Pidgin Welsh confronts mutations

On the eve of the Eisteddfod Colin Miles describes the frustrations and problems of an Englishman learning the language

When I was at Swansea University in the early 1960s the Welsh language was notable only by its absence. In truth the impression I got was that it was virtually a dead language. Obviously, this was not the case. So when we moved back to Wales seven years ago almost the first thing we did was to enroll for Welsh classes – initially with WLPAN then on to Pellach, Canolradd, and so on.

How successful has this been? In my case, I’m afraid, not very much. With the aid of a dictionary – well several actually – I can make a reasonable stab at translating from Welsh into English. But when it comes to speaking or writing it is a different matter. I can, with difficulty and some effort, make myself understood in both areas. However, when writing I normally include both the English and the Welsh so that my tutor knows what I am really trying to say. And as for speaking, mine is more what you might call pidgin Welsh.

So what are the problems? Well, certainly not anything like the ones that Welsh speakers seem to think they are. They identify some of them but not the most important ones. Often they do not even understand or realise, for instance, which words are ‘difficult’ or ‘uncommon’ and need to be translated for any given vocabulary. Instead they often repeat words that most learners already know. And this is true for both the courses and the Welsh learner books.

Let me take another instance. In Canolradd, Uned 29 there is a tasg – beth sy fwya anodd wrth ddysgu Cymraeg. And there is a list, which you are asked to discuss with your partner and put in order of difficulty. Here it is:

  • deall y treigladau
  • cofio pethau
  • siarad â phobol
  • deall y newyddion
  • cael yr amser i adolygu
  • darllen llyfrau Cymraeg
  • tafodieithoedd gwahanol
  • sefyll arholiad

This corresponds very badly with my own list. The following had been intended to be in order of difficulty or when I first encountered a problem, but by the time I had gone a little way into it, that went out of the window.

When I first started learning the language my first stumbling block was not mutations but conjunctions and prepositions – simple words like i, o, ar, am, at and their myriad meanings. There is no simple one-to-one relationship between the English and the Welsh. And even now I would rate this as a major problem. Once you stray out of the comfort zone of the phrases you have learnt, and try to say or write something else, you are in an area where there are apparently no rules. Instead, uncertainty rules.

Welsh speakers speak too fast. There is a joke about the Englishman speaking very loudly and very slowly to a foreigner in English. Well, apart from the very loudly bit, it actually makes sense! But do the Welsh understand that? Every Welsh learner is confronted by the situation where s/he feels/knows that if s/he attempts to speak in Welsh s/he will be faced with a torrent of Welsh which s/he doesn’t understand. The result is panic and completely forgetting everything s/he has learnt. Outcome: speak in English.

I am particularly bad at following Welsh conversations and even now am lucky if I manage to understand 75 per cent or more.
The difference between the spoken and written word in Welsh is so great it has been said that “There is a case for regarding the spoken and written Welsh as being two separate languages”. This view may have been referring to literary Welsh rather than ‘normal’ written Welsh, but it often seems that it is true of both. Welsh may primarily be a spoken language. Yet, if Welsh speakers cannot read written Welsh it starts to sound as if this division may be true. And what future can a spoken-only language have?

Encouraging us to speak Welsh as often as possible may sound a good idea. And, of course, we will have these little conversions in Welsh at classes, or between ourselves. But if we are speaking rubbish Welsh what good is it? When you are learning a new language you want to learn it properly otherwise why bother? And if written and spoken Welsh are so different it creates an obvious problem.

Apostrophes and missing words are another issue. We are told, “You don’t need to put that word in as it is implied”. And, “The word is missing but the mutation it causes remains”. Why miss words out? And why use apostrophes to the extent that sometimes most of the word is missing? Why make life so difficult?

Welsh is a phonetic language. The priests or whoever it was who decided to write things down as they heard them did the language no favour at all. They saddled it not just with mutations, but the mantra that, “Welsh is easy to learn because it is a phonetic language”. When many letters and combinations of letters sound the same, plus the fact that dialects always exist and living languages always develop and change, it makes it anything but easy.

There is no such thing as standard Welsh. Well, that is what we are told. How can a language survive without standards? You don’t teach Geordie to those newly-arrived at Newcastle, or Cockney Rhyming slang to immigrants at Heathrow bound for the East End.

Then again, there is the north/south divide. When southerners say that they can’t understand a word that north Walians say – I don’t know if the reverse is true –it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, especially when they apparently just give up. And to us English, used to dialects like Geordie, or the west Country, the differences seem greatly exaggerated.

So many words have dual meanings. Lend/Borrow, Teach/Learn are obvious examples, Sometimes I have to re-read written Welsh in order to work out who is doing what to whom and is it to a person, for a person, or with a person.

