The Bilingual Workplace

My first impression of working on the GWLAD Team (Growing Workforces through Learning and Development) project, led by the University of Wales Institute of Work-based learning (WIWBL), was that I had joined a wonderfully diverse team of people and I was immediately struck by the bilingual working environment.

Many, but not all, of my new colleagues, were Welsh speakers, particularly the younger team members who would converse quite naturally through the medium of Welsh. The non-Welsh speakers on the team had a refreshing desire to learn and the offer of lunchtime ‘Conversational Welsh’ sessions was snapped up.

My delight at such enthusiasm led to a conversation on the importance of language preservation with a colleague who had joined the team from Kenya and was fluent in both Kiswahili and Kibukusu, two of Kenya’s thirty-six languages. She was instantly able, to sum up my thoughts: “Your language is part of your identity. It captures a way of being that cannot be translated. If we lose a language we lose ways of expression lost to humanity forever”.

Another team member, originally from Vermont, in the northeastern region of the USA who speaks French and Sierra Leonean Krio explained her reasons for wanting to learn Welsh – “If your friends and family speak a different language, learning the language will not only help you communicate but will help give you a better understanding of their culture and their way of thinking. Having married a local man from Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen, this sense of belonging is important to me.”

This is also true in business. People feel more comfortable speaking their own language, so when you start negotiating you start with a positive. Good communication skills can make sure that you have a good understanding of the customer’s needs and therefore provide a more effective service.

Bilingualism is extremely widespread. It is the norm, not the exception and we must remember this. Roughly 60%-65% of the world’s population speaks at least two languages in their everyday lives. We are part of a linguistically vibrant, colourful and interesting society but we must be aware that it is predicted that only a limited number of languages will survive over the coming centuries. The good news for Wales is that Welsh is predicted to be one of these.

Much of the electronic correspondence that I now receive on a daily basis is either through the medium of Welsh or is at least bilingual. The increasing use of Welsh in the workplace proves that the language is indeed alive, kicking and continuing to evolve for the 21st century. This evolution will ensure that Welsh will not become a seductive, beautiful language, used exclusively for sharing our literature, our arts, our festivals and our great tradition of song yet no longer viable; but instead, a functional living language suited for operating effectively in the very modern Wales.

Bilingualism in itself is a fascinating subject and is just one of many modules offered under the GWLAD project which has been supported by the European Social Fund through the Welsh Government. The project is currently offering subsidies of between 50% and 70% and is available to all businesses or not for profit organisations in South West Wales. For more information contact the GWLAD team on 01267 225167 or via email gwlad@uwtsd.ac.uk.