, not a quote from the job description or contract. She says she was putting her job on the line, but does not say she left because of it.

As a framing example for the article she was commissioned to write, the way she writes it is better than “I worked for the RSPB Wales, and they said I should learn Welsh. I never got too far with it. They didn’t pester me about it and I left after about a year anyway.” Which actually fits as well with the facts she gives.

If she did have to leave because of it, that’s a good thing- but I’m not sure this was necessarily the case.

But yes, employing someone who speaks the language is the obvious thing to do if you do really think that the Welsh Language is an important requirement for the job.