Word order is a major preoccupation: Generally the word order is different and that creates a major problem for the English speaker, particularly where verbs are split between phrases. But again there appears to be many exceptions. 
Plurals: Take any 50 Welsh nouns and the chances are that around 70 per cent of them will form their plurals in completely different ways. And some of the changes are so strange that the singular and the plural look totally unconnected. Incidentally, I highly commend the Geddes & Grosset Welsh-English dictionary because it gives Welsh plurals as separate entries.

Feminine endings cause a headache. Having been given a list of word endings which denoted the feminine, none of the endings of the first 12 words we looked at fell into that list and they were all different.

Yeses and Noes were fine in a more formal age, but how can the many combinations survive in the Internet age? And if they don’t what happens to the ability to read ‘old’ Welsh?

Learning by rote as children do? Adults are NOT children. We don’t learn the same way. We can’t spend five years learning the basics in the way that children do. Yes, we do need to learn some things by rote – grammar is an instance – otherwise we are lost. But we cannot go back to being a child and thinking like a child and being immersed 24 hours in a single language. It is difficult to politely describe the WLPAN idea that we dispense completely with dictionaries and grammar.

I go on to S4C and switch on the sub-titles. OK, I now fully understand that the Welsh and the English languages are often incompatible when it comes to translating from one to another. But this is not helped when Welsh speakers say that they are often amused by the sub-titles bearing little relation to what is actually said. The same kind of thing happens with written translations and you too often find yourself asking the question, how did they get from that to that? Sometimes it is you, sometimes not.

Every language has its particular phrases that have evolved. With a very old language like Welsh there are many such sayings. Again, the lack of proper translation of some, and, indeed, a mistranslation of others, doesn’t help.
We don’t mutate, we don’t bother with that – or so older native Welsh speakers will tell you. Then you will be told that they do, but they don’t realise it.

Last but not least are the mutations. We are told it only involves nine letters. Unfortunately 60-70 per cent of words begin with those letters. This is a major stumbling block, not for just the beginning of words, but in the middle as well. Maybe when speaking, assuming that the mutations are used, the meanings can be worked out from the context. If the context isn’t clearly stated then sometimes the meaning in written Welsh can become ambiguous because of the mutation.
 What are the solutions?
 I don’t know and as an Englishman I cannot presume to more than make suggestions. But first I would suggest that you have to look at the problems inherent in the language. If you were to think of it in terms of efficiency of information transfer, that is conveying meaning, then obviously Welsh suffers from many problems. But the biggest one is probably the gap between the written and spoken word.

How do you close the gap? First of all there should be a standard Welsh like the standard Hebrew that was established and was taught in the original WLPAN – not a success incidentally if you read the follow-up. As to how Welsh is taught in schools I have few ideas other than it should be taught rigorously (both spoken and written) otherwise the gap between the two will never close.

I do know that children who attend the local Welsh primary school play in English, which is not a good sign. One can hope that later on they regain some of their pride in the language. Yet without constant use even native Welsh speakers will lose it.
 As for teaching people like me this, in cold financial terms, is not cost-effective. We will never be fluent Welsh speakers or writers. Far better spend the money in the schools. But you also need the support of people such as myself otherwise we will neither understand or appreciate what is being done, so a balance has to be struck.

There are other Welsh attitudes to take into account as well.  In general, there is goodwill towards the language, but it is a fragile thing. The antics and attitudes of some Welsh campaigners risks losing it. For the people at saysomethinginwelsh.com to support Osian being sent to prison by sending him a letter of support may just about be acceptable. However, to then bring up John Redwood and suggest that the YouTube video be passed around is just childish.

A further problem is the financial one. Translation costs are an overhead that the other side of the border doesn’t have. Large corporations can usually manage this extra cost, though the pressure is on everyone these days. But for charities this can be a bit of a killer if the requirement becomes mandatory. And, sad to say, when you look at the usage of the written language, including the Welsh sections of web sites, which I have a particular interest in, at times it borders on the non-existent.

What bugs me in particular is that Welsh speakers/ writers seem massively unwilling to step up and fill in the gaps. They complain that a web site is English only but won’t do anything about it. If I were a Welshman in that position I’d do something about it. Without a proper understanding of the problems of the Welsh language and Welsh attitudes no amount of money thrown at it will improve the situation.

Colin Miles was educated Cheltenham Grammar School, attended Swansea University, studied Chemical Engineering at Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, and Hull, and lived in Hemel Hempstead between 1968 to 2004, before retiring to Llannon in Ceredigion.

30 thoughts on “Pidgin Welsh confronts mutations

  1. Colin’s experiences and observations as a ‘Welsh learner’ make interesting but unsurprising reading. As an ‘outsider’ he will remain forever thus and I suggest he puts an early end to his frustrations and becomes outstandingly proud of his international native tongue.

