What made you start learning Welsh? It’s a question I was asked a lot last week as I took part in my first Eisteddfod, competing for the title of ‘Welsh Learner of the Year.’ The competition is open to anyone who has learned the Welsh language fluently, in the last ten years. Some of this year’s finalists learned Welsh in order to connect to their roots, others were inspired by a brilliant teacher. For myself, the short answer as to why I learned Welsh is love.
An English girl from Surrey, I was – to my shame – entirely unaware of the existence of the Welsh language until my mid twenties when chance took me on a blind date with the man who is now my husband. A native Welsh-speaker from Carmarthen, he can still remember a time in his childhood when English was incomprehensible to him. From the moment I met Geraint Huw, I was fascinated by his language, its hard rasps and gentle hisses, sounds that I didn’t yet know my mouth could make.
I understood early on how important to him was this aspect of his identity. To have the Welsh language was to have a direct connection to his cultural heritage – to music, literature and history that is unique to Wales and its people. Not to pass this cultural wealth on to his children would have been unthinkable. Geraint Huw never asked me to learn Welsh but the more I got to know him, the more I realised that unless I learned his language, there would always be a part of him that was inaccessible to me – written in a different tongue. Plenty of people live happily with the mystery of that other self. I am too nosy by half. Twelve years on from that fateful blind date in London, we have made a life together in Wales. Welsh is the language of our home, the language in which I read bedtime stories to my children, the language with which I go on a girls’ night out, the language in which I write my shopping list.
However closely I have taken the Welsh language to my heart, the Eisteddfod seemed to me at first a most peculiar place: grown adults dressed up as druids; poetry recitals in which competitors pull faces like French mime artists; hunky young men prancing unembarrassed in clogs and antiquated outfits. It is wonderful too, a celebration of Wales’ cultural riches, a place where writing poetry is not the pretentious affectation of a few but a pastime as common as Sudoku. The atmosphere on the ‘maes’ is that of an enormous family get together where you will bump into old friends and make new ones and there is an almost sacred sense of community. It is a rare and special event indeed where the Welsh language is that of the majority. This is in itself a fact worth celebrating, for despite being the indigenous language of Britain, there are many who would let it die.
‘Isn’t Welsh a really difficult language to learn?’ people often ask. The truth is, it’s no more difficult than German or French or any other European language. And anyway, why should ‘difficult’ be a pejorative word? Surely, nothing worth having comes easily. In recognition of the time and dedication that goes into learning the language, the Welsh Learner of the Year is said to be one of the principal competitions in the Eisteddfod.
There were five of us in the final round, each of us fluent in Welsh, each of us with a love of the language and an eagerness to pass it on to others. Not only were we grilled by the panel of judges but by members of the public too, and the whole thing was filmed by S4C. Finally, in a sparkling evening ceremony at The Angel Hotel, Abergavenny, the title was awarded to Hannah Roberts. Not only has Hannah mastered the language in an area of Wales where Welsh speakers are thin on the ground but she also works as a member of Menter Iaith Blaenau Gwent, inspiring others to learn the language. She is absolutely a worthy winner.
While the remaining four of us were undoubtedly disappointed not to take the title, we were very fortunate to be competing in the only competition on the Eisteddfod where there are no losers. We all get to take home the most valuable prize of all – the Welsh language.
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