Language Teaching and ‘The Crown’

I’ve been watching season 3 of The Crown, and I got excited when I realized that episode 6, Tywysog Cymru, was about language learning! Prince Charles is sent to Aberystwyth, Wales, to learn Welsh in advance of his investiture as Prince of Wales. It’s 1969, so a time of strong Welsh nationalism in opposition to London’s rule and the monarchy, and on top of it all, Charles’s tutor ends up being Tedi Millward, the Welsh nationalist politician.

My nerdly anticipation was short-lived, however; from the language teaching perspective, I was a bit disappointed in this episode. There just didn’t seem to be much teaching happening. (Rather, much good teaching.)

For example, on Charles’s first day at the university, after first meeting Tedi and then launching into a debate on Welsh sovereignty for a few moments, Charles is just randomly taken to a language lab and left there repeating a bunch of phrasebook-like language: How are you? What is your name? do you speak Welsh? There was no lead-in to this activity, nor does Charles receive anything written to support this exercise. “We learn through imitation; like everything in life, if we pretend we’re something long enough, we might just become it,” Tedi tells him allegorically, betraying himself (or at least the film version of himself) as quite the audiolingualist.

Indeed, most of the language “teaching” in the episode is simply Tedi translating investiture speech(es) Charles had written in English into Welsh, and then him coaching Charles to be able to recite it with phonetic accuracy. Tedi coaching Charles on the pronunciation of the the Welsh word for ‘atmosphere’, awyrgylch, is an example of all my least favourite bad pronunciation teaching tropes. First, Tedi uses negative, emotional and mystifying language to describe the series of phonemes in the word: “It’s like a verbal assault course of all your worst sounds scattered one after another like traps.” Why would you say that to someone, setting them up to stumble and hesitate on this word, instead of, for example, looking at the phonemes in the word and comparing them to the phonemes in the student’s L1 and identifying which sounds might come easier and which ones will have to be taught anew?

To my non-Welsh-speaking ear, it seems there is only one phoneme that might be completely novel to an English speaker (the final one in the word). Why wouldn’t you start there, talking about how that sounds is articulated, finding some similar or identical sounds in languages Charles knows, and work on it in isolation first, and then word-finally? So the non-language folks wouldn’t get bored while watching this, you could work all kinds of clever allegories, veiled comments and double-entrendres about independence, imperialism, etc.

Another bad pronunciation teaching trope is when teachers don’t explain things or give instruction, but just yell “No! Like this!” and repeat a sound over and over. It’s kind of like translation by volume, but with pronunciation. When coaching Charles on the pronunciation of the first sound in the word awyrgylch, a diphthong involving an open back vowel, Tedi just yells “No!” at Charles’s closed and fronted approximation of the sound and repeats the sound again. C’mon, Tedi, give the guy a little explanation here!

What I think the episode does a very good job of is showing the dynamics of a monolingual English-speaker used to being part of a language and cultural majority experiencing a minority language situation for the first time. You really get a sense of Charles’s awakening, as he moves from clueless arrogance about Welsh and the Welsh struggle–“But Wales is England!”–to having empathy and understanding of the situation so much so that his investiture speech includes pro-Welsh sentiment (though this is played up more in The Crown than his speech in real life.)

Having lived in both Quebec and the Basque country, I’ve seen people in all stages and steps of this transformation–both by English speakers as well as other majority language speakers–countless times.

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