    There is a strong correlation between the Welsh language and lower levels of economic development in areas across Wales and the flexing of muscle by the new Commissioner should be treated with caution. Those who fawn at her feet should look to the reality of our situation and fight every inch of the way to resist the unreasonable and self-interested demands of a few bureaucrats on the majority of wealth generating and dynamic organisations who operate in the tough world of business. It is these who generate the taxes to pay for the education of our children, health services, care of the elderly. Imposition of further unnecessary demands will lead to haemorrhaging of valuable scarce resources and distancing of investors faced with bizarre language demands. As one company commented when leaving Wales to set up over the border “Sorry, but the only two languages we need are English and Microsoft”. We live in a 21st century global economy and the Commissioner should tailor her demands to the future not the past.

  2. The frustrations of the writer are natural and typical of most learners of languages, until you reach a stage of acceptance rather than annoyance.

    I am always amazed at the ability of learners of English to speak fluently in a language that has so many inherent contradictions. The author has problems with prepositions in Welsh, this is similar to the problems English students encounter with phrasal verbs. Phrasal verbs are the use of a preposition to change the meaning of a verb –
    give up
    give off
    give away
    give in
    give over
    I am amazed that students of English are able to use phrasal verbs when they seem to defy logic and have to be learnt by heart. They almost seem to be used deliberately to make things hard for the student.

    Each language is different, the trick is to accept theses differences rather than complain that they are different.

  3. I agree with Billy, all of the problems that the learner has come up against are the same that we come across when we learn a different language.

    I must admit I learnt Welsh and it has helped me quite a lot in my work (I work in Design and IT), it has enabled me to work with different groups of people and get involved in all kinds of different activities. Lots of my friends speak Welsh and the language seems to be going from strength to strength. One thing that I do find though, is that there are a lot of people that have either failed or can’t be bothered to learn that like to moan about the people that can speak or are learning – It’s often the way sadly.

    I’m not entirely sure where Mary gets her data from, it’s quite annoying to see something written and not supported by evidence, but it’s so often the way these days. “There is a strong correlation between the Welsh language and lower levels of economic development in areas across Wales”, In what sectors – Tourism, IT, Heritage, HE? Would that be in the South where there are more Welsh speakers, or in the north where there is a larger concentration?

    I don’t know if I’d learn Microsoft, especially as they have made a loss this year. Maybe we should look to Apple… or should that be Afal?!

  4. Couldn’t agree more with Mary. Now is the time to outlaw the Welsh language, in order to allow rapacious multinationals the free space they require to “play with Wales”, as one venture capitalist told me recently. Also, it is time that we sold off the National Museums and National Library. Think of all that land. Surely executive housing could replace them. Overall, the sooner we ditch this ‘Wales’ thing the better for all concerned. Let us set our children free! Am I joking or am I serious? In these crazy nationalistic times of Team GB, who can tell?

  5. I sympathise with some of Colin’s complaints. Welsh is no doubt a difficult language to learn, although certainly much easier for an English speaker than some other languages (e.g. Korean, Arabic or Chinese). But as implied by Billy Pilgrim above he does seem to be basing many of his comments on the assumption that the English language is some kind of perfect archetype of which all other languages are deviations. We all tend to assume that our native language is easy, because we never had to learn it. If Welsh speakers are able to naturally grasp the grammar and rules of their language and are correspondingly unable to appreciate the difficulty others may find in it, then this is no more true of Welsh than it is of any other language, especially English, as Billy Pilgrim suggests! While I’m sure Welsh speakers could do more to facilitate learners, to imply that inherent linguistic issues in the language itself are a significant barrier to its progress seems spurious.

    Certainly, I’ve often heard it complained of the WLPAN course that the deliberate refusal to address grammar frustrates some learners, especially those used to more “conventional” methods of language learning. It might be well suited for some but for those who prefer to understand the way a language works I’d like to see a more “traditional” course on offer. Also, I agree that the differences between North and South (which are almost entirely accent and vocabulary) are exaggerated and this probably doesn’t help learners either.

    If Welsh-speaking kids use English on the playground then this is not because Welsh is “more difficult” than English, but rather down to social and cultural factors. Kids who speak English at home are likely to speak English by default in school. In my (Welsh medium) school, whether a conversation took place in Welsh or English had virtually nothing to do with the individuals’ grasp of Welsh and was mostly determined by who was speaking with whom.

