Expolangues: A special report by the Welsh cultural ambassador and exhibitor

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by Siôn Rees Williams

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasurable experience of representing my home nation on foreign soil.  Not only that, I came away from the experience elated at being part of the winning team.  But before my good friends the Scots lynch me, I can tell you I am not the same S. Williams who ran amuck in Murrayfield on 12 February.  No, my activity was far more cerebral, and in fact took place in the same week and the same place as where the men in kilts invaded for their encounter with the team of the cockerel.  Yes, I had come as the Welsh Cultural and Linguistic Ambassador to the 29th edition of Expolangues.

Every year since 1982, the international language fair of Expolangues has been held in Paris, France.  The main organisational language is of course French, but, one look at its catchphrase – Les langues du monde, le monde des langues (The languages of the world, the world of languages) – should convince anyone that all tongues are invited to this linguistic extravaganza.  And it is a pluralistic linguistic extravaganza that lasts for four whole days, and open to all who have a connection with, or an interest in language and languages – not just the linguistics expert.

Imagine then stands offering translation and language learning software, CDs, DVDs and books for acquiring skills in a foreign tongue. Imagine universities, language schools, language ventures sharing the same stage as embassies, cultural bodies, governmental organisations keen to promote their home areas and their rich linguistic heritage.  Imagine representatives of ‘big’ and not so big languages, the commonplace and the exotic situated cheek by jowl promoting their wares.  Imagine presentations, seminars and talks about endangered languages, language pressure groups and the latest methods on teaching the differences between ser and estar in Spanish, or enlivening a class of schoolchildren in getting to grips with the English Present Perfect Continuous.  Imagine the closest thing to the Tower of Babel, this side of the river Jordan.  Welcome – you are now going to witness the Expolangues experience!

Plurality and multilingualism are very much to the fore at this winter fiesta of languages.  Over 21 000 people attend Expolangues every year, coming as they do from all four corners of the globe.  More than half of these are non-specialist linguists, people who have an active interest in language, maybe as students, maybe as adults wanting to learn more about other cultures – the list is endless.  The others come from all parts of the linguistic spectrum and bring with them their own language expertise – be they university language professors and lecturers, editors, interpreters, translators, teachers, language campaigners or other individual earning his/her living from the language field in a professional capacity.

Over 60 languages feature annually at Expolangues in some guise or other – the ‘official’ languages as it were – hundreds of others figure in the wealth of materials from electronic thesauruses and databases to the old-fashioned written textbook.  The numbers of worldwide exhibitors is also very high: from the Basques to Bretons, from the Catalans to the Chinese, from the Japanese to the Provençals – there is room for everyone, and the total number of such exhibitors regularly tops 200.

So where do I fit in?  As a professional educator and trilingual – Welsh, English, French – linguist Expolangues international language fair naturally appealed to me when I first became aware of its existence, living and working as I then was in Paris in late 1997.  I was gaining my living by editing, teaching and translating in the same way as I do now in my three main, professional languages.  I instinctively knew that this exhibition could prove to be a golden opportunity for the homeland – showcasing the nation and the indigenous language on the international stage.

The ideal place I felt for such a presentation I reckoned would be La Classe, a central booth in the main exhibition centre where basic, introductory one-hour lessons were given by an experienced and qualified language teacher.  Further, such activity, being only a taster lesson, and open to anyone visiting and exhibiting at the fair had the bonus, as far as the student was concerned, of being completely free.  The students are supplied with pen and paper, the presenter afforded a microphone, projector, flipchart and pens and 60 minutes later students will have acquired basic notions in Hebrew, Slovene, Chinese, Tibetan, Tahitian or any other language deemed to have made the cut by the organisers of Expolangues.  So why not my mother tongue, I thought?  One of the oldest languages in Europe, the most vibrant and viable Celtic language, and also, a presentation enabling the audience to appreciate that Welsh was not in effect a ‘dialect of English’ nor that I came from a county affiliated to England.

And so, in late January 1998, I provided the first ever communicative Welsh language lesson at Expolangues.  Not only that – and this has proven to be a tradition I have adhered to ever since – I did so through the medium of French.  Ok, so the stuff was pretty elementary – at least to my fellow Welsh speakers – but, of necessity, it had to be.  Greetings and other salutations, gap filling exercises, some basic job titles and an introduction into the joys of Welsh numbers (4 + 5 + 10 + 4 x 20 for ‘ninety nine’ anyone?) were about all I could fit into my 1 hour.  But boy, if those students thought they were going to get some ‘West Anglian dialect’ of the English they had struggled with at collège and/or lycée they were soon sadly (or perhaps delightedly) mistaken.  After all, to the vast majority of Europeans – English tends to be the odd one out, most of the time – grammatical and syntactical concepts (and sometimes even vocabulary) ring more bells in Welsh than does the ‘Anglo-Saxon tongue.’

