Bilingual Brownies


The Brownie Law: A Brownie Guide thinks of others before herself and does a good turn every day.

Happy International Mother Language Day! In honour of my favourite awareness day, here’s a languagey post.

A couple of weeks ago I read this post from the Girl Guides of Canada about running a bilingual unit. It reminded me of my own experiences in a (sort of) bilingual unit a few years ago.

(Incidentally, I love the word bilingual because it describes itself.)

In 2011-12 I lived in deepest darkest Wales for a year while I was doing a Master’s course, and I helped at a Brownie unit. We had lots of good times, and looking back on it I learned a lot as a leader that year. Here are my jumbled thoughts on the languagey things I learned.

My Brownies were a cross section of the local community. Some went to Welsh-speaking schools and others went to English-speaking schools – it was roughly 50/50. At home some spoke only Welsh, some only English, some a mixture of both, and some a mixture of English and Arabic or Urdu.

The leaders only had limited Welsh. Three of us had moved there from England, and the fourth came from a not-very-Welsh part of Wales. It was a challenge which I’m sure many other units share. We wanted to be inclusive, to let the Brownies use whichever language they felt comfortable in, but we spoke to them and wrote letters to parents almost entirely in English, because we are Sasenach oppressors that was the only language we felt comfortable enough with.

To some extent it affected the activities we did. Early on when we were doing some writing, I noticed some Brownies, even almost 10-year-olds, made spelling “mistakes” that monolingual English children wouldn’t think of: when in doubt they operated by Welsh rules. One I remember was gini pyg for guinea pig. It brought it home to me that my Brownies at Welsh schools might have very little literacy in English – I think they didn’t start English lessons until the last few years of primary school.

After that I consciously planned activities that didn’t involve a lot of reading or writing, which I think is good practice anyway: guiding isn’t school. If there was writing, I tried to make it bilingual (like the Brownie Law mice in the photo – the English version is on the other side). I didn’t always succeed. We offered new Brownies a choice of which language to make their Promise in. (They all chose English in my time there.)

When some new 7-year-old Brownies joined later in the year, I noticed one in particular wasn’t confident speaking English. Well, why would you be when you never use it at home or at school? For example, when they lined up in order of their birthday and we asked them to call out the month they were born, most said it in English but this Brownie called “Tachwedd”. Cool, we know which month that is (November) so you’re in the right order, next please. I think she was happy, she had friends and their older sisters there so she wasn’t isolated.

My guess is that the Welsh-speaking Brownies get more bilingual as they get older, but I wasn’t there long enough to see it happen. Sadly, I’d also guess that the English-speaking Brownies don’t get more bilingual. They just don’t need to in day-to-day life. It’s a tricky issue.

It’s well-known that there are a gazillion advantages to being multilingual, and in the grand scheme of humanity it’s strange and unnatural to only have one language. The obvious advantages for my Cymraeg Brownies were:

  • they had a secret language to communicate in that the leaders could barely understand. When I was that age I loved secret codes, secret diaries etc. I’d have gone wild for a whole secret language.
  • they got to teach us leaders bits of Welsh and encourage/laugh at our efforts to learn. When you’re 7/8/9 years old it’s not often you’re better at something than an adult. With the right attitude from leaders, it can be really good for girls to be the experts for a change. Of course this applies to all girls in all sorts of things, not just languages.

I’ve lost touch with most of my leader friends from Wales, but I hope they and my Brownies, whichever languages they speak, are doing ok. Fingers crossed some of them are Guides and Senior Section now.


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