Predicaments of those learning Welsh

Ken Richards responds to the frustrations and problems of an Englishman learning the language

I read Colin Miles’ article on ClickonWales last week in the same timeframe as another which appeared in the Sunday New York Times entitled The Power of Negative Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. His article is a handy précis of his forthcoming book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. In it he argues that positive thinking as advocated by Tony Robbins and other feel-good gurus need to be balanced with uncertainty and the prospect of failure. He also suggests that these Robbins-like sessions with their success-guaranteed approach and an emphasis on the positive can also have the negative effect of distorting expectations leading to disillusionment on the part of the participants.

Burkeman’s observations seemed relevant to Colin Miles predicament. My own experience with what I call automated second language programmes in French suggests that one has to ‘get with the program’ and that the positive motivation of the whole experience wins the day. You’re concerned with the conditional in French? One is politely but firmly told that it will be covered in Unit 10. Still concerned? “See me after class”. Dialogue, reflection, class discussion… perhaps, but not often.

I conformed and passed, but with a niggling doubt about the conditional. Sometime later, I attended a Spanish class based on a more traditional approach to learning the language. Time was taken to deal with awkward concepts, with the teacher admitting from time to time that an apparent awkwardness or illogicality in the language was a matter of historical convention to make things easier. By the end of the second year the teacher had introduced us to Spanish poetry which he used to hone our accents and to explore the sense and texture of the language. Beginners experience such different approaches, but basically experience the same outcome – a grounding for continued reading and conversational practice.

Which leads to the problem of a perceived ‘gap’ between the written and spoken word in Welsh. I accept that the language of the street is often a local matter which sometimes confounds the unwary. However, the boundary is not as definite as Welsh Grammar would have you believe. I see it more as a continuum from the one to the other in both directions, remembering that there is a long oral tradition of poetry and storytelling in Wales.

In my experience, the ‘gap’ is more likely to be a phenomenon known as the ‘two solitudes’, a phrase which Canadian author Hugh Maclennan coined in the 1940s to describe the linguistic and cultural gap between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians. Sometimes we need to step back to review the bigger picture.

In looking at the bigger picture in Wales, there are several instances in recent history when people became concerned about the downhill direction of the language. At the end of the 19th Century, for example, Owen M. Edwards and several of his contemporaries became agents of change in circumstances where the Welsh language was observed to be in rapid decline in terms of both statistics and quality. The effects of this movement and the revival of language and culture was far reaching in its effect, ably described by historian Kenneth O. Morgan in his book Rebirth of a Nation.

About eighty years later, in 1982, Y Faner published an editorial titled Y Dirywiad Iaith based on comments by the author Dr Kate Roberts in which she bewails the decline and Anglicalisation of the language and calls for improvement in both the written and spoken word. The editorial drew attention to a series of articles written by late Bedwyr Lewis Jones titled Gloywi Iaith which addressed and explained a miscellany of subjects including grammatical issues, the origins of colloquial expressions or place names. These articles remain as fresh today in their style and approach as they were thirty years ago. Remembering as well that this was the period when the “attitudes and antics of some Welsh campaigners” such as Ned Thomas and his contemporaries made their mark in the struggle for a Welsh Channel.

Finally, to address Colin Miles’ particular annoyance: the people unwilling to “step up and fill in the gaps”, as regards the use of Welsh on websites. I asked a consultant on the social media and web development about this in the context of her experience in a bilingual country such as Canada, but with an eye on the situation in Wales. She pointed out that the use of two or more languages on a website does add some extra development and ongoing costs to maintain fresh content. However, platforms such as WordPress make it easy and quite cost effective to create either localised sites for each language or a multilingual site. In this era of globalisation, businesses public sector institutions are beginning to recognise the need to spend this extra cash to reach their audiences and potential clients on their terms.

She also observed that Wales does not lack talented writers in both Welsh and English. From her perspective the requirement was to have access to people capable of writing good, search-optimised web copy and pay the going rate for their work. So the responsibility lies with the those who own websites to pull the technical and linguistic talents together in their development and maintenance.

Come to think of it, this week’s National Eisteddfod is a potential pool of talent for web developers to seek out virtual assistants with recognized linguistic abilities.

Ken Richards is a retired public servant who lives in Ontario, Canada, with long experience in intergovernmental relations on the environment. Born and raised in Wales he maintains a passion for the Welsh language, poetry and history, as well as a healthy respect for French.

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