The beauty of bilingualism – working in a Welsh bilingual Students’ Union

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I can’t quite believe how fast time flies and that it’s almost two years since I moved from Manchester to take up the CEO role at Aber SU. I’ve been involved with Students’ Unions as an Officer from 1997 to 2002 and then as a staff member since 2004 and on arriving at Aber I thought that I had experienced almost everything that Students’ Union Officer/Staff life had to offer. However, it was obvious the minute I was even interested in the job that I had one major new experience coming my way if I was successful – bilingualism.

If you’ve been to Wales then you’ll probably think about the interesting dual language road signs, and I’ll never forget the first time I walked around the supermarket and felt like I was on holiday because the aisle and shop signage was all predominantly in Welsh. But I hadn’t thought about living with the language (the fear the first few times that you have to pronounce your very Welsh address) and I hadn’t truly realised what it meant to work in a bilingual environment.

At AberSU we are proud to communicate everything – and I mean everything (including all student emails, every form, every questionnaire, every survey, out of office auto responses, full website, posters, campaigns, signage, all publications and all club and society names, posters and info) in Welsh first then English. Coming from my previous English SU background this was a bit of a shock to the system at first. Mid wanting to change a bit of the website or starting a consultation project or a campaign I would suddenly remember that I couldn’t just crack on that I would need to translate, or the pun would also have to work in Welsh. I’m not going to lie that this was a touch frustrating at first for someone who is a spontaneous and tangential person. Don’t get me wrong, I believed in the right to study and live in the medium of Welsh in Wales, but I hadn’t quite got my head around what that means.

Now there are some practical things to consider – we need to be able to translate everything and there’s a cost to that, and double printing and running two websites. It would be easy for someone to come in the CEO position and initially start to see where savings could be made here, and I partly did do that a bit most probably, and to also really focus on the challenges that bilingualism presents, but what a shame that would be. You see, bilingualism also has some practical pluses – you have to plan more carefully about what you need to deliver and create. You have to think more carefully about the message that you want to send and in general as a waffler it’s a good thing to consider how to be more concise. But of course, the beauty of bilingualism isn’t about practical benefit – of course it’s about diversity and inclusion and rights but it’s also such a genuine privilege and a pleasure for me to be able to live and work in the beautiful musical language of Welsh. I was also lucky enough to be able to put my son in a brilliant Welsh language nursery and really enjoy how much Welsh he knows – I love watching him play in the park and hearing such a vibrant diversity of language.

In September last year we launched a new strategy for 2017-20 and it was clear from the moment of conception that the Welsh language or bilingualism would feature as a value – in fact it appeared as: Welsh – obviously. I looked for a way that I could further that value personally and not just approach it from a practical level of requirement, and that’s when I discovered that there are loads of choices of conversational Welsh classes at a great price. I had a chat with our Union development Officer who let me have the time to attend an intensive beginners conversational Welsh course and agreed to find the time and budget for members of the team to do the same. Now there are 3 staff members and 2 Officers learning Welsh for 2 to 4 hours a week and we’re all loving it – hopefully this number will continue to grow!

I’m extremely proud to work in an organisation that operates bilingually and look forward to helping to support the right of Welsh people to live and study in the medium of Welsh at all levels. I’m committed to working to ensure that AberSU supports and celebrates the Welsh language and hopefully one day in the not too distant future I too will siarad Cymraeg!


Trish McGrath



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