And so it is that I have become an iconic feature of Expolangues.  From those timid beginnings in 1998, I have decided to venture further in my ambassadorial role.  Not content with being the sole teacher of Welsh at the language fair, it turns out that since my initial appearance, I am in fact the sole Exhibitor and Representative of Wales and the Welsh language at Expolangues.  I thus play my part with relish – when not teaching, I wander the exhibition hall with the red dragon flag on my back, not only as a talisman but as a beacon of Welshness at the exhibition.  Correction – not a beacon, but the beacon for all matters Wales and Welsh.  So it is that I represent 3 million people from the home country and since my last visit to Paris in February of this year have now done so on 9 separate occasions.  I have delivered 10 Welsh language lessons – always through the medium of my fluent French – presented the case for a Welsh language pressure group and the need to build European and international ties (again, in impeccable French) and networked and lobbied strongly for the Wales and Welsh cause as loudly, and visibly, as reasonably practicable.

This year, with the Welsh language becoming de jure official in the home country provided further excellent selling point for it and the home country.  I marketed the idea of students coming to learn ‘the youngest legally official language in the world’ and this boosted my student intake to 16 willing learners this year – double the average intake at Expolangues for me.  And not only that, they willingly took part in the games and role plays and asked tricky grammar questions.  All factors warming the cockles of the heart, and making one appreciate that the time and money expended un giving the lesson were all worthwhile.

Here then lies the rub.  You may well have read between the lines of the foregoing in order to realise both my position and that of the home nation of Wales in this matter, a matter that I have tried to argue is of worldwide and national significance.  Yes, my role is as a cultural, language ambassador for my homeland, and in so doing, I nurture the friendship, goodwill and the means of communicating about Wales and her indigenous language to a wider audience.  Yet all this comes out of my own pocket.  In all my time I have attended Expolangues (and subsequently at Expolingua Praha, a sister language fair in Prague, Czech Republic, 2007-2009), I have not received a single penny to help towards my costs from any Welsh organisation, governmental, non-governmental, cultural or voluntary body nor from business or media.  Indeed, I will go so far as to say that those with whom I have had dealings – from the offices of the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government downwards (including Culture and Heritage Ministers of different political party stripes) have all been at best, highly obstructive and even on occasion, negative to my proposals.  True, there have been many platitudes offered too – along the lines of that they are very grateful that I’m doing their job for them – but the rub is just that: I do not receive any official recognition anywhere in monetary terms or otherwise that I am being supported by anyone in authority to do my ambassadorial work.  Nor does anyone, anywhere come out to France with me, nor consider the possibility of establishing some stand that would promote and raise the visibility of the home nation in a global context.

Many is the time that interested individuals have accosted me on the floor of the main exhibition arena and asked where I come from, seeing the red dragon flag draped across my back.  This is an excellent selling opportunity, a geography lesson, a history lesson, a contemporary British politics lesson and a Welsh language lesson all rolled into one.  And I can, and I do give it in any of the three languages my interlocutors ask me of it.

Again, others will stop me, and having a little better knowledge of Wales and the Welsh language situation, will ask me where the Wales and Welsh stand was at Expolangues. Cue dumbfounded disbelief when I tell them that the stand is me – a mobile, two-legged stand, fast getting blisters on its feet after traipsing the hall for seven hours, for four whole days.  The double take is comical to watch, at least it would be if it weren’t so tragic because of the indifference of colleagues from back home to support this go-getting venture of mine in support of our nation and our language.  Often too, those who stop me and ask of the location of the Welsh stand, will then mutter amongst themselves that, ‘this poor chap has misunderstood our French – we’ll ask him again.’  And so they do, and my reply is identical.  It can be nothing else.  What is commendable however is that these interlocutors, like others at Expolangues, who now treat me as an equal in respect, knowledge and loyalty, are frequently astounded to learn of not only the home nation’s lack of interest in the event, but also they’re lack of funding and support to a compatriot who is working on their behalf and out of his own pocket.  To their credit, even some members of the English delegations (university presses, publishing houses) are moved to sympathise with my predicament.

Expolangues next year promises to be an even bigger event than ever.  It will be celebrating its 30th anniversary.  Coincidentally, it will also be my 10th attendance at this important international language fair.  I am sure that I will have the good wishes of you my readers behind me when I go in the early part of 2012.  If you want to come to Expolangues as a visitor, learner, supporter or you are just curious to know what goes on there, then please drop me a line.

I am confident that many of us dream of representing our country – be it at rugby, football or any other sport, or in a political capacity, or indeed at any level.  I have never been very sportive – this I can leave to the other S. Williamses of the world.  Nor am I (yet) sufficiently enabled to be in a position of authority at our National Assembly.  However, I feel that with my small contribution tom world knowledge, and insisting on Wales and the Welsh language having their equal and rightful place amongst the other communities of the world, I too can sense the thrill of representing them on these foreign field as much as anyone else.

Siôn Rees Williams LLB. (Hons.), Cert. TESOL, MCIL
Trilingual Professional Linguist
I can be contacted at sionees1@yahoo.co.uk

For more details on Expolangues visit www.expolangues.fr