Teachers Beth Owen, Thomas Samuel and Siân Morgans are currently championing the Welsh language nearly 8,000 miles from home – in the Patagonian province of Argentina.
They are there through the Welsh Language Project, which every year sends three teachers to the Chubut Region to promote and develop the Welsh language. Here they chat about their experience and how they have benefited from the programme.
Tell us about yourself, your previous experience and what attracted you to the programme?
Beth: I'm originally from Llannerch-y-medd, Anglesey, I went down to Swansea University to do a degree in Social Policies and work for Menter Iaith Abertawe. I now live in Bridgend and work for Citizens Advice as a Welsh Language Officer and a Welsh Tutor for adults with Learn Welsh - Swansea Bay Region.
My career so far has been focused on the Welsh Language and its promotion, so I was keen to take on a new challenge, and The Welsh Language Project was an exciting opportunity - a dream come true! I wanted to be part of the increase in Welsh speakers - and to see the programmes vision become a reality, as well as inspire young and old generations.
Siân: I studied History and International Politics at Aberystwyth University. There, I was a charity officer of the Welsh Students' Union organising social events to raise money and create opportunities to socialize through the medium of Welsh. I decided to follow a teaching practice course and later moved to Cardiff to work as a primary school teacher for four years.
I was inspired to take part by one of my teachers, Mrs Lewis, who previously spent time as a tutor out in Patagonia. She opened my eyes to life the other side of the world where people and communities speak Welsh and Spanish. Since then, visiting Patagonia has been a dream of mine and the greatest privilege is being able to join the special team contributing towards work in the Wladfa.
Thomas: I previously worked as a Welsh tutor for adults and children and as a translator. The Welsh Language Project appealed to me as from a young age, I was interested in the Welsh connection with Patagonia and discovered a few years ago that there were specific jobs for Welsh teachers in Patagonia. I was looking for a new challenge as we were coming out of the pandemic and as soon as I saw that they were advertising the positions in Patagonia, I knew I had to apply.
Tell us about teaching in Patagonia – is it much different to teaching at home?
Thomas: The main school that I work in is Coleg Camwy, which is a Spanish medium secondary school in Gaiman that also offers a lot of Welsh education to its students. The classes differ a lot as some groups speak Welsh fluently, so my teaching concentrates on finer grammar points and broadening vocabulary, whereas other groups have a more basic level of Welsh so the lessons concentrate on basic grammar and vocabulary. One of the most obvious differences is that the common language is Spanish not English. Another big difference is that people learn a combination of Welsh from south and north Wales, this is very different to in Wales where people would tend to learn one version of Welsh only.
Beth: I work at Ysgol y Cwm, formerly Ysgol Gymraeg yr Andes - The school was built in 2015 and they have over 85 children attending from the age of three to 12. It is a large school, with whiteboards and plenty of Welsh books for each year. There is no technology - no iPads or computers. On average, each year will have at least an hour of Welsh lessons per day. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I am learning a new Spanish word every day, and everyone has been very welcoming. The main difference to back home is the lack of equipment and technology! I definitely think Spanish lessons would help anyone visiting, as the children only know Welsh and Spanish.
Siân: My main role is teaching year 5 and 6 at Ysgol Gymraeg Y Gaiman. I am also very fortunate to conduct morning sessions at Ysgol yr Hendre, Coleg Camwy, Welsh lessons for school staff and run an after-school club in Trelew. The role is very similar to teaching in Wales because I use Welsh language immersion methods with songs, Welsh language tools and visual resources therefore it isn’t necessary to need a lot of Spanish to reinforce the pupils understanding. Of course, it is a completely different experience when teaching, with peer conversations flowing between Welsh and Spanish. It is an amazing experience to see pupils making an effort and being proud of their bilingualism.
Tell us about the challenges, what have you found difficult about the programme?
Beth: The biggest challenge is my lack of Spanish! However, this does mean that the children have to make more of an effort to speak Welsh with me which means that their Welsh communication skills are strengthened.
Thomas: The biggest learning challenges have been determining an individual’s level in a short amount of time and then taking this into consideration while teaching a group with varied abilities.
Did you celebrate the Eisteddfod in Patagonia? What was it like?
Beth: Yes - of course! It’s one of the highlights of my time here - Eisteddfod yr ifanc was very different to Eisteddfod yr Urdd - It’s a lot more formal here. Eisteddfod del Chubut was an amazing experience - they are definitely better singers here in the Wladfa! It’s very hard to put into words what it was like - it was just this feeling of proudness and respect.
Siân: The members of the Welsh society in the Wladfa are very passionate and active. Highlights have been the association's tireless work organizing the Children and Young People's Eisteddfod in Gaiman and the Chubut Eisteddfod in Trelew. The Chubut Eisteddfod opened with the Orsedd inaugurating new members for their important work with the Welsh language. A very similar ceremony to Wales. Of course, the main difference between the Cymru and Chubut Eisteddfod was the Spanish competitions, but the Eisteddfods were perfectly interweaved with the celebrations and traditions of the two countries. It was a magical experience to see people enjoying and taking pride in both traditions. I had the fortunate opportunity to compete with my colleagues and friends at the Eisteddfod. It was nice to come together for a ‘Noson Lawen’ singing and dancing to Welsh and Spanish music.
Finally, what do you plan to do once the programme ends?
Siân: I am very lucky to have the opportunity to teach here in Patagonia. I have met passionate people and experienced living and working in a country with different arrangements and cultures that see the importance of education and being bilingual. I am looking forward to sharing my experiences, stories and contacts back in my teaching position in Wales but before that I will continue traveling and hopefully see a little more of the world.
Thomas: I plan to return to work as a Welsh tutor for adults. The programme has helped with this as it has made me a better tutor because of all the experience I have gained over the past months.
Beth: There are a lot of luxuries that I have missed but I’m looking forward to returning to Wales and visiting local schools and societies to show them the amazing work they do here in the Andes! I am now more aware of the Welsh Society and School needs here and can advocate for them. I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity here and can say that it’s been a true pleasure to be part of the programme this year.
The Welsh Language Project is offering the opportunity for three more teachers to promote the language in Patagonia from March to December in 2023. The deadline to apply is Friday, 30 December 2022. Find out more.