How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Heniaith

The last year has been a bit of a language learning adventure for me. I was preparing a massive post but it’s rapidly expanding into several posts.

So I want to blog about the Welsh language, for these reasons:

  1. I love it
  2. I’m learning it
  3. To offer my perspectives
  4. Recording my thoughts for a year’s time

As I’ve just started this blog, there are no posts from my first year – of doing the wlpan course, as it’s known. The learning system is based on an Israeli method for intensive teaching of Hebrew, which is also the source of the word wlpan. Other than the fact that Hebrew is also an old language, there aren’t many other parallels.

Until last year, my language learning experience was confined mainly to school and was in some ways typical for somebody born in the UK. Many people have lingering memories of frustration with languages at school and a quick straw poll of my friends echoes this. While it’s generally acknowledged that other languages can at least be useful, we can be inclined to think learning remains an academic pursuit for the dedicated. It’s formal and it involves drudgery.

Obviously there are exceptions where people have learned languages to fluency, in the school system. But they’re gifted or at least different to the rest of us – right?

Years before wlpan, I did get some experience of Welsh. I was subjected to Welsh language classes during the first three years of high school, for maybe two hours per week. Being a kid with very little life experience, I was a very reluctant learner. It didn’t interest me and I didn’t pay much attention as I never thought I’d use it.

Actually, I hated the feeling of being coerced into learning it.

The Welsh GCSE exam wasn’t compulsory until the following school year, to my relief. I would just sit it out, daydream and then move on.

Another memory was an invitation to a school trip to a residential centre in Llangranog, west Wales – for karting and exciting outdoor pursuits, plus some Welsh learning. Although some of my classmates went, I can clearly remember not taking up the invitation and staying at home for the weekend. It smelled of indoctrination and the fun stuff was quite clearly there to draw kids to the language classes. You know, to sweeten the pill.

I’d been living in Cardiff suburbs since the age of nine-and-a-half. I’d seen Welsh on road signs but otherwise assumed it to be dead, outdated, parochial, sentimental. Even if I were to visit north Wales or maybe Llangranog, there would be no monolingual Welsh speakers – they can all speak English can’t they? (These are comments which would irk me if I heard them now!)

In hindsight these were good opportunities. It was a teenage reaction in some ways. At the age of 13 nobody had really showed me any benefits to learning Welsh. I wanted to learn sciences and seemingly forward-looking subjects. Towards the end of year three of high school, I was obliged to take one modern European language at GCSE level. So I dropped Welsh for good (it seemed) and continued with French. Now unfortunately, a decade later, my knowledge of French has been remotely filed away in the cobwebs of my mind, buried by pop trivia and funny facts.

Things have definitely changed. I’m sitting in my living room in Cardiff, where there are visible signs of someone with a rampaging curiosity for all things Welsh. On my table:

  1. Y Cymro, various issues (newspaper)
  2. Golwg, Barn and Cambria (magazines)
  3. Siarc Marw and Y Selar (music/culture fanzines)
  4. Welsh Roots and Branches (extremely useful guide to words, for learners)
  5. Y Dinasydd and Tafod Elai (paperau bro, meaning ultra-regional papers listing community events, newborn babies, church and school news etc.)
  6. Welsh to English dictionary
  7. Cymdeithas Yr Iaith magazine (and other bits picked up from the National Eisteddfod, a giant cultural jamboree perfectly timed to arrive, almost at my doorstep, in August)
  8. A History of Wales by John Davies (very detailed book)
  9. Neighbours From Hell by Mike Parker (awful title, good book especially chapter on Welsh language misconceptions)
  10. Tu Chwith literary mag is not here but would be if I could track it down
  11. Print outs of essays, speeches and documents found online

An example of the latter is the rather ace transcript of English and Welsh by JRR Tolkien. He talks about his particular fondness for Welsh in some detail. You’re dealing with a guy who devours languages before breakfast, as well as inventing his own.

Back to the table of paperwork (which my friend Anwen jokingly calls the Bwrdd Yr Iaith), some of the periodicals like the papurau bro are not always immediately relevant to me, but I’m going for total immersion here! It’s helping with the language learning and plugging gaps in my political and historical awareness.

So what happened in the intervening years? If I could summarise, I would say that I was drawn to Welsh rather than being pushed into it.

