Welsh is my first language, not English

15th February 2008 at 00:00

The debate about teaching patriotism in schools seems to be all part of the promotion of the concept of "Britishness" by the UK government. The Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has even gone as far as saying that English is our language.

As a Welsh first-language speaker, this both intrigues and angers me. I fear we're living in dangerous times. Such a rightwards lurch could adversly affect many of the pupils we teach, their families and many of our colleagues.

When I was growing up in West Wales in the 1950s and 60s in a Welsh- speaking community, there was one old lady I remember who was in her late 90s. Her only language was Welsh. She was a literate person and had always enjoyed reading her Welsh Bible.

When I think back, I consider it a great privilege to have known her. Neither was she alone in being a monoglot Welsh speaker. To all intents and purposes, most people of my grandparents' generation were monoglot Welsh in that they hardly ever used English.

I don't think Ms Smith and company would hold much sway in trying to say such people weren't British or were unpatriotic. They were people who had worked hard in coal mines, steel and tinplate works, factories and on the land. Many had also served loyally in the armed services.

There never has been a time when everyone in the British Isles could speak English or used it as a daily language. Sufficient linguistic, literary and scientific evidence exists to show that these islands have been multi- lingual and multi-racial for thousands of years, and long may they continue to be so. Our culture always has been, and continues to be, far more varied than it appears some people would like to think.

Milena Begum, of the National Assembly Against Racism, is right to point out that such pronouncements from government affect people from the Asian subcontinent and Africa particularly hard.

Economic migrants from Eastern Europe and other parts of the "developing" world, who are often prey to unscrupulous gang-masters, are also adversely affected. New settlers are expected to integrate immediately, which is in stark contrast to the attitudes of representatives of the British Empire abroad in the past.

One of the advantages the English language offers us is a means of communication because most people here are able to speak it. English, as a language, is one that has largely evolved among the English people. In parts of the other countries of the UK, where English is spoken as the daily language, it is not necessarily through choice. It has often been through brutal imposition.

From the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, for example, schools in Wales were plagued by the racist "Welsh Not". Young children were routinely beaten for speaking what was often their only language.

Even when I was at school in the 1950s and 60s, the only lessons I received in Welsh were Welsh language and literature. This period is brilliantly recounted by Dafydd Iwan in his excellent songs, "Can Yr Ysgol" (The School's Song) and "Baled Y Welsh Not".

Modern Wales, in common with other parts of the UK, is culturally very diverse. We're all Welsh, and certainly British, whether our first language and preferred tongue is Welsh, English, Somali, Italian, Bengali, Polish or any other, and we all continue to make valuable contributions within the UK.

At the beginning of the 21st century, I would hope that our governments would celebrate and support our diversity.

Rhydwyn Ifan is a supply teacher with more than 30 years' experience in England and Wales.

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