What it’s like to give a Welsh language class to 7 million people
Aran Jones, Say Something in Welsh
It’s been a strange, topsy-turvy few weeks in our usually peaceful world of running an online Welsh course – and a few weeks ago, I found myself on a train from Bangor to London, knowing that I had less than 24 hours before I’d have to try and teach some Welsh to Jeremy Vine live on Radio 2.
I was regretting having Googled the audience figures – they’d been 7.42 million at some point last year.
I was tweeting from time to time on the train, looking for some company, a little normality to keep my mind off the panic-inducing thought of sorry-HOW-many-million people listening to me. Or being-able-to-hear-me, at least.
It was working quite well, until I got a private message from Jeremy:
“Regarding tomorrow … you know I do a show on Channel 5 in the morning? You’d be welcome to come see … sit in audience … I can say hello to you and can wish the audience Happy St David’s Day! But it will spoil your lie-in (it means being at ITN from 0800 to 1030; they are at Gray’s Inn Road).”
My first thought was: the horror. Getting up at WHAT time in the morning? I’m a naturally lazy person – saying hello to people is all well and good, but it’s more of an afternoon pastime if you ask me.
But then my brain started working, and it put Channel 5 and ITV together and said ALERT: THAT IS A TELEVISION THING.
So I said yes (well, I may have grumbled a bit first, like an ungrateful teenager) and sat back to focus on a new challenge – not thinking about a radio audience of 7.42 million, AND not thinking about being anywhere near a television camera.
Still, I thought, at least he’s just going to say hello to me, and I can nod back, looking calm, and maybe even debonair – no, okay, let’s just go for calm – as if it’s all normal.
Damn it, I should have had a haircut, said my brain.
It would have been a fretful evening, if it hadn’t been for Kate and the London Welsh Centre in Gray’s Inn Road. When I asked on Facebook if there was anything interesting going on in London (I mean, it’s not Caernarfon, after all – I didn’t know if they had anything like the Galeri, or the Black Boy), Kate offered to buy me a drink in the Centre.
And that turned into the whole of the evening – meeting a range of different learners, and Rhiannon behind the bar who was a third generation Londoner but spoke Welsh that sounded as if she’d just stepped off the train from Llanelli, and Ceri Wyn the Chief Exec at the Centre – just such a warm welcome from everyone, I didn’t have time to worry.
In fact, by the time I left to walk back to my AirBnB I was worrying so very little that I didn’t even settle my bar tab, and left my credit card there as well.
As Catrin said, not really fit to be out on my own.
I was back at the AirBnB a bit before 11, knowing that I had to set the alarm for ten to 7 in the morning to leave time to walk back to Gray’s Inn Road – so of course I went straight to bed.
And my brain refused to come with me. My brain wanted to practise every possible combination of words it might need the following day, it wanted to double-check how exactly we had ended up in this situation, and it STILL wanted to do something about that haircut.
Eventually, reluctantly, it decided to join me in sleep sometime after one in the morning – and just to be on the safe side, it thought it should get me up at about a quarter to six.
It’s not the best of brains, to be honest, and I am now actively looking for a replacement.
I bought myself a very large energy drink on the walk over in the morning.
No, of course I didn’t, because I’d left my bloody credit card at the London Welsh Centre, so I had to settle for gazing longingly at every single energy drink I went past. My brain was keeping very quiet, because it knew this was all its fault.
The ITV building at 200 Gray’s Inn Road doesn’t have anything helpful on the outside – you know, like ‘ITV’, or even ‘200 Gray’s Inn Road’, so I walked up and down past it a few times, warily, until I remembered all the announcements on the train telling me to report any suspicious behaviour.
Inside, it felt like the intro to an episode of ‘Black Mirror’. Just. So. Clean. I was neatly corralled with the other audience members, and then we were all lead through glass doors and security checks and down into the bowels of the beast.
‘Is this your first time?’ asked a stern-looking older woman, a fellow member of the audience. It hadn’t occurred to me that people might get up so early in the morning more than once. She seemed reasonably friendly. ‘I think he’s a spoiled brat, actually,’ she continued, and I re-assigned her from ‘friendly’ to ‘puzzling’.
We were waiting in a corridor, and some of the audience members who knew each other from previous visits – we’re not just talking plural here, we’re talking multiple – were keeping up a light chat – but it was clearly very much JEREMY we were waiting for.
And then he was arriving, and ah, yes, appearing to be looking specifically for someone, so that might in fact be me, and we’re saying hello and shaking hands and I’m getting some curious stares from the other audience members, and then he’s asking if he can fetch me tea or coffee and those stares are getting colder – in fact, we’re pretty much into gimlet territory here – so I say no fairly urgently and telepathically order him to keep moving and act normally.
I hadn’t been able to buy an energy drink.
I really, really needed that coffee.
But at a pinch, to my own surprise, I wasn’t actually willing to die for it – particularly not somewhere underneath London at the hands of a mob driven mad by love.
