Contrary to some inspirational self-help guff out there, there is a time when one should quit. But like Edison and his lightbulb and Moses in the wilderness, this ain’t it. Despite the clear lack of any other similarity between me and those guys, this post is about that. Today’s blog post is about carrying on.
People often ask me “how’s the Welsh going?” and it’s good that they ask. When I started learning in 2007 I decided to fully commit. Part of that decision meant telling anyone who might care. I wanted to signal to Welsh speakers that I welcome them to try addressing me in Welsh and expect to get something back. I also ended up enlisting the indirect support and pester power of my friends, family, peers and colleagues at large, to progress this thing.
It turned out to be a good tactic. Enlist the crowd to hold you to a decision. You will limit your options to just two – to carry on with the project or to quit. And the quitting would be of the most public and humiliating kind. So it gets you through.
So how is the Welsh going?
Kindly permit me a tenuous analogy about the world of open source software releases. If my ability in Welsh were an operating system, right now you could say it was almost at the alpha stage. It’s messy, it’s buggy and the user interface is far from sorted. You will encounter crashes and blank stares if you give me unexpected inputs. Nevertheless the will to progress and develop the product is there and experienced people can test it (by speaking to me in Welsh). You can even expect some useful and worthwhile output as long as you have a bit of patience. If it all goes wrong you can boot to a different partition and use another operating system (English) which has been fully installed and tested.
Much as I like a tenuous analogy, the software one is weak because we’re not here just to function. To be sure, Welsh to me is a useful language: a language of business where you can get things done. But it’s also a language of self-expression. I want to express myself in it and I want to understand other people more fully when they express themselves. Whatever the language, in this world we understand each other merely approximately. Therefore I can try to reduce the distance of that approximation.
Ample research has suggested links between acquiring a second language and various kinds of wellbeing or something like that. If you want to read about that, you can probably find a study. However true any of it might be, it’s not enough of a strategy or day-to-day motivator to keep going – not for me anyway.
I’ve mostly been trying to stop trying to be clever and just think like a BABY. When I started the wlpan course in late 2007, I figured I was a grown-up in English and a baby in Welsh. This amused me but it was totally wrong of course. I’m a grown-up in everything. Not long after starting the course I was attempting to describe the weather and my day job, which are things babies rarely do.
I don’t envy much about the lifestyle or appreciations of your average baby. (He has no equivalent of beer – nor jazz.) But the way a baby learns a language is superb, just mapping words directly on to things. The language becomes set and the mapping of words to things never fails, except for the possibility that he becomes a structuralist philosopher later in life.
Thing – word, word – thing.
Peth – gair, gair – peth.
It’s babies who are exposed to yr iaith Gymraeg who I envy the most. Not only do they acquire Welsh without hardly caring, they also learn English and map both languages separately and directly on to thing-space. The fact I know, say, the word “investment” and its Welsh equivalent (“buddsoddiad”) while they probably don’t is not really any consolation.
Each time I learn some Welsh, I map it on to the English equivalent, which then maps on to the thing or concept or meaning. English is the middleman which is clumsy at best, but try doing it any other way. And the whole thing falls apart regularly for prepositions (“to”, “on”, “over”, “for” and the like) and which verbs they relate to. And also for things like verbs and possessives (dw i’n dy garu di and all that weirdness), I still struggle with that.
Different languages will not map directly on to each other. This is a truism about languages which also happens to be true. Welsh doesn’t map to English. The phrasebook can only be an aid. It’s mental scaffolding.
“Hwyl” does not mean “fun” or “good times” or “mood” or “fervour”, those are just rough guesses. “Hwyl” means “hwyl”. The only way to understand “hwyl” is to go out and experience some genuine hwyl. Preferably in Caernarfon, I might add, with an assortment of local characters. And so it goes for every other word and utterance.
In Welsh you don’t really say you own an object. You don’t say “I’ve got money”. In place of that, as a southerner, you might say “Mae arian gyda fi” which roughly translates as “There is money with me”. So ownership has a different perspective embodied in the expression. It could be a healthier and less greed-prone concept of relating to stuff. That’s a maybe. Anyway, it’s different. A truer understanding of the insights within will only come if one lives in the world of “Mae arian gyda fi” for a while. These are just examples and it’s enough to make a point.
The other method of language learning is to get magically zapped in the forehead. The downside to this method is it doesn’t happen. But even if it did you might miss the life bits.
The product is the process. So even if I can’t think like a baby anymore, I shall continue to walk like one.