Reach out and help someone else to keep the Welsh language alive
Last month, I had a weird experience when I attended, via Zoom, a Siarad Sadwrn session for Welsh learners using the dysgucymraeg.cymru courses.
Apart from the tutor, I was the only Welsh Welsh learner there: the other seven learners were from England. The tutor was the only person physically located in Cymru.
This should alert us to something. The English, and people from other countries, have been learning Welsh in growing numbers, for all sorts of reasons: commendable cultural sensitivity, or curiosity, or as an intellectual pursuit through the Covid lockdowns.
Or, perhaps to enhance their visitor experiences. Last week, the Guardian reported Welsh heritage sites were experiencing high growth in visitor numbers due to people outside Wales developing an interest in Welsh history, also during the Covid pandemic.
This reminded me of a Nation.Cymru article last summer, with Zip World director Sean Taylor saying how much international and English visitors love the use of the Welsh language.
“We get school groups from England,” he said, “and by the time they leave they can say ‘bore da’, ‘prynhawn da’, and ‘croeso’. They love it, they embrace it.”
How about us?
Outside interest is good for the language. The more learners we have, the better the chances yr hen iath will survive into the future — though God forbid the language should ever become a mere commodity for the tourism industry.
But I wonder, mightn’t this phenomenon end up proving beneficial in another, strange sort of way?
Mightn’t it also be the long-awaited spur we need to turn more Welsh learners into actual Welsh speakers?
Because, at the end of the day, it’s only a novelty for most of these foreign learners. For us, it’s ours, it’s in us, it’s only been absent from our tongues for three or five generations at most; or maybe it’s always been there, but it’s only the rooms of our homes that haven’t heard Welsh in a while. Like us, it’s still here. It’s ours to reclaim.
Myself, after about a quarter century of stopping and starting, I finally realised the torments of not being able to speak my own language were greater than the torments of dysgu Cymraeg itself. I finally committed.
In the beginning, listening to spoken Welsh felt a bit like falling down a cliff face: you desperately want to grab onto something, but by the time your brain recognises a word, it’s long gone — the ‘fall’ is over, you’ve crashed yet again.
Every such experience is a little painful. Embarrassing, awkward, bruising to your sense of nationalistic pride, encouraging only to those demons who whisper you’ll never do it, you’ll never reach fluency, why bother going on with this? What’s the point?
Well, dyna’r spardun, here’s the spur: to be honest, having my use of the Welsh language corrected by a more advanced learner from England felt beyond embarrassing.
This guy, a participant of the Siarad Sadwrn Zoom session I mentioned, seemed a nice person. He was genuinely trying to help me. On a logical level, I could accept he was a more advanced and better student than me, but in my heart, I felt humiliated, jealous, and very close to anger.
Point is, in the week following that memorable Zoom session, there wasn’t a day I didn’t study. I had Welsh in my ears at every available opportunity. I bought extra headphones so I’d always have a set in the car. And if I hadn’t already closed down my account due that annoying af owl, I probably would have gone up a level on Duolingo too.
In modern life, there are always excuses to hand, although we can no longer say with any credibility that Welsh is a dead language, or that resources for learning are too scarce, or too expensive (some free online courses are listed at the end of this article).
We get distracted, and we forget, until the familiar nagging longing returns, until something sparks inspiration again. Let’s break that cycle and make Welsh our daily norm.
Even if we live outside Wales, as so many foreign learners are showing us, we can do it: the internet has changed everything, and time-zone differences are the only real hurdle left.
I once sailed with a second cook who was a fluent Welsh speaker from Caergybi (Holyhead). We became good friends, and he taught me a lot of Welsh. Our friendship was better than any textbook. I learned so many Welsh words in that short time.
This year, I got a Welsh language ‘buddy’ through the dysgucymraeg.cymru system. This person works a job, and has other commitments and responsibilities besides, but every week, without fail, he’s been getting up early just to help me, before he goes to work.
He’s a volunteer. He doesn’t get paid. At the start, he didn’t know me from Adam. He’s doing it because he loves our language, because he wants it to survive.
That’s the kind of commitment we need. If you already speak Welsh, please don’t waste that ability. Can you reach out and help someone else, perhaps? Can you create an opportunity?
We’re such a creative people. Previous generations worked hard, made sacrifices, and thought up strategies which not only ensured the regeneration of our own language, but which also became the internationally recognised ‘game plan’ for minority languages everywhere.
How about us? We’re part of that tradition too, and what an opportunity we have now, to build communities of learners and speakers within Wales, to forge meaningful connections between the regions of Cymru, and across the diaspora.
We can’t let them beat us at our own game, can we?
Free audio lessons, an entire course:
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