Studios all have the same internal logic – that strange balance between ‘what looks normal on a screen’ and ‘where cameras move’ – and the audience were squeezed onto three narrow rows of plastic folding chairs. It wasn’t a very large set – ‘Heno’ has enough space to feel as though you’re going to get lost – but I suppose it’s possible that London prices are a bit steeper than Llanelli.
But oh – the whole Welsh thing had become a bit more than ‘I can say hello to you’ – there were daffodils on every chair – a big bunch of them on the panel’s desk – the co-host, Storm Huntley, had got an admirably bright yellow dress on – and at the interval break, I found out that the plan was for Jeremy to bring a plate of welshcakes over to the audience, sit down next to me and ask me a couple of questions.
With the general expectation that I would answer them.
He gave me a test run in the interval – asking me (dangerously) about how the SaySomethingin Method works – we’d been joined by the show’s editor, I think, and someone else from the production team, who both seemed genuinely nice people, who both used a few words of Welsh, and whose names I might remember if my brain hadn’t been having such a lively internal dialogue about the contrasting benefits of flight, fight or freeze responses.
After my mouth stopped talking – I think I heard it say something about language learning – Jeremy looked thoughtful.
‘Perhaps you could try to get to the bit about how long it takes a little sooner when we’re on air,’ he said, in a tone of kind encouragement, and I found myself wondering how many different ways he’d worked out to say ‘JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION WILL YOU?’ to recalcitrant guests.
In the end, it all went off well enough – by which I mean that I can’t remember anything either he or I said, and I haven’t given in just yet to the strange temptation to watch a recording of it through my fingers. I know that I stopped talking before anyone had to haul me off set, though, and that Jeremy looked pleasantly surprised to see that I could stop talking, and said something encouraging off-camera before carrying on.
My clearest memory is of the Glaswegian woman sitting next to me. ‘Would you like mine, too?’ I said, offering her my welshcake. ‘No,’ she said firmly, ‘I put mine in my bag. I thought it was going to be like a pancake. Do people actually eat these in Wales?’
Daffodils, welshcakes, yellow dresses – yes, I know, I know.
But it wasn’t about lazy stereotyping. Not this time. It was about looking quite genuinely towards Wales, about reaching out for signs of friendship. If the signs of friendship that come most immediately to hand are all a little predictable – well, that’s as much our fault as anyone else’s.
I left the studio having been genuinely surprised by the welcome I’d received. It wasn’t just that Jeremy Vine had a point to make about his positive attitude – his efforts and interest were clearly being shared by a lot of the people he worked with.
Last August, I spoke at the North American Festival of Wales in Washington D. C., where people who spoke Welsh were given something of a rock-star welcome – which certainly isn’t what we’d ever expect at home.
Having an echo of that – of genuine interest, and a willingness to connect – in London of all places, which often looks so incapable of noticing Wales – was unexpected and quietly inspiring.
Meanwhile, the fact that it was all revolving around the language – that people were preparing little bits of Welsh to use with me – that the speaking of Welsh itself was becoming part of the act of connection – that, I think, suggests some interesting thoughts for the future.
I picked up my credit card from the London Welsh Centre, walked back to Fitzrovia, did a quick Facebook Live in front of entirely the wrong BBC building (I’m very committed to the whole idea that making mistakes is valuable), found the right building, and was delighted to meet Jessica, the producer who’d been preparing for the piece.
She’d gone through our introductory sentence and our first lesson, and was saying some excellent sentences in Welsh with obvious and wonderful enthusiasm.
I had a friendly security check, and then a photo-pass made up by an less than happy receptionist – I wisely decided not to try and teach her any Welsh – and then we were up in the Green Room, a section of office space curtained off for guests on various shows.
I was fretting about getting my mobile charged – Beca, the content manager at SaySomethingin, had been doing a brilliant job of intercepting incoming media calls and dealing with them herself, but Garry Owen from Taro’r Post had rather cunningly gone round the end of the goal and straight to Jessica, so I was committed to a call at 1.55 – with my battery down at about 15%.
That helped (a very small amount) to keep my mind off what was about to happen – and then an unlikely hero rode to the rescue to make sure that I couldn’t think about the Jeremy Vine show at all.
‘Are you the Welsh guy?’ said a friendly young bloke.
I admitted it.
‘You’re not on until one, are you? That’s plenty of time.’ It was 14 minutes and 11 seconds, not that I was counting. ‘Steve’s just had a thought – would you record an intro in Welsh for Serious Jockin’?’
My face must have shown how few of those words I’d understood.
‘Steve Wright in the afternoon? If you could just record an intro?’
Ah, now there was a name I did in fact recognise – if only because my wife Catrin used to listen to him all the time. She was doing nothing but tease me about ‘your new best friend Jeremy’, but if I recorded an intro for Steve Wright, I might finally impress her – a mere 14 years after getting married.
‘Just a sentence,’ said Steve, as I sat down opposite him, ‘or maybe two. Actually, let me write something down. What’s DJ Silly Boy in Welsh?’
Yes, once again I’d got myself very quickly out of my depth. ‘Um, sorry, but what do you actually mean when you say bangers?’