  6. Mary and Mark, you are on the money here. I suggest that to expedite the process, all people suspected of ‘Welsh Tendencies’ which manifest themselves in uneconomic traits such as unusual first and second names, a tendency to mutate, holding a ball rather than kicking it or displaying un-entrepreneurial characteristics (a fondness of song, poetry and non-corporate culture) and the such-like are removed from The Enterprise Zone Formerly Called Wales for a minimum of three generations for re-settlement and re-education. Then all assets can be bought by private equity firms (Play With Wales LLP and The Cambrian Cleansing Co), to be ‘proactively leveraged’ and sold back to third generation returnees who can demonstrate that they have been elevated to a higher degree of understanding.

    Of course, a 21st Century Global Economy needs global consistency. Thus it is encouraging to know that only two languages matter, namely English and Microsoft. There is no place for Afal, let alone Linux in such a world and certainly not Ada. I trust that this axiom is applied worldwide and the campaign is therefore extended to all countries to create a world fit for investment bankers to live in.

  7. I moved to Wales seven years ago from Portsmouth and became fluent in Welsh within a year, partially as a result of Wlpan and partially as a result of learning the language at university and meeting a girl from Ruthin. Having learnt the language both Wlpan style and in a more formal, grammar-based style I can honestly say that many of the problems Colin complains about are ones seemingly artificially created by Wlpan, rather than being inherent in Welsh. There is in fact a Welsh standard, which contains all of those apostrophised missing letters, and shows clearly the grammatical reasons for the inexplicable mutations Colin talks of, it’s called literary Welsh, and it’s not as distinct from the Welsh spoken day to day as people would have you believe. I speak Ceredigion Welsh and my fiancee speaks Flintshire Welsh, but apart from an ongoing argument over llaeth/llefrith we have no problems understanding one another. The missing letters found so liberally in Cwrs Wlpan have mostly been replaced by apostrophes in a misguided attempt to de-formalise the language in an attempt to get every learner to speak in the dialect of the area he or she is learning in, which is all very well but does lead to a situation where the learner is utterly unprepared to deal with anyone not speaking or writing the local dialect (in its Wlpan approved ‘learner-friendly’ form). As regards efficiency of information transfer, I have completed two degrees through the medium of Welsh and found it just as efficient as English; all languages are efficient at this, if they weren’t then we wouldn’t do it that way. I feel strongly that the best way to become a fluent speaker, rather than a good learner of Welsh, or indeed any language, is to speak it as often as possible, particularly with native speakers. The idea that we who learnt the language as adults will never be fluent speakers or writers is more than a little insulting, most of my close friends are Welsh speakers, and the language of our social group is Welsh, yet only a minority of us are native born. ‘Learner’ is a stage to go through, not a constant state of existence.

  8. Welsh isn’t any harder to learn than other languages, the traditional teaching methods just don’t work very well. I’m native Finnish speaker and fluent in English mostly because my interest in all things science fiction, not so much because of the efforts of the school. After all, I’m totally unable to speak Swedish after studying it for six years.

    But I can speak Welsh more or less fluently after 2,5 years of learning online with Say Something in Welsh (http://www.saysomethinginwelsh.com/). They method is the best I’ve ever come across anywhere. SSiW makes you speak from the start without making things difficult with grammar terms. Why teach learners grammar when it don’t exist? No, it really don’t. Or do you think the grammar when speaking your native language?

    You want more Welsh speakers in Wales? Then they should be doing SSiW lessons.

  9. It’s sad that so many people who want to learn to speak Welsh are not succeeding. But some people do learn to speak Welsh, so maybe it makes more sense to look at what works rather than at what doesn’t.

    I started learning Welsh two and a half years ago and I am now perfectly comfortable speaking Welsh all day long. I have a number of friends with whom I speak (and write) only in Welsh and I read the news each morning on BBC Cymru. In the beginning, I wanted to sign up for a traditional class but that was impractical for me, so I looked for online options. I came across saysomethinginwelsh.com and have been using their courses as the foundation for my Welsh learning ever since. I’ve supplemented SSiW by reading a few grammar books (mainly Gareth King’s “Modern Welsh”), watching S4C with Welsh subtitles and listening to lots of Radio Cymru. I have also sought out immersion opportunities wherever possible, including the highly valuable “bootcamps” organised by SSiW.

    I was recently told by a Welsh tutor that only about 5 to 10% of people on traditional courses go on to become Welsh speakers. I suggest that it’s time to look at new approaches that incorporate the huge advantages of new technologies to help people succeed and enjoy speaking this beautiful language.

  10. I hope Colin doesn’t lose heart. Learning any new language as an adult can be very challenging, and those who spend time doing so deserve all of our support and respect.

