The Eisteddfod angst

Jasmine Donahaye recounts her experiences as a Welsh learner visiting the Eisteddfod.

Like many learners and non-Welsh speakers, I am not very well informed about what goes on at the Eisteddfod. The Pafiliwn and Y Babell Lên terrify me. I’ve a vague sense of the competitions, but no idea really how it all works. I’m not sure what Maes B is, or Maes C (or even if  there is a Maes C). Maes D appears to be the Learners’ tent – D for dysgu, I assume – but I’ve never found out. Being a learner is like being an immigrant: you don’t want to be reminded of your gauche clumsiness at the start, and nor do you want to confront the fact that you haven’t moved very far since then – but that, it seems, is what the Eisteddfod is there to tell you.

Even though I’m ignorant about much of what happens and where, there are two places on the Eisteddfod site that I know really well: the toilets, and Y Lle Celf. Y Lle Celf, the art pavilion, should be the first place a Welsh learner locates, because in this great white exhibition space you have a reason for wandering about in a daze looking uncomprehendingly at things. In Y Lle Celf you can be totally lost and alone – as the Welsh learner usually is – and no one will realise. Here you can pretend you know what you’re doing at the Eisteddfod, and that once again you are a functioning, socially competent adult, rather than a sweating, paranoid teenager.

However, if the latter takes over, then you always have recourse to the toilets. The toilets are a haven to which the Welsh learner repeatedly returns. When, for example, you see an acquaintance, and in your strangled learner-speak you ask where or what something is, and he waits impatiently while you mangle your question and correct yourself, flustered and embarrassed, and he curtly answers in words you do not understand and then turns to a conversation that excludes you, and you stand there gasping like a beached fish – then what a refuge the toilets offer. You lock yourself away in a cubicle for as long as you can bear its sweet chemical stench, weeping in an agony of humiliation that you swear you will never expose yourself to again.

Of course it’s not because you just tortured the language, or because that person couldn’t be bothered to talk to a learner. He was busy, or distracted, as most people at the Eisteddfod are – because they all know what’s going on: they’re with it, they’re hip. They belong. Unlike you. The opposite happens, too, of course: someone calls your name, and greets you warmly, and suddenly you’re talking animatedly in your limited Welsh to the daughter of a friend or a neighbour with whom you’ve only ever spoken English before. But even so, every year you wash up wondering if it’s going to be one long exercise in making a public arse of yourself.

I’m certain that every Welsh learner experiences a version of this social anxiety – and not once, not just the first time, but every time, for there is no instance of losing your Eisteddfod virginity. Each year you find that this was merely a sort of blind, fumbling attempt at fully clothed foreplay. You don’t actually know how the real thing looks or feels, and you fear you never will know: you probably won’t ever be able to get inside the Eisteddfod’s knickers.

The Eisteddfod is not cold or withholding, though. On the contrary, it tries energetically, even effusively, to be welcoming – a bit too eagerly so, according to some. Indeed, there’s a painful absurdity in the attempt to widen the festival’s appeal to non-Welsh-speakers, when to do so is, effectively, to lose a great deal of its very reason for being. But no matter how welcoming, the truth remains that you are not and cannot be part of things, precisely because you’re a learner.

For the outsider the experience can be totally alienating, no matter what your language proficiency. I still shudder remembering my experience, some years ago, in a learners’ choir: we were required to sing with bizarre, exaggerated wooden gestures. On Radio Cymru I hear the stilted, breathy recitations, or the minutiae of adjudications, and I find it all deeply and disquietingly strange, and I want nothing to do with it. Yet even if I got over my considerable discomfort with these quite inaccessible performative elements of the Eisteddfod, even if I had the vocabulary to understand a performance or a talk without losing a third or a half of it, I still wouldn’t really understand. The heart of the language lies in the private and the personal, and in shared experience: in the collective feelings of the audience that I don’t share; in those moments between people that are unscripted, spontaneous. As a learner you can sense those moments happening around you all the time, but you cannot participate in them.

It’s easy, feeling outside a group, and sensitive about it, to identify some notional ‘everyone’ who belongs within it. Bertrand Russell once allegedly said that in the Croesor Valley sooner or later everyone who was anyone traipsed by, and so it seems to be at the Eisteddfod: at least everyone who’s anyone and who speaks Welsh. And they all know each other.

You see this notional ‘everyone’ easily navigating an alien world that excludes you. They all seem to be insiders, members of this collective who know how it all works by a kind of osmosis. Of course that is not true at all: there is no more a universal ‘insider’ experience than there is a universal learner experience of the Eisteddfod, and Welsh speakers bring their own uncertainties to it, just as learners do, and as do those who speak no Welsh. Nevertheless you tend to see the cliques you feel excluded from, not those that others see you belonging to.

For some this sense of outsiderness is unbearable, and encountering it at the Eisteddfod might turn you off the language for good. For others, it reinforces a pre-existing idea that Welsh-speakers are a privileged, hostile minority who only switch to Welsh to make you feel excluded – although if that’s your view, you’re not really likely to go to the Eisteddfod in the first place.

Still, despite the paranoia it might cause, there is a privilege in being a Welsh learner at the Eisteddfod. It’s one of the few places where you can experience the language as a normal, common thing, where the default language of your social interactions is not, for once, your own language, and where you can glimpse, though you cannot share, the pain and the poignancy of what it might mean to have, as your first means of communication, a language that is shrinking before your eyes, year on year, measurably, implacably and inevitably.

Welsh speakers might spare a thought for the self-conscious learners who are stumbling around the Maes trying to look inconspicuous and, who, failing, go off to weep desperately in the loos. A moment of welcome or encouragement can make all the difference between us staying and engaging – and realising there is no ‘everyone else’ – or leaving and never coming back. But with or without such encouragement, if learners do stay, and return, the anxiety becomes more manageable. You will spend less time in the toilets, or Y Lle Celf, or drinking coffee you don’t really want – and you might just venture, eventually, as I hope one day to do, into the terrifying unknown of Y Babell Lên or the Pafiliwn.

Jasmine Donahaye’s latest book is the memoir Losing Israel (Seren). She will be taking part in a panel discussion in Y Lolfa Lên with Daniel Williams and Simon Brooks on Thursday August 6th.

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