Stefanie Poulton moved to Brussels from North Wales in 2009. Today she works in British Council Brussels as PA to Regional Director EU. She shares her views about multilingualism and having become “Welsh Stef” in Brussels for our blog. Interview with Canan Marasligil.
Are you originally from Wales?
I was born in Chester, England and have two English Parents; my Mother is from Sheffield and my Father from Manchester. They moved to Wales the day before I was born…
The actual day before you were born?
Are they still in Wales?
Yes, they’re still living there today.
Did you learn Welsh at school?
I attended the local primary school where we were taught Welsh from very early on. During my secondary education the Welsh Assembly Government amended the curriculum, making Welsh a compulsory subject to be sat at GCSE level, when prior to this pupils had the option to discontinue it as a subject if desired at 14. I therefore studied it until I was 16.
Did you like studying Welsh?
At the time it wasn’t something I had wanted to necessarily study, as I felt learning another, more widely spoken language such as French or Spanish would be more beneficial. In hindsight, having grown up in Wales I now recognise the importance of language learning in relation to the shaping of identity and culture and although my Welsh is pretty basic and something which I am unlikely to use again, I think learning it and growing up in Wales has impacted on me in more ways than I thought; Now in Brussels I am referred to as ‘Welsh Stef’ – something I don’t necessarily consider myself to be!
How did learning Welsh affect who your cultural identity?
While I was growing up, learning Welsh always felt a bit alien to me. I knew that because I lived in Wales, in school we were expected to learn it. However with it being a language you would rarely hear being spoken and not coming from a Welsh background and mixing with friends who were in a similar position to me, it often led to some confusion and perhaps some resentment to it. The year I was choosing my options for my GCSE’s is when the Welsh Assembly Government made learning Welsh compulsory across the curriculum until the age of 16. I don’t think this contributed to myself having any feelings of being Welsh, but perhaps the opposite! I suppose it began to change when I left Wales for University and then moving to Belgium. As soon as you mention where you come from people are very interested in whether you can speak Welsh or not, it is usually one of the first questions! And then I feel quite proud to answer that I learnt it at school and am able to explain a bit about the language, its uses in Wales – how and where it is spoken and its history and origin, which people do seem interested in, given its reputation of a ‘dying’ language.
What place does Welsh have in your personal and professional lives today? Today, apart from the name I have inherited, Welsh plays little part in personal and professional life. Most of my friends, even if they were from Welsh speaking families have left Wales and when I return it is to visit my Parents. I have definitely noticed an increase in the about of Welsh visible when I go back, on sign posts, in shops and on literature in my Parents house which get’s posted through the door and do feel proud that I can understand it where as perhaps the previous generation to me would not!
Do you think Welsh helps you learning other languages or opening up to other languages?
I’m not sure if learning Welsh made me want to learn other languages. I think at the time because it felt forced upon me and because I struggled to contextualise it, it made language learning feel like a chore and therefore I didn’t appreciate its importance. However today, this has of course changed and living in Brussels where there are so many languages and dialects being spoken around you, I feel pleased to have studied one other than my mother tongue, even if it can’t be used!
Stefanie Poulton works in the Brussels office as PA to Regional Director EU; Rosemary Hilhorst OBE. Stefanie moved to Brussels in 2009 from North Wales to work at the European Parliament as Parliamentary Assistant to a British MEP. Although a varied role, Stefanie particularly enjoyed the PA element to the position and was keen to further her career working in an international environment in this area. Having gained a Master’s Degree in Creative and Cultural Management from the University of Chester before moving to Belgium, the work of the British Council complements her personal interest in intercultural dialogue and cultural management.