    Having said that (and I write as someone who is lucky enough to be a native Welsh speaker), I can’t help but feel that the complaints above amount to “Welsh is different to English” and “learning is hard”, which are trivially true. Every language is odd in its own little ways. This includes English, even though that language’s prominence normalises its own inherent quirks. For example, Colin complains about the various ways in which Welsh forms plurals, as if the very same thing isn’t true in English (which it certainly is!). Additionally, I refer the author to the classic example of English oddity: the -ough suffix – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ough_%28orthography

    Welsh is what it is. Mutations, boggling though they can be for learners, aren’t just an abstract concept manufactured out of whole cloth by ivory tower academics. They exist because in Welsh it just made sense to say things this way. To the native Welsh ear, “fy ci” sounds odd. Hence “fy nghi”. I have no doubt that it would make things a lot easier for learners if they were eradicated (in fact I predict they will become far less common in the near future as the language evolves naturally) but in the meantime I’m not sure what to say to those who complain about them. It’s just how the language works at the moment. Sorry!

    Perhaps the aspects of the language that Colin writes about will gradually disappear naturally, precisely because Welsh is going to need enthusiastic learners like himself in order to thrive (or even survive). In the meantime, pob lwc a dalier ati!

  11. A very interesting article – I hope Colin sticks at it, as the rewards of learning Welsh are huge and cannot easily be conveyed in English!

    As someone who has learned Welsh to fluency as an adult, I would encourage Colin to try to look at learning Welsh in a different way:

    1. We all get frustrated as Welsh learners – but it’s really important to learn to accept, even embrace, the quirks and differences between Welsh and English, rather than fight them.

    2. Learning Welsh is very much a case of ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’ – throw yourself in, don’t worry about mistakes – you’ll get there!

    3. Use the basic Welsh you have creatively, rather than struggling to translate English thoughts into Welsh.

    4. Welsh is a really diverse and inexact language – that’s simply the reality of it. It has retained an astonishing diversity of dialects to a degree that has been lost in English. The great thing is that as a learner, you have the freedom to use the language that comes naturally. The tricky bit is getting used to the different vocabulary etc that are in use.

    5. Be brave and use your Welsh as much as you can. Even if it’s just a few words with a work colleague or friend. You can learn so much more this way than in lessons alone.

    6. Teaching methods/Wlpan. Not always to everyone’s taste and sometimes it feels repetative/childish – but the fact is that it WORKS. You’ll soon get on to the more interesting stuff.

    7. Do the most intensive course you can manage/afford – v hard to learn with just 1 lesson per week.

    So well done for learning and good luck! Welsh has boosted my career, given me fun and rewarding experiences, helped me make friends and opened my eyes to culture. I recommend it to anyone – with a bit of persistance you can become pretty fluent quite quickly.

  12. Another learning tip – go to Youtube and take a look at the Welsh pop / folk feeds. Quite a few of these have the lyrics in Welsh and English. Keep up and the speed issue becomes less challenging. It is fascinating to see / hear how a singer like Dafydd Iwan uses polysylabic words (“dwi wedi penderfynu bod yn rhydd”) as a sounboard for his tunes. I have also found that as many of the singers are from the North, the commonalities in the language quickly stand out above the differences between the various regional forms. Plethyn, Dafydd Iwan and Gwyneth Glyn sing clearly. Pob lwc!

  13. Although I was born and raised in England I have lived for many years in the United States. Recently, a relative forwarded to me a package of old photos and documents passed down in my family. Among them are two awards of some kind that originated in Wales in 1908 and were awarded to a Jane Jones, presumably a relative of ours. Unfortunately neither I, nor the relative who sent these to me, speak, read or write Welsh and so we have been unable to learn the reason for these awards. Trying to piecemeal translate using the internet helps with some words but leaves many gaps and I am wondering if any Welsh language speakers might offer, if I type what is on the awards, to provide us with the English translation? Thank you. I can be reached at MuswellHillUK@aol.com.

  14. This article is a random collection of impressions that offers no analysis of any real worth. What the author refuses to acknowledge is that his difficulties lie in his own assumptions, not in the nature of the Welsh language.

    The first noticeable characteristic of his approach is the use of grammatical terms, such as mutations, conjunctions and prepositions. These are useful terms if the aim is to study and analyse the language, but that is not the purpose of Welsh language adult education though it is unfortunately a characteristic of the old-fashioned English academic based language teaching which has proved to so ineffectual. It is no coincidence that English schoolchildren show such a lack of interest in other languages.

    The purpose of Welsh for Adults is to speak and understand the spoken language; everything else is secondary. Therefore the first principle that needs to be adopted is grammar is not required. The process of acquiring any second language is a lot simpler:

    1 Repeat the pattern until it is fixed in your long-term memory (repetition is required otherwise the brain will not transfer the information from the short-term memory to the long-term memory where the information is required);

    2 Understand what the pattern means;

    3 Practice the pattern with other learners until you are confident of your ability to reproduce the pattern when required;

    4 Don’t think, it’s a waste of energy.

    I could go through each of Colin’s points one by one and refute them all but essentially his objection is to the fact that Welsh is a different language and he objects to the differences. If Welsh was more like English then that would make it easier to learn so please will we do that. The answer is no because then it would not be Welsh. Part of your problem is that you are trying to learn a language by referencing everything back to English (where you obviously feel secure). This is a huge mistake since translation as a means of understanding takes far too much time. You will get to the point where you will able to cope with a certain speed and then not be able to go any further. Translation is too slow a process to be able to cope with the normal speed of the language.