Oh, I see.
‘Would you mind if I just said bangers for that bit, actually?’
‘No, great, that’d be cool, that’d be funny actually, go for it.’
‘And I’m sorry, but there is definitely not a translation for serious jockin.’
‘No, okay, I see. But you can do some of it in Welsh, right?’
I tried to redeem myself by hamming up the delivery as much as possible – getting a little hammier each time Steve said ‘Actually, let’s just do that one more time’ – and the friendly blokes on his team said ‘That was awesome!’ on the way out – and now I’ve been followed by someone from a talent agency on Twitter, so perhaps if everyone stops learning Welsh I can fall back on recording advertising jingles.
No, seriously, I’ve actually been followed by someone from a talent agency on Twitter.
You should SEE how much that made Catrin roll her eyes.
And that quickly and easily, it was time – and then it all got very strange indeed.
I’m prone to exaggeration – okay, I exaggerate more than anyone else in the entire universe – and I might have been playing up the whole idea of nerves as I bounced in and out of different Twitter conversations in the days leading up to the show.
But I’d also spent some time wondering what 7.42 million people would look like if they all stood somewhere together, and by the time I was sitting in the Green Room, I had some genuine butterflies in the stomach, and that feeling of tightness in my hands and my throat that I know perfectly well can end up making my voice sound shaky and nervous.
But the utterly bizarre side-trip into Steve Wright’s recording studio had thrown all that off-track.
When the door to Jeremy Vine’s studio opened and he beckoned me in, it was suddenly just another recording studio, and I had a one-on-one Welsh lesson to give, which is as utterly normal as it gets for me. Jessica was there at first, and we’d been chatting, and I felt very comfortable with her, and Jeremy looked familiar, and there were a couple of little Welsh flags near the microphones, and it all seemed oddly quiet and relaxing.
And when all’s said and done, I really rather love getting people to start talking Welsh.
I’d been told that I’d have 10 minutes – and every now and then I’d glance at the clock, and another 10 minutes would have gone past, but I was in the middle of a Welsh lesson, and there was no way I leave a Welsh lesson unless someone actually drags me out.
And then there was the choir – which I’d thought would be stereotyped – I’d been trying to persuade them to play some Meinir’s ‘Gafael yn Dynn’ or Yws Gwynedd’s ‘Sebona Fi’, and I haven’t given up on that yet – but no, they were genuinely fantastic, squeezed into the studio, with the conductor cheerfully whacking me in the side of the head every time he started.
Yes, of course I sang along. But very quietly. I’ve done my time in a male voice choir, I know I’m better suited to mime than bass.
And then it was over – Jessica was standing in the door, looking significantly at me, I was deciding what to teach after ‘because’, and then only very slowly realising that they were serious – I was going to have to leave half-way through a sentence. I didn’t quite start twitching, but I wasn’t far off.
Ugh, I hate unfinished sentences.
But there we were – my phone was charged, I hopped on a call with Taro’r Post, caught Steve Wright for a quick photo so Catrin couldn’t accuse me of making it all up, and then it dawned on Jessica and me that while we’d been doing that, Jeremy had been up and out like a greyhound, possibly doing his best to escape from being forced to learn any more Welsh…;-)
I would have liked to have told him face to face how well he’d done – because he was comfortably in the top half a dozen or so people I’ve taught, and I think it’s important that people know when they’ve done really, really well. Particularly with languages, since most of us are conditioned to feel that we’re ‘just not very good at languages’.
And that, as they say, was all she wrote.
Train home, my kids and my wife in my arms again, and back to the real world. London is lots of fun, but nothing can beat the slopes of Moel Tryfan, the views from Comin Uwchgwyrfai and the chance just to breathe for a while.
‘Does it make any difference?’ asked Garry Owen.
It’s a fair question.
I don’t know.
But I suspect it might.
It’s certainly made a difference to Jeremy Vine – we’ve got to know each other a bit (as much as you can in the hectic environment of London media), he’s thought about Wales and the language in more detail than he might have done previously, and he’s got a bunch of new Welsh synapses that will never entirely disappear.
It’s had a clear impact for a couple of days – we’ve seen far more people sign up for our courses – which will all tail off pretty rapidly.
But it’s also built a bridge with someone who has a significant platform – so as a first step, it seems likely that there will be a naturally more nuanced response on Jeremy’s shows – born of his interest and willingness to learn – when the topic of Wales crops up in the future.
But it might – just perhaps – have done something else, too.
It might have shown us a new, extra way forward – based on friendliness and learning a little bit of Welsh – and perhaps we can learn how to build more bridges with the people who shape discourse in London, on that model.
And that might even lead to a shift in the discourse, and a wider understanding – or even a new normality – that of course Welsh is a cultural treasure that we can all value and support.
If that becomes the new normality, then we’ll race past the target of a million speakers without even breaking sweat.
Maybe my kids will get to speak Welsh because it’s normal, without ever needing to worry about whether or not it’s going to survive.
And that would be worth everything.
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