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Helen Prosser - The thrill of teaching adults

With Welsh Government’s aim to have 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, Helen Prosser from the National Centre for Learning Welsh explains the role of Welsh for adults tutors in achieving the target. Find out more about the Government’s plans here.

Helen ProsserI count myself very fortunate to have spent my career teaching Welsh to adults. And although I now work in a more strategic role, for very selfish reasons, I insist on maintaining a direct link with teaching, namely that the adults that I have the honour of teaching enrich my life.

Entering a class full of adults at the beginning of our learning journey is an interesting experience. You can be sure that a high percentage of the people in the class are nervous and anxious, for numerous reasons – perhaps they did not enjoy attending school; perhaps they are scared that the concept of learning a new language will be difficult, or perhaps they are worried about meeting new people. Often, society is reflected in the classroom, directly before the tutor’s eyes. However, what I love most is that all of these individuals are equal during the time they spend in the classroom, and it is down to the tutor to ensure that everyone makes progress.

So what are the most important characteristics of a Welsh for Adults tutor? When meeting potential tutors, the most common answer is enthusiasm. Of course, enthusiasm is essential, although this should be taken for granted. Learning a new language does not happen randomly amongst adults, and every tutor must realise this. Whatever methods the tutor uses to achieve his / her objectives and to transfer a language effectively, every step of every lesson must be focused and carefully planned. There are also many advantages to us as tutors if we explain to the adults in our classes why we choose to undertake different activities and exercises.

And what about correcting errors? It has become somewhat fashionable not to correct each other’s mistakes. However, I have never met one learner that does not want to be corrected – but only where there is value in doing so, of course. One of the greatest pleasures for a Welsh tutor is to hear a learner beginning to speak and converse in the language.

Another thrill is seeing learners using the same core learning resources but having a completely different learning experience, which is mainly due to the other people that attend the class. With the emphasis on learning to talk and sharing experiences, we are able to get to know our audience very well, and their life stories colour a great deal of the lessons’ content.

Let me introduce you to two of these remarkable people. I met Julie Macmillan when she joined the Intensive Course (three mornings a week) at the University of South Wales. Julie lives in Tynewydd in the upper reaches of the Rhondda Valley and, when I met her, she worked at the HMRC offices in Cardiff. She was given permission to attend the Welsh lessons during office hours, although she was not released - she still had to continue to work a full week. How did she manage? Soon, Julie realised that you do not become fluent by only attending lessons. The class is an important aspect of the process, although putting the language into practice is more important. Therefore, Julie started volunteering at the school her children attended and putting herself in very challenging situations. Julie went on to win the ‘Welsh Learner of the Year’ award, although she took some persuading to take part. And she no longer works for the HMRC – Julie is now a Welsh for Adults tutor in the Rhondda, inspiring hundreds of adults.

Anna, from Bulgaria, is another amazing individual I have had the honour of teaching. Four years ago, she began the same Intensive Course as Julie with the expectation of becoming a fluent Welsh-speaker. This is one of the problems we have in Wales – learning a language is not a normal activity. However, it is completely normal in Europe. Anna worked hard and, like Julie, she realised that she needed to practice. Anna did this by attending as many social activities, such as coffee mornings, and Welsh language plays as possible. Four years later, Anna now works as a trainee translator (in Welsh, as opposed to Bulgarian). Talk about a change of world!

I will always be grateful to the late Chris Rees for giving me the opportunity to attend a residential course in Lampeter when I was a student at Aberystwyth University. On that course, I realised what a great honour it is to transfer a language to a room full of people. The fact that it is the Welsh language that I’m transferring is a bonus, and being given the opportunity to help people to improve and change their lives as a result of learning Welsh is a thrill. How about it?

Helen Prosser

Helen Prosser is the Strategic Director of the National Centre for Learning Welsh.