    If Mr Miles was sincere in his desire for help then I would be happy to provide it, as I have worked as a full-time tutor at Cardiff University for over 20 years and have taken thousands of adult students from complete beginners to ‘A’ level fluency in that time.

    However the tone of his article reminds me of the schoolboy who has difficulty understanding a subject and puts the blame on the subject. I wonder whether Mr Miles’s heart is really in this. He’s clearly taken the decision to learn Welsh but his negative attitude towards the process suggests that he is at war with himself over the decision. It’s generally a bad idea to embark upon any educational path because you feel you ought to. You have to want to and enjoy the journey.

    My advice to Mr Miles would be to give up learning Welsh, as he’s clearly not enjoying it and take up something else that he would enjoy.

  15. Rhobat Bryn Jones – I await your response to my first article with interest. Shoot the messenger seems to be the answer to this one!

  16. Just to add to my previous remark. What we are talking about is the survival of the Welsh language. Whether my ‘impressions’ are right or wrong is actually irrelevant if they are in any way shared by other learners. As for comparing back to English, well most learners, like myself, will be English speakers. Convincing has nothing to do with it.

  17. My response to your first article is to shoot the message because the anxieties you express won’t help you or anyone else learn the language. Anxieties need to be acknowledged but they are only resolved by learning the language itself and that is achieved by following the programme and listening to the tutor’s instruction. If you wait for your anxieties to recede of their own accord, you’ll be waiting forever.

    With regards your second point, at the very beginning of a course, people will use their first language as their reference point for vocabulary. But this needs to be abandoned as soon as is practicable. It’s a prop but a false one as it will inhibit your development at a later stage.

    However the fundamental flaw in your approach is to compare Welsh grammar to English grammar. If a language is to be successfully learnt, the language patterns have to be understood in their own right. So I see no reason to abandon my first response to your comment.

  18. Rhobat Bryn Jones – perhaps you don’t realise it but your responses could be viewed as being rather condescending and somewhat ‘ivory towerish’. As Rhys David echoed much the same thoughts as some of mine I wonder what you will say of his article.

  19. What I notice about your response, Colin, is that you have ignored every single point I have made regarding Welsh adult education and its processes so I can only assume that you have no answer to the points I have made.

    As I said on another blog, I believed you are at war with yourself on your decision to learn Welsh. A part of you wants to learn Welsh but another part of you seems to be protesting very loudly about the work involved in acquiring another language. Your solution is to tell Welsh speakers to make their language more like English to make it easier for you.

    I have taught many adult students down the years from all sorts of different backgrounds with different levels of ability and only on a few occasions have I not been able to help the individual concerned. The solution has generally been to attend a less intensive course and get more of a taste for the language first.

    However the one category of person that I can never help is the student who doesn’t want to learn. And I would argue that the degree to which you complain about the process suggests just that. That is why I would recommend that you find a course of study that you will actually enjoy whatever that may be. Life is too short to spend time doing something that makes you miserable. Now you can call me all the names under the sun, but that will not change the dilemma you are in, a dilemma not caused by the hature of the Welsh language or its speakers.

    As for Rhys David’s article, I have been teaching all last week on a summer course so I have not had the time to track down the article yet. I hope to get to the library next week.

  20. Rhobat Bryn Jones – I am a little bit curious to know why you ignored my second article but won’t say any more until you have read the Rhys David article.

  21. Your second article is full of so many false assumptions that it would take too long to go through it. Life is too short and it would also have the effect of validating the emotional game being played out namely, I’m in two minds about learning Welsh and that’s the fault of the language thus obscuring the emotional dilemma.

    I have not commented on Rhys David’s article as I have not read it yet.

  22. Well that’s one way of dismissing what you don’t like. Emotions have nothing to do with it, it is all about analysis of the Welsh language, particularly in comparison with the English language as the majority of new Welsh language learners will come from that language, not French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, etc.
    To help you, the Rhys David article to which I refer, is entitled ‘Welsh in a globalised world’ and is in the current – Summer 2013 – edition of the IWA magazine, ‘the welsh agenda’.

