Like almost 10% of Welsh speakers in Wales, Siop Dwt’s Helen Rose’s love for her ancestral tongue came later in life. Not only did it help her connect with her heritage, family and colleagues, but it also encouraged her to help others around the world do the same, as she details to Hannah Collins.
“I did absolutely everything I could to get out of Welsh lessons in school. I didn’t even get my GCSE. ‘It was a dead language,’ I thought, ‘Why are we bothering with this?” That was Bridgend’s Helen Rose as a teenager. Cut to today, and I’m talking to a whole new Helen: a former Future Generations Policy Advisor for Equality and Welsh language advocate whose business – Welsh language learner subscription boxes – recently launched to an international customer base through her business, Siop Dwt. So what changed?
“In my day job [for the NHS], I got seconded to the Future Generations office, which at the time was run by Sophie Howe [first Future Generations Commissioner for Wales],” Rose explains. “I noticed that a lot of senior staff were speaking Welsh to each other and they had Welsh lessons after lunch. I was also in a relationship with someone who speaks Welsh as a first language; he’s from west Wales, and when we go there and you walk into, for example, the butchers, all the signage is in Welsh and people sort of live in Welsh.
“I started to feel like I was missing out on something and to see the value in it. People in my office were having important conversations in it, but also just friendly conversations. That was the thing that made me think, ‘right, you’re going to start doing those lunchtime lessons,’ and I got hooked.”
The Welsh Government aims to have one million Welsh speakers by 2050. A 2011 census found that 19% of the population aged three or older could speak the language. That number has fluctuated among different age brackets ever since, but according to the most recent population survey (March 2023), has risen to 29.7% overall, or about 906,800 people. By far the largest demographic of Welsh speakers is aged between 3-15 years, with numbers sharply declining beyond that, which suggests that Rose isn’t the only one who left the language behind as they grew beyond compulsory education.
I ask her what schools can do to make young people more interested in it long-term. “When I was in school, they would teach the nuts and bolts of the language rather than the ‘why’,” she says. “We didn’t do anything on Welsh history or how the language was suppressed. I knew far more about ancient Egypt than I did about Welsh history! So I think schools could do more to connect those two things.” In line with Cymraeg 2050, a new review of the curriculum last year decided on a more blended approach, eliminating the GCSE Welsh Second Language to instead introduce a combined Welsh Language and Welsh Literature qualification for Welsh and bilingual students.
“Eventually, we want to see one overarching Cymraeg qualification for all learners in all settings, but we are not there yet because learners have varying levels of exposure to the language,” says Emyr George, director of Qualifications Policy & Reform at Qualifications Wales. “The qualifications will give all learners a fair and equal opportunity to achieve in Cymraeg. They reflect the different sets of expectations for English-medium and Welsh-medium schools.” This provides a lot more nuance and flexibility for learners by allowing for a “spectrum of Welsh language experience and ability,” which is great news for people in Rose’s position, who feel underrepresented as intermediates.
“For me, there’s a spectrum of Welsh learners,” she outlines, echoing Qualifications Wales’ statement. “There are people who are just starting and know a few words and phrases to people who are fluent. But in the middle, there’s such a wide range who need to be engaged more. The Eisteddfod is coming to RCT, where I live, next year and I don’t feel it’s appealing enough to people who are not fluent Welsh speakers yet.
“To give an example, I went to one of the organising meetings for the Eisteddfod next year. There were probably about 100 people there and I was one of about five who needed a headset to follow along. I thought, considering this is a country with a relatively low percentage of Welsh speakers, this needs to be widened out so that people who don’t speak fluent Welsh can still get involved in the organising. Once they feel connected to the culture and heritage aspects, hopefully, it’ll get them hooked on the language as well.”
Rose has been learning for over three years now and, admitting how hard a language it is, says she still can’t hold a proper conversation yet. “People overestimate the ability of learners. There’s no language that’s easy but in Welsh, there are particularly tricky things – the patterns and mutations take a while to get for someone who’s been brought up speaking English.” The tool that aided her the most, and became the impetus for Siop Dwt, was a bilingual diary that she made herself – it’s now her bestseller.
After starting weekly Cymraeg lessons and understanding the hurdles people face, namely difficulty and time, she came up with the idea to include the diary as part of a monthly subscription box helping people integrate the language into their everyday lives, as well as contextualise it within the fabric of Welsh culture. Resources like crosswords provide an activity to test your Welsh out, while short books on history and folklore and samples of food, tea, dried herbs and flowers and other products from local businesses offer a more tactile experience. Based on market research, each month has a theme to coordinate the contents.
Interestingly, some of her early subscribers are from far-flung corners of the globe, including Switzerland, America and Australia – suggesting an interest in the language for pleasure and not just practical purposes. “I think part of it is wanting to connect with their ancestral heritage,” Rose speculates, “or it could be people who have family here and they like the idea of being able to come back and visit and speak the language.” For her, even knowing the basics has changed the way she sees the country she lives in.
“There’s something quite exciting about seeing the names of animals, for example. They’re just really descriptive like the Welsh word for dragonfly [gwas y neidr] translates to ‘servant of the snake’. Place names are poetic as well. Now when I see them, I automatically translate them in my mind and see them in a new light. It’s really satisfying. It’s important for me to have that connection, and I want my daughter to have it too when she goes to a Welsh medium school at some point.”
I ask if Rose has any advice for those who want to learn Welsh but aren’t sure if they have the time or ability. “I would suggest people have a look at the amount of screen time they spend on their phone and then think, ‘Oh, actually, what if I were to take one hour from this a week to learn Welsh?’ It’s just a question of if you want to make time to do it. Once you’ve acknowledged that, I’d direct people to have weekly lessons with others because while things like Duolingo are great for vocabulary, if you want to speak Welsh, you have to actually speak it! Then, find ways to embed it into your life. For me, it was the diary, but different things might work for different people. It could be that you’ve got a friend who speaks Welsh – try using it while texting them every day.”
Creating events for the use of conversational Welsh is something Rose ultimately wants to expand into, focusing on the relatively underserved market of learners like her who are after an accessible, blended approach to be eased into, rather than thrown. “As I said,” she concludes, “I hope the Eisteddfod organisers will link up more with people who are supportive of the language even though they can’t necessarily speak it. It’s a missed opportunity otherwise in my opinion.”
words HANNAH COLLINS