Not long after I thought I’d parted ways with Welsh, it came back on the radar. It would have been when Super Furry Animals emerged on Creation records. They had a few Welsh language tracks on b-sides and then their Out Spaced compilation came out when I was doing my A-levels. I would have discovered that through BBC Radio 1 on the John Peel show. Later of course I heard about the Mwng album (possibly through the Session in Wales as it was then) and I knew that was a big achievement. I also remember hearing Patio Song by Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci on Mark and Lard’s breakfast radio show when it came out, a bilingual song.

I can clearly remember a couple of situations where I overheard people speaking Welsh when I reached Cardiff University. It seemed quite exotic to actually hear it being used by real people, despite my school experience. It might sound ridiculous but it made me feel slightly uncomfortable and some internal dialogue was necessary to calm myself down. University is a great time for having your preconceptions remoulded.

In my first year of university I also got myself a Clwb Ifor Bach membership card which allowed me admission to their diverse and excellent venue on the condition I was either a Welsh speaker or had made a commitment to learn the language. Neither was the case. Incidentally, it’s very common for members’ clubs to have specific membership criteria. Clwb Ifor Bach were relaxing this policy anyway and it was revoked not long after.

Over the years I then met people who happened to speak Welsh. Knowledge of the language never seemed a prerequisite to polite conversation (aIthough I can’t say with certainty what everyone really thought of me). Of those who became my friends, I never felt any kind of pressure from them to learn Welsh.

But gradually I felt some kind of higher plane of mutual understanding was possible. It felt a little impertinent, maybe, to converse with them in English. These were people who’d write their shopping lists, get their schooling, sing, pray and do whatever else people do – in Welsh.

It’s like going to Japan and opting merely to shake hands with people. When in Japan, it’s probably better to bow – if you can.

For me, working with Welsh musicians was another little pull in the direction of the language. I was promoting sublime tunes of Welsh origin, sometimes with lyrics in Welsh. A couple of these musicians offered some gentle encouragement when I mooted the idea. I also noticed my younger brother making good progress with the language.

In September 2007 I started attending daily classes – which involved getting there for 8AM. And paying perfectly good money.

This isn’t a dig at compulsory education. I should also say that teachers do a great job. As if to labour the point, some of my friends are teachers. Education was good to me and I did pretty well in the subjects I cared about. But there are certain subjects in which it’s very difficult to instil enthuasiasm in a pupil. Languages in general are one. (For some, mathematics is another.)

How should languages be taught in school? Without any formal training in education as a discipline, I can’t answer. I’m only an expert in the literal sense of “one who has experience”. Maybe I just wasn’t ready. Or maybe it was the timing.

I might have to revisit this one. But now if you’ll excuse me, I have some homework to do.

10 Replies to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Heniaith”

  1. Very interesting reading, Carl.

    And mirrors my sentiments a little. Although I only came to Wales at the age of 18 (15 years ago!!!), I’ve always felt a little, erm, “guilty” for being in a country and not bothering to learn the language.

    In fact, whenever on tour I’ve always made the effort to discover the words for “thank you”, “sorry” and “hello” in the language of the country I’m in. Which is more than I’ve ever done in Wales. I’ve got A-Levels in French and German so I’ve obviously got a certain ability with languages.

    I always put it off though due to “lack of time”. But will I ever find the time?

  2. Ma ’da fi copi o’r tu chwith diweddara os ti am ei fenthyg Carl. Ambell i gartwn gwael ynddo fe ’fyd…

  3. Diddorol. Dw i’n dysgu hefyd. And my remembered sentiments from school were very similar — I dropped Welsh as soon as I was allowed, then later regretted it.

    I DID go to Llangranog and all I remember was sleepwalking and being horribly ill the next day!

  4. Hanes diddorol iawn, ac yn debyg iawn i’r broses es i drwyddo wrth ddod at yr iaith yng Nghaerdydd, fel “Cymro di-Gymraeg” bondigrybwyll.

    Pob hwyl gyda’r dysgu – byddai’n wych clywed am dy brofiadau ar y ffordd.

    For our “non-bowing” friends: Interesting story, and pretty similar to my recollections of coming to the language as a “Welshnotman” in Cardiff in the 90s. Good luck with the classes – it’d be great to hear more about your journey.

    Dw i’n byw ar bwys Llangrannog, gyda llaw, a dw i bron byth yn siarad Saesneg 😉

  5. Buying a newspaper at central station in Liverpool the other day, I asked whether he sold Welsh papers… the response was ..

    ” no luv,sorry… we don’t do Foreign newspapers here…”

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