    As for your idealistic approach to learning to speak Welsh, well yes, in an ideal world with lots of time, it might well work, for some people. But in the real world, as mentioned by others such as the Welsh tutor with 20 years of teaching adults, only 5 – 10% of learners actually become fluent. Given the relatively small numbers on such courses, particularly in relation to the number of Welsh speakers who leave the country, it is not going to have any effect on the overall number of Welsh speakers. And of course, the problem is not just with speaking, the real problem is in writing the language. As Rhys David comments, ‘many proficient speakers will not write in Welsh. Writing in the language is now a craft increasingly confined to a cadre of super-literate Welsh.’ A bi-lingual society cannot exist in any meaningful form in the modern world if it is just at the spoken level.

  23. Analysis of the Welsh language from which perspective and in support of which agenda and with what assumptions?

    My approach to learning Welsh is far from idealistic since it is based on over 20 years of professional practice.

    Learning a language to the point of fluency is simply a matter of practice. The difficulty for many is that there are not enough opportunities to practice the language outside of the classroom. This includes the workplace, the family and leisure opportunities. When more opportunities in these areas of activity are available, you will see the number of learners becoming fluent increase.

    The other point that needs to be borne in mind is where your point of view stands in the context of English historical attitudes to the Welsh language. In the view of the Reports of the commissioners of enquiry into the state of education in Wales (1847), the Welsh language was responsible for the ignorant, lazy and immoral nature of the Welsh people. Unfortunately those attitudes still persist some 165 years on.

    The contemporary reality is that Welsh is used to run an education system, with a reputation superior to that of the English language education system, is used to govern the country and run various media outlets throughout Wales. That sounds like a language that has adapted well to the modern world.

    Thank you for the reference to Rhys David’s article; as it happens I already have it. I shall be going to the library this afternoon to study it.

  24. Analysis of the language from the perspective of an English adult learner experiencing the difficulties that most similar learners experience. What agenda? Trying to get those who are fluent in the language to see it from the outside. Continuing to believe that everything is fine isn’t going to help the language. As for education, I think Jon Jones has fully covered that.

  25. I have now had the opportunity to read Rhys David’s article.

    His conclusion that Welsh is a difficult language to learn is based on the fact that:

    1 legions of people have learnt it in school but who have emerged barely able to put a sentence together; and

    2 the number of adult drop-outs.

    However it is equally valid to conclude that the education system does not require the young student to achieve a high level of oral attainment. Given the structure of the marking, it is possible to pass without demonstrating an oral aptitude for the language. If I am wrong on this then I am happy to be corrected but I am reporting what adults who have been through the system, and come to the adult education sector to learn to speak Welsh confidently, have told me.

    With regards adults dropping out, there are a number of reasons for this including people wishing to have a conversational ability in Welsh but not wishing to go further, family commitments and work pressures leaving them having to put their studies on the back burner.

    However it’s his comments on the language itself that are the most intriguing. For me, his critique is based on the assumption that it is necessary to understand grammar in order to learn a language. Learning a language is simply a question of learning patterns and remembering them; it is not necessary to know how they work. It’s also the case that oral language is largely decided upon by its speakers and not academics. If speakers find a pattern too complex, they usually simplify it into something else.

    The nature of the Welsh language is not really the problem. What is a problem is the lack of opportunities for students of all ages to use the language outside of the classroom. This applies to social and workplace activities. It should not be assumed that every young person is going to be attracted to the Urdd; it should not be assumed that every adult learner’s social needs will be met by arranging yet another skittles night. Offering choice to the public from a number of sources and investing in the most popular is the way forward, and doing so in a professional manner.

    Equally, those speaking Welsh should have greater opportunity to put their language skills to use in the workplace. This may involve having a mentoring scheme or a workplace support scheme provided by an outside agency but it is a waste of resources to train someone in the Welsh language and not give them the opportunity to use and practice it once they are trained.

    There is a long history of Welsh speakers adapting the language to suit the needs of its time. This is not however where we find ourselves. Welsh needs to expand its spheres of activities if those learning it are to increase their conversational and grammatical confidence.

  26. Rhobat Bryn Jones – the reason why I originally cited Rhys David’s article was because his comments were exactly those in my articles, which you were so keen to dismiss. I hope you won’t take offence if I say that I think your response fails to adequately address many of the points that he raised, mainly because of your insistence on the oral aspect of the language. If writing hadn’t been invented then most of what you say would be true, but in the modern world we have to deal with the written word every day. As the article stated, ‘Many proficient speakers will not write in Welsh. Writing in the language is now a craft increasingly confined to a cadre of super-literate Welsh’. This is something that I have experienced and commented on several times in my efforts to get translations done.

    And what about the suggestion that ‘A Welsh equivalent of the Academie Francaise, the body that preserves the purity of French is urgently needed’? Not sure that purity is what Welsh needs, but a body overseeing the language – maybe?

