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A little Welsh conversational

16 Oct 2020 | Jon King

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Jonathan King, Centre Quality Manager at the Wales Veterinary Science Centre, tells us how learning conversational Welsh has helped him in veterinary practice. He also shares details about their new Welsh4Vets initiative, aimed at helping members of the profession overcome this language barrier.

A little Welsh conversational  Image

As a non-Welsh speaker who started my veterinary career in the middle of a very Welsh speaking area, it soon became evident that shrugging my shoulders and using the “sorry I don’t understand, I’m English” excuse would not cut it with my Welsh-speaking clients.

The problem

It wasn’t so much, as you might expect, the fact I’m English, although that was great for banter with clients around the time of rugby Five/Six-Nations. It’s not true that the Welsh dislike English people, and nor do they all start speaking Welsh when you walk into the pub - the point is they were all speaking Welsh before you walked in anyway. The main issue was that my clients were first-language Welsh and would often become uncomfortable if having to speak English, as many do not use it every day. I noticed that even just simply saying “bore da” (good morning) when I arrived at the farm went a very long way.

The benefits of learning Welsh

I think, if vets are to develop the respect, trust and acceptance of their clients, then learning Welsh goes a long way. I soon realised how having even a little bit of conversational Welsh knowledge helped me to integrate with the clients and into the communities. The Welsh speakers generally love a Welsh learner. I remember being given a badge saying “Dwi’n dysgu Cymraeg” (I’m learning Welsh), and if ever a Welsh speaker saw the badge they would speak Welsh to me, but…speak…much…slower…so that I had a better chance of understanding. Farm visits became my classroom as farmers would push me more and more to speak Welsh, making routine TB testing, castrating, and dehorning much more interesting and mentally tiring, not just physically. I look back fondly at one particular lesson just after a marathon bullock-castrating session. As I handed the testes to the farmer through the crush, he ever so carefully laid them out on the ground in very neat rows much to my amusement. But then, after we had finished, he got me to repeat after him as we counted the number of testicles on the ground and it was not just “Un dau, un dau” (one two, one two).

It’s also opened up a lot of new social experiences and given me an alternative perspective on the world. It’s helped with understanding what my wife said to me when we got married, watching my children in the nativity play at school and helping with their homework. 

How to learn

The whole process of learning Welsh can be difficult for veterinary professionals, with busy schedules and lack of space to practice. I did a structured Welsh course, but only for grammar as it did not cover the terms most useful in our profession. There was an embarrassing time when I did a house visit to euthanase a pet dog for a Welsh family and thought I would express my sympathy with them as I carried it out, as the dog sighed for the very last time I tried to say “Close your eyes, go to sleep” but inadvertently gently told the dog to “shut your mouth, go and scratch!

It’s on reflection of my experiences, and because of the passion of Welsh Speaking colleagues, that we’ve started ‘Welsh4Vets’ at the Wales Veterinary Science Centre (WVSC).

We’re working to establish social online groups for veterinary colleagues who wish to learn some basic Welsh for the first time, and for others, like myself, who want to practice and gain the confidence to speak it more. This initiative is not designed to be a substitute for formal learning, but a fun way to socialise and to help MRCVS and RVN veterinary colleagues start or develop Welsh with other veterinary colleagues.

Small informal discussion groups will allow all ‘dysgwyr’ (learners) to contribute to the group, meeting online for 40 minutes every fortnight under the guidance of volunteer facilitators. Long-term, we hope to arrange occasional meetings between all of the Welsh4Vets groups, to which we will invite speakers to talk about veterinary-related subjects pitched at Welsh learners.

What next?

Early feedback suggests there is certainly the appetite amongst colleagues. The success of Welsh4Vets is very dependent on the good will and efforts of our Welsh-speaking colleagues who give up their time freely, and to those who have already started helping can I say, “diolch yn fawr iawn!”. The plan is to create more groups for individuals who wish to learn, but this depends on more individuals being willing and able to be facilitators. If you are keen to be involved as a facilitator or a learner, then please email [email protected] with ‘Welsh4Vets’ in the subject line.

Diolch am ddarllen (Thanks for reading).

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