Interview: Speaking Welsh, Living in Brussels

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.


Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Duit

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’m interested to see that it’s Féile Pádraig that’s trending on Twitter, rather than its title in English (including the variations St. Pat’s, Paddy’s Day, etc.). I’m also reminded of an article I read recently in the Irish Times on a new proposal for the language from Fine Gael, the party that came into power in Ireland after elections in mid-February. Enda Kenny’s party are proposing to make Irish optional after the Junior Cert (roughly equivalent to GCSEs, state examinations taken around the age of 15).  So maybe Irish is not doing so well after all…

Irish, also known as Gaeilge, is the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland. Today, it is spoken as a first language only by a small minority of people in Ireland, and as a second language by a larger minority. However, it is widely considered to be an important part of our (yes, if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m Irish) culture and heritage.  It is also an official language of the European Union and an officially recognised minority language in Northern Ireland. And for all of the above reasons, but mostly for cultural/heritage reasons I suspect (rather than the language’s practical uses), several hundred students staged a silent sit-down protest at Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament) before making their way to the party’s headquarters to deliver a petition with more than 15,000 signatories opposed to the proposal.

St. Patrick on a 3p stamp

St. Patrick on a 3p stamp

As readers of this blog will know, I’m often at two minds about how we artificially preserve languages, or resurrect them as in the case of Modern Hebrew, and to what extent we shrug our shoulders and allow the natural ebb and flow of languages to take their course.

The reasons for Fine Gael’s proposal are not articulated in the Irish Times piece, however the comments from the protesters give some telling clues, and having been through the Irish education system myself, I can see where they are coming from. Comments refer “to a problem that has been brewing for years”, “Fine Gael […] avoiding the issue” and “it’s a lot easier in the short term to just do away with it and not have to deal with what the difficulties in teaching Irish are.”

Irish is a language that was actively revived in the 19th and 20th centuries after the English occupation of the country as part of a Gaelic revival. However, it seems that the school curriculum has changed little since, and I interpret the comments above as references to this fact. Those who do well at the language in school seem to do so, to a large extent, on account of summers spent in Irish schools in the Gaeltacht parts of the country, i.e. Irish-speaking regions located in the west of the island. These schools are part of the lore of an Irish upbringing where success is generally measured – on the part of the pubescent students at least, rather than the parents who forked out the money – by the number of members of the opposite sex one kisses, as opposed to the number of new additions to one’s Irish vocabulary.

Those who don’t, suffer unabated years of reading and writing short stories of idyllic (or deadly boring) picnics on sunny days (?) where ceapairí (sandwiches), milseáin (sweets) and cáca milis (cake) abound. However, joking aside, the immersive nature of these schools, where a full sentence in English could see you sent back to Dublin in shackles, or at least disgrace, are a far cry from the sterile Irish classes I experienced.

My friend Philip just asked me if I honestly think that the proposal, if implemented, would make any difference, positive or negative, to the language. I always contrast my 10+ years of learning Irish to the 5 years I spent learning Spanish: I received an A+ in Spanish at ‘Honours level’ in the Leaving Certificate – my highest mark – yet struggled to pass the ‘Pass level’ Irish exam. True, this is anecdotal evidence, and true, a term abroad in Murcia did wonders for my Spanish, but I feel that my learning there was supported by the curriculum, not deadened by it. So Philip, if you’re reading – I doubt the number of fluent Irish language speakers will ever tip the balance. And while it continues to be an obligatory subject, Irish will continue to plod along.

However, with Irish threatened by becoming optional after 15, and the curriculum staying as it is, a decline must surely ensue. But how about a scenario where teaching methods are updated, textbooks are revitalised, and terms in Irish schools are incorporated into the curriculum? Maybe we’ll master the language by 15 and can then choose fairly whether to continue or not.

Anyway, Happy Paddy’s Day to one and all, I’m off for a gargle (not Gaelic but Hiberno-English – a whole other language!).

Take the (language) pledge…

Recently on this blog I have linked to some articles in the media about language learning (or lack of!) in the UK and efforts being made to stimulate foreign language acquisition. Now, here’s something new from CILT, the UK’s National Centre for Languages, and other partners, which I came across this morning. This is what they’re saying:

‘In order to compete in the global economy, we believe that every young person should leave school with the ability to communicate in more than one language and have an appreciation of other cultures. The UK’s poor record in languages, highlighted by the year-on-year decline in GCSE and A Level language entries, is a barrier to economic growth and competitiveness. It also hampers the employability of our workforce. Without action, we believe that UK business and young people will be disadvantaged in the international marketplace compared to others who possess these skills. If you are a business or individual who shares our views, please sign our Pledge. It only takes a minute and it won’t cost you anything!’

And here’s the link to the pledge:

A class in the English Language at the British Council Allied Centre, Liverpool

A class in the English Language at the British Council Allied Centre, Liverpool

UK GCSE exam results: Pupils spurn languages for sciences

An article in today’s UK daily The Guardian reports that French has lost its place in the top 10 most popular subjects at GCSE while entries for chemistry, physics and biology have risen. The GCSE is the General Certificate of Secondary Education, an academic qualification awarded in a specified subject, generally taken in a number of subjects by students aged 14–16 in secondary education in England, Wales, Gibraltar and Northern Ireland. Other foreign languages have also seen a dramatic decline in schools.

Andrew Hall, director general of the exam board, said it was the first time “in living memory” that French was not in the top 10 most popular subjects. Hall, who has a background working in engineering, said languages were still important for business although English is spoken widely. “You do need to be able to communicate with people in their own country in their own language,” he said.

Ziggy Liaquat, managing director of the Edexcel exam board, said: “It’s disappointing to see the decrease of languages.” He said knowledge of languages was “very important” in the global market. “There is a conversation to be had about how we do make languages more engaging, more interesting, more relevant for young people.”

Read the full article on The Guardian website.