  27. My comments were curtailed because my original response was considered too long by the webmaster and so it was shortened at his request.

    My emphasis is on the oral language because the Welsh language needs Welsh speakers. I also find it odd that someone would want to be able to write in a language but not be able to speak it.

    As for your comment about written Welsh, I am aware that Welsh is also a written language. This will be due to the fact that I have taught adult students to read and write over the past twenty years, in its formal and informal versions.

    It is perfectly acceptable to write in informal Welsh, the point as I said before is to make yourself understood, just as you would have to do in English and most everyday Welsh will be informally written.

    Rhys David’s comments regarding the lack of confidence of proficient speakers to write dates back to a period when Welsh grammarians wanted to emphasise the importance of correctness in Welsh as a way of strengthening it against the onslaught faced from the English language; this, from a state that did not recognise the existence of the Welsh language other than being below the radar, and thus the object of its contempt. I can see what the grammarians were trying to achieve but the effect was counter-productive and resulted in Welsh speakers believing their Welsh was ‘not good enough’, an attitude that still persists today. Fortunately it is nothing that a good education cannot rectify.

    Your point about translation falls into the common trap of believing that if you can write in Welsh, you can translate. Translation is a skill distinct from writing ability since it requires a sophisticated understanding ot two languages and the ability to understand how meaning is expressed in both. It is generally left to experts since they are able to complete tasks in a far quicker time than the average writer as a result of the specialist training they receive.

    As for the Academi Gymreig, which now comes under Llenyddiaeth Cymru who have their offices in the Wales Millennium Centre, the responsibility for their English-Welsh dictionary has passed to the Language Technologies Unit at Bangor University, though responsibility for the more comprehensive University of Wales dictionary resides at Aberystwyth University.

    The problems facing the language and its development are largely socio-economic in origin. It is easy to feel impotent in the face of such forces and the temptation is to believe that the solution is to be found by looking inwards. What is required is for the socio-economic conditions to be changed, by policy and legislation, to the benefit of the language and its speakers. However one is often confronted by the situation that when pointing to the moon, others often look no further than the finger.

  28. You say – ‘Your point about translation falls into the common trap of believing that if you can write in Welsh, you can translate.’ Well, actually no. I am just David Bellow’s book on translation for the second time and am well aware of the different types and levels of translation. I would just be happy with any kind of ‘translation’, skilled or unskilled.

    I had naively hoped to be both a Welsh speaker and a writer when I started out, but had no idea then of the difficulties I was to encounter. I appreciate that Welsh needs speakers, but unfortunately in the modern age this is never going to be enough to ensure the survival of a language. And what concerns me is the gap between the written and spoken languages. Unless that gap is somehow bridged there will not be a sufficient base to sustain the language as a whole. It is currently limping along on the life support of subsidy.

    Regarding how an adult learns, with respect to Wplan. Although the philosophy is based on not needing grammar, there is nevertheless a certain minimum amount deemed necessary in order to learn the language. Thus the verb to be, a regular verbs and certain irregular verbs which are indeed irregular in most languages. For those of us who had learnt another language this was all familiar terrritory, but for those who hadn’t it was rather bewildering and invariably they were the first ones to drop out.

    As a functioning adult you simply cannot become as a child and learn the way that a child learns. To think at the level of a child, with childish concepts and understanding isn’t possible. So some language structure has to be learnt.

  29. What do you need a translation for?

    With regards the need for a written language, why do you think that the Welsh-speaking world does not understood its importance? Why do you think that the Eisteddfod seeks to support new writers and promote new literature year-on-year? Welsh has a literary tradition going back 1,000 years or more. However a language that exists only in written form is a dead language, c.f. Latin. The aim is for Welsh to be a living spoken language which, hopefully one day, will become the language of the majority (alas not in my lifetime); hence the priority being given to oral Welsh

    I note your refusal to accept my analysis of the process, which is you right. However those who have followed my advice in my classes go on to become fluent. You believe there is another process, and yet you’re having difficulties. I wonder if there’s a connnection at all. I also wonder whether you have trust issues in allowing yourself to be carried along by a process which you do not control. Learning a language is not process that requires adult critical thinking, unlike other subjects, until you reach a level of fluency where you are able to discuss ideas, and there the critical thinking is applied to the ideas rather than the nature of the language itself.

    Regarding grammar, all that is required is the ability to remember and reproduce patterns and understand their meaning. It is not necessary to analyse how they work. Nobody can stop you of course but it usually gets in the way.

    So, to conclude, it is possible for students to abandon their adult sensibilities and adopt an open and accepting childlike approach. Hundreds do it every year and reap the reward of doing so. I understand your reluctance to do so but I believe your difficulties will persist as a result. Best of luck with devising your own learning method.

Comments are closed.

Also within Culture